The title of the Walker Art Center’s new show is Five Ways In — as in, five ways to approach the museum’s bracing collection of path-breaking contemporary art. How accessible is it? Let me put it this way: a Tuesday morning press preview was the first time in my 12 years covering the Walker that I heard a curator invoke the name of Bob Ross.
No, the Walker doesn’t have any Ross originals in its collection. It does have landscapes, though — including Ull Hohn’s Untitled (1988/1993), a pair of oil panels that take tranquil landscapes and filter them through a piss-colored haze. (The Ross comparison came from curator Siri Engberg; the Serrano comparison is just mine.)
“Outside” is one of the five ways in, an approach Engberg said was designed to demonstrate that, contrary to popular belief, modern (and post-modern, etc.) artists didn’t simply reject the themes and subjects that occupied their predecessors. Putting Ellsworth Kelly’s minimalist sculpture Green Rocker (1968) in a gallery among other innovative approaches to landscape could help spark connections and illustrate the liberating range of practices represented in the Walker’s collection.
As a complement to “Outside,” there’s “Inside.” That category comprises some of the Walker’s best-known pieces, including Hopper’s Office at Night (1940) and Lichtenstein’s Artist’s Studio No. 1 (Look Mickey) (1973). George Segal’s The Diner (1966) comes out of storage for the first time in decades, and while Engberg pointed out the common comparison to Hopper, gallery-goers less steeped in art history might more quickly see the similarities to the interpretive cabin dioramas at Duluth’s maritime museum.
A section devoted to “Self” revives the salon-style presentation the Walker used so effectively in Benches and Binoculars a decade ago. Here are John Currin’s Park City Grill (2000) and Elizabeth Peyton’s Princess Kurt (1995), with Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, as challenging and relevant as ever over half a century since it was made, plays on loop on a monitor on the floor around the corner.
Audio designers have crafted custom soundscapes inspired by selected works in the show (you can hear them on headphones), but the audio experience that perhaps best embodies the show’s sweet-and-sour allure comes from the adjacent positioning of Lee Kit’s I can’t help falling in love (2012) — its video loops of common objects accompanied by a low-fi instrumental version of the Elvis chestnut — and David Hammons’s Phat Free (1995/1999), which features the discordant drone of a can being kicked down a city sidewalk.
You can have that experience in the “Everyday” zone; the fifth way in is titled “Everything,” with a space dedicated to abstraction. If you experience the show by ascending from the lobby, this will come as a palate-cleanser in which you can relax before Jennifer Bartlett’s colorful, tidy patterns (Series VIII [Parabolas], 1971); or To Transcend (1987), Martin Puryear’s whimsical strand of mahogany.
The show opens on Valentine’s Day and will be up until September 2021, with some pieces rotating, so Walker regulars will be rewarded for making multiple walk-throughs. Five Ways In joins two other current shows drawn from the museum’s collection — including I am you, you are too, which includes Charles Ray’s Unpainted Sculpture.
When I was walking past that piece recently, a guy walked up to it and pointed, saying to his companion, “See? See? That’s the kind of stuff I was talking about. Someone just wrecks a car and leaves it here.”
We all find our own ways in.