“Distemper: Dissonant Themes

in the Art of the 1990s”

Forget about Independence Day. If you’re looking for a gripping tale of impending global disintegration, skip the Hollywood blockbuster and head for the Hirshhorn. The 10 artists in “Distemper” tell the story with vision, elegance, and power. One caution: You won’t find a happy ending.

“Distemper” reflects failure and loss across a spectrum of private, cultural, and political relationships. The exhibition integrates the work of a boldly diverse and international array of artists—who use public monuments, pop culture, genealogy, and political assassinations, among other motifs—in an installation often as haunting as the work itself.

The curatorial explanations accompanying the exhibition, however, rely too heavily on vague notions of social malaise and on two already overburdened concepts—the end of the Cold War and the approaching millennium—to link the work thematically. Rather, “Distemper” is often a compelling meditation on specific fractures in contemporary society that were decades in the making.

Much of the work in the exhibition reflects postminimalist theory and expression typified in the mid-’60s and early-’70s work of artists such as Joseph Beuys, Eva Hesse, and Jackie Winsor. Reacting against the aggressive, machine-made objects of Minimalism, these artists proved a new way of artmaking by creating simple forms that relied more on organic materials and handcraft. Where Minimalist artists denied the expressive content of art, postminimalists embedded personal meaning in their work and evoked ideas about interaction and community.

In “Distemper,” Mona Hatoum, Rachel Whiteread, Doris Salcedo, and Miroslaw Balka are postminimalism’s closest heirs, often referencing notions of power, domesticity, and the figure in highly resolved, three-dimensional works.

In Socle du Monde (Pedestal of the World), Hatoum takes the Minimalist cube and articulates its surface with iron filings held in place by magnets and groomed into thick, curved rows turned in on themselves like blackened entrails. Viewed close-up, the result is a lush, seductive surface created from industrial materials. Stand back from the piece, and it is both an amazing technical achievement and a repellent, writhing, intestinal mass.

Hatoum, born in Beirut, is also politically focused. Creating a pedestal on which the earth could be presented as the center of the universe, Hatoum wrote in 1992, “may suggest a revival of anachronistic ideas and blind beliefs which are becoming more and more apparent in every part of the planet.”

Similar complexity attends Whiteread’s butterscotch-hued rubber piece, Slab (Plug), which lies on the gallery floor. Its glowing surface looks invitingly smooth, almost wet. You’ll want to touch it, even taste it, until you discover it’s cast from a coroner’s table.

Whiteread’s other works explore the metaphoric meanings of domestic objects—a mattress, a bed, a wardrobe—by casting in rubber or plaster the empty space that lies inside or beneath them. Their content is at once personal and communal. Standing upright against the gallery walls, the mattress sculptures invoke an emotional desolation offset only by their physical solidity and stable form. As a witness to the crumbling of service infrastructures and housing stock in London, Whiteread also connects her work to social conditions that surround her artmaking.

Separation born of social and political realities echo through the work of both Salcedo and Balka. From her detailed research into the stories of civilians kidnapped and executed in her native Colombia, Salcedo created a series of “Widowed House” assemblages. The strong vertical works, made up of doors, chairs, bone, and fabric, stand to memorialize the desaparecidos. Although all the works have an elegiac eloquence, they lack specificity in title and form, and thus fall short of their origins as distinct tales from individual lives.

In Balka’s installation, Zeitnot (translated as “time of emergency” or “desperate situation”), domestic architecture takes a menacing turn. The Polish artist used steel and materials from his own home and studio—linoleum, soap, felt—to create a dungeonlike grouping of barriers and body restraints specifically for this exhibition.

Zeitnot also speaks to the distinction between the private and public worlds. Balka has installed the work in one corner of the gallery, effectively closing off much of it from view. But viewers who venture around the rusted 6-foot-high barriers will be rewarded by the luminous waxy surface on the reverse side and the intimate space between the work’s component sculptures.

German artist Thomas Schütte critiques the failures of political relationships, public leadership, and community by examining the role of monumental sculpture in contemporary life. In Kleiner Respekt (Small Respect), three figures dressed in tarry-black trenchcoats stand atop a particleboard pedestal. With their bald white heads, they peer down from their perch like anthropomorphized vultures. More comic and captive are the disheveled figures in No Respekt. Mounted on a 2-foot-high pedestal made of a spring-form cake pan, the figures rotate under a Plexiglas case as archaeological artifacts.

Schütte’s social concerns are clearer in Grosser Respekt. In a gallery-size installation, Schütte places another trio of antiheroes in the middle of a rusted-steel plaza modeled after fascist architecture. The central figures, almost fused together, appear to harangue the smaller figures dotting the plaza, most of whom seem oblivious to the rhetoric and to each other.

Guillermo Kuitca, an Argentinian painter, also addresses the question of meaningful personal interaction in contemporary society. In two paintings from 1995 (one untitled, the other called Mozart–da Ponte I), Kuitca imbeds schematic seating charts of concert halls within broad fields of single, primary colors. In another two works, both titled People on Fire, Kuitca draws genealogy charts, in one painting as a map and in the second as the layout for a stadium. With the numbered theater seats and the family names standing as mere placeholders for real lives, the possibility of connectedness is evident but unrealized.

Marlene Dumas’ figurative painting couldn’t be more distanced formally from Kuitca’s work, but she addresses isolation nonetheless. Her ink drawings of people from her native South Africa and her paintings of groups of women critique ideas of beauty as they relate to race and gender and the complicity of art in perpetuating limited views of women and people of color. Similarly, Charles Ray’s film, Fashion (1996), exposes the fallacies of commercial notions of beauty by showing the same impassive model rotating on a platform dressed in a range of outfits Ray, an American, has pieced together. The clothes run the gamut from Christian Lacroix knockoffs to ensembles inspired by the Paris fashion episode of I Love Lucy.

Though difficult to tell by simply viewing them, the most theoretical works in “Distemper” are American Mike Kelley’s paintings. Of all the artists here, he is least concerned with end product and most focused on personal process. Kelley scours his art-school education and pop culture for source material and comments on both through his crude technique and generally sophomoric humor.

In the series “The Thirteen Seasons (Heavy on the Winter),” Kelley takes equally harsh swipes at American culture and the heroes of post–World War II painting by combining symbols that include Santa Claus, jack-o’-lanterns, and the American flag with faux-expressionist drips of paint and formalist blocks of color. You may not know what Kelley is up to unless you do your art history homework and spend a day in front of the television. While I recognized the central figure in #1, The Birth of the New Year as a Mighty Morphin Power Ranger who seems to emerge from between Santa’s legs, a 6-year-old boy in the gallery informed me that the characters in #12, Death are based on Goosebumps, a television show about what happens to kids who do bad things. The artist himself claims that the single source for the series’ iconography is a mail-order catalog that targets the elderly.

“Distemper” is ultimately an exhibition about making art amid despair, say co-curators Neal Benezra and Olga M. Viso. The despair is palpable and mounts as you move through the exhibition, arriving in the last, barely lit gallery, given to American Robert Gober. In the center of the otherwise empty room is a beautifully upholstered chair, exquisitely covered in a pattern of designer blue and orange and finished with carefully piped seams and a neat skirt.

The subtle sign of despair in the piece is the fabric pattern: a weave of blue ribbon and images of men’s arms and legs. The more obvious sign is the 6-foot-long drainage pipe piercing the chair back. Gober has also installed a prison window in the gallery by cutting a 2-foot square opening in a false wall. Three vertical steel bars block off the new window, and on the ceiling just beyond the opening, Gober has painted a blue sky to suggest the world outside the prison wall.

Gober leaves viewers no comfort in the solitary confinement cell he creates. Benezra notes that Gober’s work has grown increasing macabre as the artist confronts the mounting loss from AIDS. Here, his work is in equal parts a powerful comment on psychological isolation, ceaseless violence, and mourning.

While Gober’s work is chilling, it’s the logical conclusion to an exhibition Benezra and Viso have designed with the artists to evoke despair and isolation. They accomplish this first by locating the exhibition on the Hirshhorn’s entire second floor, pacing the show in an often-sparse installation that leaves relatively large distances between works. The space seems like an empty vault, with bare, battleship-gray floors and the dim lighting used for all but the painting galleries.

Emptiness, in fact, is one the exhibition design’s strongest and most effective components. Several smaller galleries between artists’ work are entirely empty and darkened, and at points in the exhibition you can look from one gallery to the next and see nothing but blank walls and floor. Even some of the galleries in use, like the one in which Balka’s work stands, seem vacant. In “Distemper,” the empty space is a carefully created object that coexists with the artists’ work.

The exhibition also reflects the persistence of tradition despite the relative youth of the artists (all born between 1952 and 1963) and the newness of the work (all created since 1991). Every artist in the exhibition except Ray creates objects for gallery exhibition using artmaking’s two most traditional forms—painting and sculpture. The artists also eschew text and language references, which remain key ingredients in the work of many contemporary artists working with political and social themes. Perhaps this object-centered approach signals the artists’ search for context and rootedness they can’t find in contemporary society.

Moreover, these artists never let social commentary outweigh aesthetics. Much of the sculpture, especially Whiteread’s amber and rubber casts and Salcedo’s sanded doors, has luscious surfaces. And all the paintings, even Kelley’s intentionally unrefined work, are cohesive compositions on two-dimensional surfaces.

This sense of tradition is coupled with what Benezra and Viso term the “reticence” of the artists, who create quiet testimony rather than a call to arms. It is also an exhibition that turns away from more overtly critical and deconstructionist art, which typically reflects social unease and inquires into its causes. As the curators point out in the exhibition catalog, these artists “view themselves less as social critics and more as cultural barometers.”

Still, the artists here respond to specific conditions they have witnessed: the effects of Tory social policy, the AIDS pandemic, the swift efficiency of Latin American death squads, and the failure of market economics. Rather than testify to some ill-defined Generation X ennui, the work responds to particular harsh realities. Despite the overarching themes of the exhibition, many of these conditions have nothing to do with Cold War politics or the end of the millennium. They do, however, arise from larger social and economic structures that go largely unaddressed here.

If, as its curators contend, “Distemper” “takes the pulse of contemporary art,” then the patient is thriving. But if, in turn, this art is a measure of the health of contemporary society, then the overall prognosis is bleak. The work here may evidence faith in the value of art, but it provides little assurance of recovery, and no cure.CP