“At midnight in the museum hall/ The fossils gathered for a ball,” wrote Ogden Nash in one of his mordant little verses. As the news murmurs of extinctions on a global scale, “Ancient Art Objects” comes as a well-timed fossil’s ball. The exhibition, on view at Whitespace through September 9, centers on nine artists’ works that embody and respond to our shifting relationship to the past. Curator and University of Georgia art history professor Katie Geha has produced a conceptually tight show that mines the possibilities of taking up the archaeological perspective.
A highlight of the exhibition is the group of six small watercolors by A.I.R. Gallery co-founder Rosemary Mayer, who died in 2014. Throughout her career, Mayer often worked with historical materials and texts, including a project on the women of the Roman Empire and a series of fabric sculptures of classical and Neolithic vessels. In the works shown here, which date from November of 1983, Mayer takes up the historian’s burden of speaking for mute objects. Each of these images, masterfully shaded in black ink, depicts a single ancient vessel labeled and paired with words connoting violence, danger, and pain. A volute-krater, for example, is shown trapped between the words “HUNGER” and “BURNING,” and an amphora is captioned with a harshly lettered “SEVERED.” Who is speaking, and why these voices accompany these vessels, are mysteries that elude understanding. Even if the past could talk, we would not understand it.
Other works present unmonumental takes on architecture. Most elegiac is the lush central scene of Padma Rajendran’s Open Staircase (2016), which evokes a paradisal ascent into the Hanging Gardens. A more ambivalent attitude surfaces in Max Warsh’s photocollages, in which decorative building facades are cut up and reduced to decontextualized visual patterns. These constructions reflect the experience of moving through urban landscapes, as well as the jumbled accretion of material recovered from an archaeological dig. The built world of the past is represented simultaneously as a living presence and as something buried. More skeptically, Kaleena Stasiak’s Facade (2017) reduces two classical pillars to flattened white planks that lean against the wall like set dressing or disused lumber. These structures once might have borne some weight, but now, like much of antiquity, they are just another part of history that we don’t have much use for.
Objects and buildings are the bits of the past that endure. Bodies are more fleeting, but even so they remain contested political ground. As proof, consider that art historian Sarah Bond recently faced a flood of online threats from indignant conservatives and white supremacists who resented her arguing against our erroneous image of sculpted bodies as representing white people. The sculptures of the ancient world, she notes, were painted in rich yellow, red, and black tones; the white forms we see are only their naked canvases. Correcting the record matters, since historical artifacts are always vulnerable to being repurposed for vicious political ends.
It’s natural, then, to contemplate different ways our bodies might be memorialized. Siebren Versteeg’s Danny Liker (2017) depicts Man not as Thinker but as Compulsive Instagrammer, a stick figure who remains crouched over his tablet despite his conspicuously missing head. As a critique it’s amusing, if a little too easy and didactic. More unsettling is Jaime Bull’s gigantic limbless, headless torso (Big Beauty – Venus, 2017) stuffed with bags and other plastic waste. Clad in a shiny bathing suit, she slumps like a trash-bodied incarnation of a citizen of the Anthropocene. These sculptures present a depressing vision of how we might appear in some future Museum of Us: as ghosts vanished into digital ephemera, or heaps of deathless trash.
Several works highlight the alchemy of time and the material transformations it works. These can be faintly repellent, as with Jeff Williams’s furry framed images that look as if they’re coated in finger-smudged grey dust or neon-green moss. Alternately, they can seem miraculous. Ry Rocklen’s superb Aluminum American (2017) is a shiny cast of a standard button-front shirt decorated with stars. It’s a memorial to the everyday, a subtle nod to Jasper Johns’s late 1960s flag sculptures, and a timely reminder that empires and their symbols are as transient as fashion. In his other works, he has also replicated ordinary ball caps, boots, and T-shirts in metal and porcelain. Rocklen gives impermanent things the shine of the eternal.
The exhibition veers back into the brightly lit world of the living in works by Karen Lederer. She is represented here by two still lifes, a genre she has worked extensively in. Combining painting and printmaking, she often depicts natural objects (plants, snakes, flowers, and fish) centered on the canvas, surrounded by seemingly random bits of everyday junk. Her palette is vibrant and digitally inflected, and her framing of scenes is one of the more sustained and successful attempts to import the vernacular conventions of Instagram into painting.
Lederer flips representational conventions on and off selectively, using them to elevate the marginal to the focal. Here, her central subjects are flattened out into volumeless masses. In The Bathers (2017), for example, a bouquet in a vase becomes a pattern of outline shapes, printed texture and smooth color gradients. But it is surrounded by her trademark snacks (a crumpled Zabar’s bag, paper cup, and bottled water) that are given a fully shadowed three dimensional depiction. However we want to present ourselves to the world, these seem to say, our detritus defines us. Lederer’s slightly woozy and unpredictable gaze, not to mention her understated humor, makes her work a consistent pleasure that repays close attention.
The long view that “Ancient Art Objects” offers is a cool, strangely reassuring one. The great comfort of the past is that it’s finally all over, our noisy contemporary dramas silenced with a full stop. The fact that we are destined (at best) to become misunderstood and mislabeled fragments mounted in some future museum should hardly be reason for gloom. In the words of one of Nash’s little fossil skeletons: “‘Cheer up, sad world,’ he said, and winked—/ ‘It’s kind of fun to be extinct.’”
“Ancient Art Objects” is on view at Whitespace Gallery through Sept. 9.
Dan Weiskopf is an associate professor of philosophy and an associate faculty member in the Neuroscience Institute at Georgia State University. He is the author, with Fred Adams, of An Introduction to the Philosophy of Psychology (Cambridge University Press).