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This summer exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art brings to Boston, some for the very first time, a stunning array of A list American and international art stars. It was riveting to get up close and personal with works by the outstanding British artists Chris Ofili, Ron Mueck and Sam Taylor-Wood. What’s not to like about a show that includes Bill Viola, Jack Pierson, Andy Warhol, Marina Abramovic, Louise Bourgeois, John Currin and that’s not all. The list goes on like a marathoner loading up on carbs to burn assaulting Heartbreak Hill. Or like an ad for a product hawked on TV. “And with the set of chef knives, you also get, and this, and that, all for the special price of just $19 dollars a month for the rest of your life.”

The greatest regret about this glittery array of stellar works is that it will be over by the time the kids come back for the fall semester. It would be a perfect show to introduce them to superb examples of contemporary art.

That said, this all-star show, the curatorial equivalent of Woodstock on Boylston Street, has a no-brainer theme. The curator, Nicholas Baume, wants us to think hard and deep that contemporary art involves emotion. Wow, that’s heavy man. Emotion. Art conveys emotion.

The catalogue essays toss about the usual artsy/ philosophical stuff. Something about Kant or Burke and the Sublime. Actually, this summer I am rereading Burke and thinking about the American sublime which we experienced in the field during a recent 2,000 mile loop of the South West. Talk about Getting Emotional.

But emotional. Like from hysterical, the tantrums of a child, to sad, enigmatic, the sense of loss. Didn’t Goethe’s Werther cover this or Wordsworth’s poem inspired by Tintern Abbey? It seems that Baume also attended graduate school and perhaps this exhibition might have alternatively been titled “Smart.” But hardly “Profound.” Which is my generic problem with a lot of shows I am viewing by contemporary curators. There seems to be far more theoretical razzle dazzle than work of substance. An afternoon spent at Mass MoCA this past weekend, for example, just left me with jitters. But I will get to that in time. Need to go back and sort out my conflicting, get this, emotions. There I said it. Emotional baby. Contemporary art is like so emotional.

As appears to be a pattern with Baume, once again, he has put the bar on the ground and challenged us to step over it. This past season there was a pastiche about portraits. Again, loaded up with a non sequitur of art stars. Ouch. Am I really saying this?

But, regarding the work itself this is a show that I urge you to see. Most compellingly to experience Ron Mueck’s “Mother and Child.” I was positively riveted when first encountering the piece in a one person show of this phenomenal artist at London’s National Gallery. It conveys, in the most meticulous detail, a view of a naked mother contemplating her newborn infant lying on her belly. She tilts her head up with the most tender and intent expression which is redolent of the aftermath of labor. The umbilical cord is still attached to her gaping vagina. It is one of the most compelling, powerful and iconic examples of contemporary art. What a thrill to have it here in Boston.

In a recent article full of typical bluff and bluster Robert Hughes stated a case, based on a show currently at Guggenheim Bilbao, that Richard Serra is our greatest living sculptor. Sorry Bob. How quaint and dated. What about Ron Mueck?

Nearby is a wonderful typical painting by Chris Ofili. Perhaps Baume’s greatest asset to the ICA is the ability to secure loans by artists so much in demand. Now if only he had more to say about them. Or, to provoke us into deeper dialogues. No matter. Just enjoy this terrific and representative painting, yes, employing the signature material, elephant dung.

Another British art star, Sam Taylor-Wood, better known for enormous video installations, is represented here by photographs of a crying Forest Whitaker and an introspective Michael Gambon. Is the gag here that Whitaker first drew our attention for his superb performance in the film “The Crying Game?” And do these gentlemen convey emotion or are they just acting? Which is what actors do. So how genuine is this?

Other works in the exhibition run the gamut from pathos to bathos. Once again, as in the portrait show, Baume serves up pathos with the image of a dead or gravely ill gay person. In the last show it was the mural scaled image of the dead Felix. This time, a vintage icon by the deceased Peter Hujar of a stunning drag queen, Candy Darling, on her hospital bed in the last stages of death by cancer. It is an image that always evokes a poignant response. Perhaps the extreme opposite of that subtle introspective moment is the alarming experience of an enormous, tattooed Catherine Opie, who specializes in confrontational images of drag queens and S&M, breast feeding her large, blond son. Good grief.

There are works and artists represented here that are widely touted, indeed A list, red carpet, velvet rope to the max, but egregiously overrated. Start with the first wall we come to in the exhibition chockablock with four monumental drawings of sprawling infants by Marlene Dumas. Are the drawings strong or strident? The sappy portrait of gay men embracing by John Currin is too sweet. His work is tough on diabetics. Once again, drum roll, the overexposed vintage photos, play it again Sam, by Nan Goldin of “Nan and Brian in Bed,” 1983, and “Cookie and Vittorio’s Wedding, NYC” from 1986. Haven’t we seen that work enough already? Ditto Andy’s wonderful but overly familiar grid of Jackie’s from post assassination. Or possibly the worst ever drawing by Kara Walker on public display “Insurrection” from 1997.

Then there are the videos. Marina Abramovic eating a raw onion. She has made a career of fear factor moments. What price glory? Or the many short clips of people emoting to unidentified movies they have just seen by Christian Jankowski. They were indeed intriguing in the sense of individuals eager to perform for the camera. There is he obligatory short piece by Bill Viola. Also, Chloe Piene reprieving her installation of a freaked out girl covered with mud from the latest Whitney Biennial.

So, yes, by all means see this exhibition. There are truly wonderful individual works. But you will have to decide for yourself whether the whole is equal to the sum of its parts.

Institute of Contemporary Art

"Getting Emotional" is on view May 18, 2005 - September 5, 2005 at The Institute of Contemporary Art.

Artists Include: Marina Abramovic, Bas Jan Ader, Darren Almond, Janine Antoni, Louise Bourgeois, Cecily Brown, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, John Currin, Marlene Dumas, Sam Durant, Nan Goldin, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Andreas Gursky, Peter Hujar, Emily Jacir, Christian Jankowski, Barbara Kruger, Glenn Ligon, Ron Mueck, Chris Ofili, Catherine Opie, Elizabeth Peyton, Paul Pfeiffer, Chloe Piene, Jack Pierson, Ed Ruscha, Doron Solomons, Ricky Swallow, Sam Taylor-Wood, Bill Viola, Kara Walker, Andy Warhol
Curated by Nicholas Baume

All images are courtesy of the artist and The ICA.

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