Situated in the main lobby of our Oakland facility, the Forum Gallery occupies prime real estate; almost everyone who visits Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History passes by. For the last 20 years, CMA has chosen to put some of its most challenging art in its most highly trafficked location. For us, the gallery’s identity as a space for newer or rediscovered recent art is crucial, as it stakes a claim for the contemporary in our program—which is central to our history and identity—and prepares audiences for the Carnegie International, which occurs every three to five years. (The International is North America’s longest-running exhibition of global art; the next installment opens October 5, 2013.) In the 1990s, when the Forum series began and there was ample government support, CMA presented four to six shows a year in the gallery. Last year, in an effort to economize, we cut down to two. This clearly was not sufficient for a venue about newness and vibrancy. We’ll be doing more there in the year to come, mixing dynamic but rarely seen works from our collection with loan exhibitions.
We are proud to present, as the 67th in our Forum series, the first US show comprising the breadth of Cathy Wilkes‘s art. Wilkes, an Irish artist living in Glasgow, makes contemplative work. Encompassing painting, sculpture, and found objects, her installation reminds me of Thornton Wilder’s famous play Our Town, which hides its profundity and epic subject—the span and condition of human life—behind a cloak of modesty. Are we doing justice to Wilkes’s art by putting it in Forum Gallery? Will people rushing by on the way to somewhere else be of a mind to delve deeply into it? There is some risk in this endeavor.
Wilkes’s symbolism is personal. Curator Dan Byers has explored elements of her iconography in an essay accompanying the exhibition. Here are my thoughts about the installation, gleaned from conversations with Dan and the artist, and some hard looking on my own part: Labor—basic to existence and still the defining characteristic of life for much of the world’s population—is a theme throughout. The installation’s three low tables represent different realms. The black woman bent over the first table is a laborer but also suggests nature pulling life out of the seas (she is covered in salt) and Africa, where human life began. Full of movement, she toils but also dances; there is strength and energy in her active body. The second table has a clay rabbit, always a symbol of reproduction, wearing a bridal veil; the kind of simple cookies that evoke childhood baking activities; and a doll who may represent adulthood in her dress and funny wig. This is life. The two pale-faced, hollow-eyed men standing around the last table are ghosts (without hands, unable to labor) wearing British military caps from World War I. On the table before them are actual objects excavated from the Somme, the French battlefield that saw 420,000 British casualties and epitomized for many the horrors of the Great War. Like Wilder, Wilkes gives us the human condition, embedded as it is with sadness and loss, but also with hope, and deeply suffused with a sense of memory.
Please stop at the Forum Gallery when you’re next at the museum. Take a few minutes to read the wall text and brochure and to look carefully at Wilkes’s art. It will be well worth your time.
Until next month,