“Less Than One”: Walker Art Center turns a timely lens on its collection

“Less Than One”: Walker Art Center turns a timely lens on its collection

The title of the Walker Art Center’s new show Less Than One might cause you to think that at least we’re making progress from Less Than Zero — but in fact, the inspiration for the show’s title was contemporary with Bret Easton Ellis’s 1985 novel. The title essay of Joseph Brodsky’s 1986 collection is a little more metaphorical:

No matter how elaborate a structure anyone may devise for catching his own tail, he’ll end up with a net full of fish but without water. Which lulls his boat. And which is enough to cause dizziness or to make him resort to an elegiac tone. Or to throw the fish back.

Block that metaphor! Here’s the relevance of the title, as elucidated in the Walker’s press release: Brodsky “argues that that one can never be a discrete whole at any moment in time, driving the artist to pursue identity through words, images, and an uneasy embrace of artistic personae.”

On display through December 31, Less Than One is a collection show culled from the Walker’s vast vaults — but, as curator Fionn Meade explained at a Wednesday press preview, he approached it like a temporary exhibition. In other words, he shied away from the “greatest hits” approach curators normally feel the need to take when selecting pieces to put on display. Instead, Meade chose multiple works from each of 16 artists core to the Walker’s collection — taking a deeper dive into their evolving practices, and highlighting the institution’s strategy of investing in artists over the long haul.

The approach also allowed Meade and curatorial assistant Victoria Sung to present some rarely- or never-before-seen pieces — the most dramatic of which stem from that pivotal decade evoked by the show’s title. Most striking is Ericka Beckman’s spectacular You the Better, Film Installation: making its debut in a museum setting, the piece is a new presentation of Beckman’s classic 1983 film.

Projected at epic scale in a darkened gallery, the film — which has jumpsuited figures resembling factory workers playing a mysterious and un-winnable game — is accompanied by large shapes resembling home bases turned on their ends (thus resembling actual houses). The shapes light up in coordination with events in the film, suggesting an elusive scoring system. The installation dramatizes the plight of the working class in the Reagan/Thatcher-era, and also represents what Meade called “a sort of pre-digital virtual reality.” Visually, the resemblance to Tron — an early analog-digital hybrid movie about a man trapped in a machine — is striking.

It’s not the only striking piece in this show that’s well-stocked with installation-scale work, unfolding over a series of galleries soundtracked by the uneasy strains of dissonant soundtracks spilling out of viewing rooms. The overall effect is both reflective and unsettling: a sort of Church of the Poison Mind, to borrow yet another phrase from the ’80s.

Meade noted the show’s particular resonance in an election year, and its iconoclastic streak starts with Jasper Johns’s famous flags — notably the 1965 painting that creates a red-white-and-blue flag as the illusionary inverse of a green-orange-and-black one, just as politicians today are trying to create equality through inequality, love through hate.

If You the Better is the show’s climax, its centerpiece is Paul Chan’s Sade for Sade’s sake, a 2009 piece inspired by the horrors of Abu Ghraib. Towering silhouettes perform sexual acts in jittery motion that suggests a videotape on pause — action that’s more like a dog humping a pillow than any kind of meaningful human intimacy. Ellis, too, spotlighted empty intimacy, but in this case the ramifications are even more unsettling: sex as a weapon, symbolic and otherwise.

The piece resonates poignantly with the silhouettes of Kara Walker, represented here by pieces including the large-scale Endless Conundrum, An African Anonymous Adventuress (2001). A departure from the reimagined Reconstruction-era imagery that made Walker famous, Endless Conundrum throws side-eye at 20th-century art’s fascination with the “primitive” — the Josephine Baker references are clear, but see if you can spot the Brancusi. There’s also a two-foot bronze cast of Walker’s Sphinx (2015), the Sphinx-mammy mashup that caused a sensation when installed on massive scale at a former sugar factory in Williamsburg.

Other work in the show ranges from the precisely pointed (Bequest, Renee Green’s 2001 investigation of the history of the Worcester Art Museum) to the allegorical (Sigmar Polke’s immersive 1991 painting Mrs. Autumn and Her Two Daughters) highly abstract (Dieter Roth’s FC and AC, loose-leaf books of cut-paper shapes that have been randomly shuffled into combinations hung on a gallery wall). Trisha Donnelly’s ominous Untitled sculptures (2008) resurrect the sphinx again — this time suffocated and blinded by pillows, but still casting gazes via sallow spotlights — installed alongside her also-Untitled video (2014), a turbulent vertical image of tumbling clouds.

It’s stormy weather, indeed, in this fascinating exhibition — an apt, and important, companion to the ongoing Art at the Center. That show tells the history of the Walker, while Less Than One evokes a surreal sense of history repeating.

Jay Gabler

Photo: You the Better, Film Installation, courtesy Mary Boone Gallery