New York

“Rooms With A View”

Longwood Art Gallery @ Hostos

“Rooms with a View,” curated by Fred Wilson and designed by Curt Belshe and Lise Prown, was a richly textured, seriocomic interrogation of the cultural and esthetic codes of three types of stereotypical museum spaces, installed, with fine irony, in the old P.S. 39 building in the Bronx. The views in question were those of the turn-of-the-century Salon, the Modernist “white box,” and the ethnographic museum, addressing “the struggle between culture, content, and the context of art.” What is particularly to the point is that in cross-referencing from one space to another, a politicized ethnographic incision was performed on our own cultural assumptions (an operation that we usually reserve for others under the fiction of neutral scholarship), providing an important distance from which to engage in a little self-reflection.

The turn-of-the-century Salon: a softly lit, comfortable room, lined and draped with regal plum velvet cord, furnished with period decor, and provided with the genteel strains of the harpsichord. We were taken back to a time and a class that, secure in classical ideals of permanence and stability, could perceive no uncertainty; to a time when the museum consolidated itself as the archive of a knowledge and truth that could carve out a genealogy of power and homogenize the world under the grand narratives of Western civilization.

The painting that legitimizes its status as painting through reference to an authorized version of the past is intrinsic to the concept of the Salon. Several works here manipulate this notion: Larry List’s Diamond Cuts Diamond, 1986, a pictorial rearrangement of David’s heroic equestrian portrait of Napoleon; Alexander Kosolapov’s Baroque pastiche Manifesto, 1987, depicting the head of Lenin and a group of cherubs perusing the text amid broken columns; Peggie Yunque’s Amazon, 1986, a Renaissance portrait of a girl superimposed on an armored male torso. The quotation as relic or ruin surfaces less obliquely in Barton Lidice Benes’ Miscellania, 1987, a picture mount with ornate medallion windows presenting a collection of absurd “memorabilia” (“jelly beans from the desk of Ronald Reagan, 1984”; “fossilized feces 40 million years old”), questioning the value and legitimacy we give to museum artifacts, and bearing upon the problem of ethnography.

The museum as a repository of cultural fictions is satirically presented by the “Ethnographic Museum,” with its scholarly display techniques: cabinets containing miscellaneous artifacts by persons unnamed; a natural history diorama (“old Jamaica Bay, Queens, New York, circa early 1900’s”); and an anthropological reconstruction of a culture that turns out to be ours—more or less. We are in a kind of back-to-the-future, where the archeologist fabricates his own objects from the rubble of the past, or whatever shards he can fit together, as in the unattributed Totem.

If Eva Stettner’s Floating Fragments appear as illegible relics in the “Ethnographic Museum,” they become translated into “sculpture” in the “White Box,” with its apparent ideological neutrality and individual identification of the artist. We have shifted from the authority of privilege to the authority of science and finally to that of the artist. Perhaps, however, Lise Prown’s Future Perfect, 1987, which juxtaposes the image of a bureaucrat at his ledger with a late-19th-century print of a homeless mother with children, encapsulated the sense of estrangement and alienation of this room, where art is isolated on its Modernist walls and trapped in the frame of the marketplace.

Jean Fisher