Los Angeles

View of “Not I: Throwing Voices (1500 BCE–2020 CE),” 2021. Photo: Laura Cherry.

View of “Not I: Throwing Voices (1500 BCE–2020 CE),” 2021. Photo: Laura Cherry.

“Not I: Throwing Voices (1500 BCE–2020 CE)”

“Not I: Throwing Voices (1500 BCE–2020 CE)” was not about ventriloquism. Rather, curator José Luis Blondet made the act of talking with your mouth shut and manipulating a dummy the basis for a set of broad themes around which he drew from the museum’s vast holdings. Organized into several nonchronological sections, the exhibition of some two-hundred-plus objects ran on associative trains and chance resemblances. Under the heading “Dolls, Dummies, Surrogates, Pygmalion, and Plugs,” we found a Netherlandish Madonna and child, ca. 1510, painted by Aelbrecht Bouts hung beside Adrian Piper’s Ur Mutter #4, 1989, a miserable image, rephotographed from Newsweek, of a Somali woman holding a small child, with a caption running across her long fingers: RELAX. WE DON’T WANT WHAT YOU HAVE. A nearby vitrine juxtaposed, among other items, a precious twentieth-century ivory Daruma doll, a 1961 Ken doll, and a seated female figurine from ancient Bactria in a patterned robe carved in chlorite, her limestone hands and face worn away.

It was not all formal cognates and look-alikes. The thread between works was more ideational elsewhere, as one would expect. Blondet riffed on the theme of bubbles, beginning with Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s famous Soap Bubbles, ca. 1739, a painting often understood as an allegory for the transience of life: The bubble won’t last long, nor will the coiffed lad blowing it out through a thin straw. Moving through several more or less bubbly works, we eventually found Bruce Nauman’s affirmation, to quote Andrew Marvell, that the “grave’s a fine and private place”: Audio-Video Underground Chamber, 1972–74, a live feed from a concrete cell buried outside of Vienna’s Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, empty but for a camera and microphone. Over in “Rewritings and Recasting Voices,” a bronze bust of a widemouthed crying baby by Hendrick de Keyser the Elder sat beside a baby monitor designed by Isamu Noguchi in 1937, the Radio Nurse. Graves and babies: the circle of life.

Blondet organized one section as a kind of scavenger hunt. The starting point was a Jasper Johns lithograph conveniently titled Ventriloquist II, 1986, a depiction of an interior space that doubles as a collage of quoted imagery: a Barnett Newman print (Untitled, 1961), George Ohr ceramics, and an illustration of Moby Dick by Barry Moser from a 1979 fine-press edition of the novel. Installed nearby were all the works cited by Johns, while other details from Ventriloquist II were represented with surrogate objects: The print’s bathroom fixtures became Robert Gober’s sculpture Single Basin Sink, 1985, and Johns’s double flag was turned into Glenn Ligon’s just-as-iconic Rückenfigur, 2009 (with its backward-facing neon letters spelling AMERICA). Also included was an undated American flag made of wood and wool, identified only as being Navajo. This time America really was hard to see: I had to do some sleuthing of my own before I found the flag, high on the wall above a door.

Such curatorial conceits brought together disparate works around a supposedly trenchant organizing concept. However, the ideas here were rather lightly sketched and desultory. It seemed just about anything could have been pulled from storage and happily fitted somewhere in this capacious interpretation of ventriloquism. Although the introductory wall text primed us with conventional keywords—“issues of identity, embodiment, performance, and objecthood”— Blondet’s loose scheme for skimming the encyclopedic collection came off as playful and geared toward a sense of reenchantment. For many visitors this would be their first trip to see art in more than a year, while others would become outraged by museums’ claims to edification when their boards are stocked with people whose very existence is an obstacle to human emancipation. To emphasize the magic of the museum—and its fundamental, if sometimes hidden, goodness—Blondet included a note that art handler Adam Swisher had hidden inside a massive Tony Smith sculpture in 2008: DEAR PERSON OF THE FUTURE, it began, WELCOME TO THE GUTS OF SMOKE. . . . I HOPE SHE DOESN’T GIVE YOU TOO MUCH TROUBLE. I HOPE THE FUTURE IS A PLACE OF RESPECT FOR THE ENVIRONMENT, EXTINCT RACISM, HEALTHCARE FOR EVERYONE, PEACE ON EARTH, AND LOVE OF LIFE. It’s a charmingly naive voice, but Blondet works the dummy: the curator as ventriloquist.