Leslee’s view of Josiah McElheny’s Endlessly Repeating Twentieth Century Modernism is much more orderly than mine, showing the linear repetition of shiny bottles reflected ad infinitum toward a distant vanishing point. From my angle, I saw a chaos of bottles reflecting bottles reflecting other bottles, the clean geometry of classical perspective being replaced by a self-referential visual clusterfuck. From her taller height, Leslee saw the forest; from my shorter one, I saw the trees. I suppose that’s how it is touring a museum with a friend: the two of you can’t step into the same exhibit twice.
As challenging as it can be to understand a single work of art, singly, adding another perspective can sometimes clarify matters. Viewed on its own while you’re on your own, a single work of art speaks a given language; viewed alongside other works and in the company of other views, that same single work might say something else entirely.
When Leslee and I went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston on Friday, we were intent on seeing “El Greco to Velasquez: Art During the Reign of Philip III,” and we did. We hadn’t planned, though, to juxtapose the 17th century works of visionaries such as El Greco with the 20th century Spanish realism of Antonio López García, but we did. How better to understand El Greco’s almost hallucinogenic Toledo landscape than by considering it against López García’s almost photographic Madrid? And how better to appreciate multiple artists’ versions of Mary’s immaculate conception than by viewing them before considering López García’s multiple perspectives of a less-than-immaculate bathroom?
Upon exiting the Antonio López García exhibit and on our way to lunch, Leslee and I passed the reflective bottles of McElheny’s “Endlessly Repeating Twentieth Century Modernism,” which are contained in a reflective case situated incongruously between the Museum’s upscale first floor restaurant and the stairway leading to its more moderately priced basement cafeteria. Perhaps by reflecting upon the shiny bottles of twentieth century Modernism, you can better decide where to eat? The MFA’s two dining venues provide another sort of tableau, with a dazzling parade of culinary choices being another kind of aesthetic object reflecting ad infinitum toward a digestive rather than visual vanishing point. Shall I have pizza or stir-fry, or soup, salad, or sandwich? In this century more than previous ones, we live amidst a dizzying array of choices. Is it any wonder we occasionally have problems seeing the forest for the trees?
On the wall opposite the reflective case containing Josiah McElheny’s Endlessly Repeating Twentieth Century Modernism, along the hallway across from the Museum’s restaurant and on the way to the stairway to its cafeteria, Jim Lambie’s RSVPmfa offers a dizzying array of geometric patterns interrupted by three-dimensional objects–chairs, sequined handbags, and the like–erupting from the starkly flat visual pane into the lived space of passersby. Viewed on its own, RSVPmfa is psychedelic enough, its black and white zebra stripes seeming to swirl with your every step: an optical illusion writ large. As luck, chance, or astute curating would have it, Lambie’s wall seems most interesting when viewed reflected in McElheny’s mirrored case, the endless repetition of last century’s RSVP becoming Postmodern when viewed as an unintentional tableau. Sometimes the best way to view one object is by considering it alongside another radically different one.