- The Washington Times - Friday, November 10, 2006

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden recently filled its second floor with “The Uncertainty of Objects and Ideas: Recent Sculpture,” an anything-goes, 43-object show by nine European and American sculptors.

In considering the “Uncertainty” part of the title, we find the word almost as perplexing as some of the sculptures.

It’s also the key word to describe the unsettling, jargon-filled descriptions of the works on display.

It makes one wonder why such exhibits need explaining at all. Do we need another head trip? Can’t we just enjoy the experience of looking?

For example, Enne Allegood, the show’s curator, writes in the brochure: “If art’s impact lies in its capacity to inspire and provoke — to pose questions rather than provide answers — then uncertainty may very well be essential to art. It is this quality of open-endedness that the artists in this exhibition explore in their sculpture.”

Surely this isn’t the first time open-endedness has appeared in the history of art. Consider Jackson Pollock’s skeins of paint or the mists in classical Chinese landscapes or Pierre Bonnard’s wife, Marte, floating in numerous bathtubs.

However, Ms. Allegood becomes clearer when she turns to the cultural meanings of uncertainty in the catalog. “These are uncertain times,” she writes, “full of conflict, innovation, suffering, and prosperity — all of which seem to be in a state of unrest.”

In fact, influences from top 20th-century artists, including Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg, Mark di Suvero and Eva Hesse, and movements, including dadaism, assemblage, surrealism and minimalism run rife through the show.

Consider Brooklyn native Andrea Cohen’s three-part grouping of “Mai Tai Vista,” “Mist Over Lake Miami” and “Step Lively.” At first, the neon-colored structures resemble fanciful trees flitting across the gallery floor. Could they say, “Shall we dance? Cha-cha-cha?”

Moreover, Miss Cohen imaginatively juxtaposes Styrofoam, branches, origami, plaster bandages, acrylic, packing peanuts and much more. The figure’s face in “Step Lively” also bears an uncanny resemblance to those in the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s 2002 “Shape of Color: Juan Miro’s Painted Sculpture.”

It’s obvious both artists are having fun.

This could be our fanciful gut reaction, but then the museum’s wall label stops us in our tracks. It tells us what we’re supposed to see: “Andrea Cohen creates sculptures that are like large, gestural drawings in space. Inspired by Chinese and Japanese landscape painting, Cohen uses natural and synthetic materials to create freestanding, human-scale, autonomous objects that comment on the hybridity of nature and artifice.”

Another take on this kind of directed thinking lies in the work of Californian Charles Long.

At first glance, for example, Mr. Long’s “Agnes Martin Kippenberger” could be flowering lotuses erupting from a riverbed, except that he made them of steel, concrete and debris.

But, here, his catalog statement does help in understanding this poetic work — the best in the show.

He gathered a group of friends in a riverbed, he says, to pour the concrete “lotuses” into holes dug into the ground. They did this while reading the works of such “progressive thinkers in search of transcendence as John Cage, Arthur Rimbaud, and the 13th century Persian poet Rumi.”

Mr. Long’s preoccupation with transcendence elevates his work above the others, such as the German Bjorn Dahlem’s explosive plays of found objects; German Isa Genzken’s colorful exploding assemblages; American Mark Handforth’s simulation of expanding cities using fluorescent lights with aluminum and steel; American Rachel Harrison children’s toys wrapped around rectilinear abstract sculptures; American Evan Holloway’s starlike thrustings; Mindy Shapero’s combinations of writing and drawing; and Austrian Franz West’s paint-smeared blobs of papier-mache.

Unfortunately, the show is ruined by its forced intellectualism.

Look at the art and enjoy it; don’t bother with the wall labels.

WHAT: “The Uncertainty of Objects and Ideas: Recent Sculpture”

WHERE: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street Southwest

HOURS: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. through Jan. 7

TICKETS: Free

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