I had the opportunity, thanks to an Art Connects New York spring benefit, to get a private tour with a curator of the Museum of Art and Design’s current exhibition Swept Away. The museum is a pleasant place to be. I think MAD loses out on crowds considering its proximity to MoMA and everything on the Museum Mile. Reviews usually come in fairly strong for MAD’s exhibitions, though Swept Away got beat up a little.
There are some deeply compelling things here. Cai Guo-Qiang has been using gunpowder to make art for some time, but in Black Ceremony the smoke of the daytime firework show is the star. It’s harsh black puffs become ravens for a moment and dissipate slowly. Paul Hazelton’s Death Duster, a sheet of dust over a synthetic duster, looking like a sceptre with a skull atop, is elemental and humorous. I am still daunted by its lightness. Cui Fei’s sand painting of natural forms mimicking written language sits 12 inches off the floor like a sombre monument whose role of forgotten, unpronounceable names will never be read.
Zhang Huan’s ash head is an interesting object but it seems nearly beside the point that is ash. I know about the history and cultural context of these works, but should it matter in this setting? There are lots of things like this, made of the dust, dirt and ash that the catalog purports to be the source of it all. The fact is that the beautiful and challenging objects here have a little something to do with the materials but not everything. I do not mind the concept of the grouping, but I am not sure it carries the necessary thread throughout.
The proverbial sore thumb of the group is Vik Muniz. These aerial shots of strip mines with simple graphic images plowed in their empty craters (an outlet, a pointing hand) are not about the dirt or the material at all. Muniz has made a career out of astounding reproductions of famous images using all manner of materials. These earthworks are lost here. They don’t show off Muniz at his best and they don’t do much to add to the show. The problem is really more a matter of unnecessary inclusion than of curatorial vision.