Death Knell

In his multifaceted show at Lawing Gallery, Mel Ziegler completes a critique of art institutions that he developed in traffic-stopping fashion at the "Out of the Ordinary: New Art From Texas" exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Museum (see "Everyday Art," by Kelly Klaasmeyer, August 24). Ziegler placed a light board on the CAM's roof that displayed not only the time but also the museum's life-threateningly low "temperature" as registered from, pointedly, six feet under the metal building. His final remarks on the subject come in the back room of Lawing, where a radiant white light emanating from an antique cabinet points to a path for art institutions to follow for their revival. Between those two extremes, Ziegler uses a thought-provoking installation and skillfully executed drawings to explore what ails the current system of displaying art.

The show at Lawing, although provocative, may be inaccessible to viewers unfamiliar with Ziegler's conceptually based work. Most visitors on opening night were both intrigued and bemused upon encountering a front room with drawings of a farm and a coal bin, each including a seemingly incongruous temperature display board. They were equally befuddled by the main room, which features antique display cases filled only with straw, and a back room with a single tall antique cabinet boasting white fluorescent lights inside. This unusual mix of media and materials presented a perplexing assemblage.

There is a method to Ziegler's madness, though, and it's revealed only by understanding his prior installations. For example, the front-room drawings, whose combination of image and text recall the work of the South African artist William Kentridge, share a concern with an installation earlier this year in which Ziegler used a display board to register his own body temperature. Ziegler placed the board in a bank window in a declining neighborhood; the placement, of course, is significant, since the artist believes that such boards dot only "healthy" communities. By placing it in a dying community, he created tension by linking his own hearty vitals to the poor health of the surrounding area.

The use of display boards with the drawings at Lawing Gallery suggests a similar metaphorical measurement of health. In this instance, Ziegler depicts two dying industries: the family farm (perhaps a source of the straw in the main room) and coal mining. So what appear to be merely technically accomplished oddities end up, upon further investigation, being moving odes to America's agrarian and industrial past.

To understand the connection between the display-case installation and the front-room drawings, it will help you to know that a recurring theme in Ziegler's work is the transformation of art institutions into slick business operations. In the 1990 installation MoMA Whites, for instance, Ziegler and his late wife, Kate Ericson, shined a light on the marketing machinery behind museums by exhibiting a row of jars containing the various shades of white that different curators at New York's Museum of Modern Art preferred for the institution's walls.

With that precedent in mind, you can see how Ziegler has, at Lawing, updated his theme by portraying art institutions as glorified Zales stores. When installed in a museum and gallery, the straw-filled antique commercial display cases -- including some from Texas jewelry shops -- wryly illustrate how art institutions have adopted consumer-product packaging techniques. Throw in museum cafes and strategically placed gift shops, and the marketing apparatus for attracting visitors is complete.

Ziegler's combination of the lowly barnyard straw and refined antiques may strike some as similarly calculated -- a marketing-driven effort to shock and draw attention to himself, an all-too-common practice in today's art world -- but it instead demonstrates how a talented artist can creatively use a simple material to complex effect. When filled with opaque straw so that nothing inside can be seen, the display cases have their function negated. The focus of the installation thus shifts from the contents of the display case to the display case itself. Ziegler is saying that art institutions have undergone a similar transformation and change in emphasis. Where once a museum's artistic contents were paramount, they are now often secondary to the institutions and their amenities. Witness, for instance, the greater attention paid to Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, or to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's new building, rather than the art holdings in each. The repercussion for artists is obvious: Their work becomes simply one more commodity for display.

Ziegler also employs the straw to reflect his belief, shared by conceptual artists in the second half of the 20th century, that an artwork in a commercial setting suffers a kind of death. The antique display cases themselves resemble aging caskets arranged in a cemetery. By filling them with straw, Ziegler, like fellow sculptors Rachel Whiteread and Jannis Kounellis, achieves the difficult task of making tangible the internal space of the display cases, with the straw creating an eerie silence and stasis associated with death. Ziegler is thus further developing an idea he explored at MoMA and the CAM, where he took the museum's temperature at six feet below ground, the depth for burials, to suggest the terminal condition of museums.

Although death is a primary theme at the Lawing show and in prior installations, Ziegler still offers hope for a resurrection. Once, for example, he spotlighted but also helped revive a "dead" New York urban neighborhood by parking a flatbed truck containing 80 live trees on a street for a month. Similarly, the single cabinet in the back room at Lawing, bearing a sculpted painter's palette and enclosing a blinding white fluorescent light, proposes a possible path to the cultural rebirth of art institutions. In a radical departure from the cemeterylike main room installation, the brilliant light directs our focus not to the container but to its contents. Museums and galleries, Ziegler idealistically pronounces, must shift their emphasis from the structures in which art is displayed back to the art itself.

On perhaps a more practical level, Ziegler's unconventional installation, which defies standard art-institution marketing efforts, illustrates why grappling with complex art ultimately is more gratifying than settling for a smoothie in the museum cafe.

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David Gerst