Critics’ Picks

Robert Tannen, Father Goose, 1978, goose, muskrat hat, neoprene suit, and rubber flippers, 76 x 30".

Robert Tannen, Father Goose, 1978, goose, muskrat hat, neoprene suit, and rubber flippers, 76 x 30".

New Orleans

Robert Tannen

Ogden Museum of Southern Art
925 Camp Street
August 2–September 21, 2008

Stardust is molecular debris from dead stars, which scientists theorize combined to form the universe. Thus, “dust to dust” becomes a proverb that addresses both spiritual and secular concerns, as does Robert Tannen in the wide range of works on view in this exhibition. This cyclic metamorphosis is also evident in the way the artist extrapolates new meaning and form from refuse, found objects, and regional signifiers. Richly layered and extensive, this retrospective offers the viewer a stellar cross-section of the artist’s own transformative processes throughout his nearly fifty-year career.

Tannen cleverly joins the mythical Sisyphus in his unrelenting quest for reason in an unreasonable world and utilizes the boulder of absurdity, glimpsed directly and indirectly, as an icon of this dilemma through photographs, drawings, sculpture, and installations. Within the less literal pieces, like Stacked Ceramic Sculpture, 1980, Inner Tubes, 1963, and Table and Chair, 1962, tangential ideas of temporality, displacement, and larger environmental concerns emerge. Rock from the Olympic Mountains, 2008, offers a more literal tack: To create the work, Tannen collaborated with artist Jonathan Traviesa to photograph a single rock on a white background. All context markers are removed, thus eliminating the viewer’s ability to sense the object’s scale. In this way, the artists continue the life cycle of metamorphosis for these markers of time and experience, through artistic processes of manipulation and presentation.

Boulders also appear in works set outside of the museum itself. In _N.E.W.S., 2008, Tannen situates four natural boulders, labeled with fifteen-inch aluminum letters indicating the cardinal directions, around Lee Circle, a civic landmark containing an imposing bronze statue of the Confederate general. In this way, the artist revives this overlooked and controversial space. The intervention is a minimalist vanitas of sorts, directing us out from a troubled past toward an elusive future.