Critics’ Picks

Marc Swanson, Untitled (Looking Back Buck), 2004, crystals, polyurethane foam, adhesive, 38 x 18 x 18”.

Marc Swanson, Untitled (Looking Back Buck), 2004, crystals, polyurethane foam, adhesive, 38 x 18 x 18”.


“The Spectacular of Vernacular”

Walker Art Center
725 Vineland Place
January 29–May 8, 2011

Though it includes chainsaw art and an amateurish painting of a giant octopus attacking a city, “The Spectacular of Vernacular” is not an exhibition of folk art; nor, really, is it even about folk art. In the pieces collected here by curator Darsie Alexander, a variety of noted artists take quotidian forms as a vocabulary for powerful statements ranging from the personal to the political. Questions regarding who created these pieces, for what reason, and by what authority (or lack thereof) are raised only obliquely.

The show, which is unexpectedly unsettling, welcomes viewers with a dramatic statement: Chris Larson’s Unnamed, 2010. The installation brings not just the architecture but also the physical texture and smell of the rural Midwest directly into the antiseptic art center. The work of twenty-five other artists, in a diverse variety of media, fills four large rooms in the Walker’s Target Gallery. In putting vernacular aesthetics to the service of powerful, often dark themes, the pieces in the show collectively convey a sense of the grotesque—of natural forms taken to unnatural extremes. Typical of this curatorial thread is Marc Swanson’s Untitled (Looking Back Buck), 2004, a mounted buck’s head coated with glittering silver baubles. Similarly, Dario Robleto’s wall-size, intricately crafted memorial Demonstrations of Sailor’s Valentines, 2009, underlines the inadequacy of aesthetic gestures in the face of loss.

At the exhibition’s heart is Mike Kelley’s poignantly titled More Love Hours than Can Ever Be Repaid, 1987, an iconic sculpture-cum–crazy quilt of plush animals that overwhelms the viewer in a veritable avalanche of adoration. By altering and expanding on common vernacular forms—unfinished wood, commercial signage, tourist photography—these pieces plumb the mundane to unexpected depths, demonstrating that an aesthetic doesn’t have to be rarified to be resonant.