An unattended bag of garbage amid a pristine installation is quite a thing to behold. At first instinct, one can barely believe the carelessness. Perhaps, in the haste of opening night, preparatory staff neglected it—or, in the case of Lifelike at the Blanton Museum of Art, one should reprimand oneself for failure to look closely enough.
Titled Hefty 2-Ply (1979–81), the garbage bag is a flawlessly convincing marble sculpture by artist Jud Nelson. It’s a wonder it has yet to be tripped over, as the experience of navigating Likelike is a mix of navigating traditionally installed works on walls and pedestals, with subtly placed sculptures that initially defy logic within a gallery space. The exhibition (terminating at the Blanton after a four-stop tour from the Walker Art Center) presents a large collection of hyper-real paintings, photographs, sculpture, and environmental installations that pay homage to everyday, overlooked subject matters. The majority of the works were selected for their dedication to handmade techniques or intensive labor. Attempting to avoid a slick, overtly Pop art aesthetic, Lifelike’s milieu is far more visually tedious. For one, Ruben Nusz’s Nothing good happens after midnight/everything good happens after midnight (2008) nearly avoids detection by even the keenest eye. Tucked away in a solitary corner is a half-filled ashtray that would appear recently discarded, if not for the lack of lingering smoke. The tray and cigarettes are sculpted from wax and resin, the ashes procured from the cremation of someone, or something, undisclosed. While the glorifying of ordinary objects was in large part the bread and butter of Pop art in the 1960s (thank you, Andy Warhol), it is a subtle element in Lifelike—courtesy of artists like Nelson and Nusz—that keeps the exhibition from ubiquity. Another stand-out in this vein, Still.life. (cardboard leaning on the wall) (2009), by Swiss-born Ugo Rondinone, is a bronze cast as deceptively flimsy and beat up as cardboard abandoned after a strenuous moving project.
The hyper-real, to-scale sculpture is the easiest to be impressed with. That said, Lifelike is not without a few quirky, monumental gimmicks. An eight-and-a half-foot-tall milk carton, Jonathan Seliger’s Heartland (2010), is the inaugural work in the Blanton’s foyer. Seliger is known for his reproductions of mass-produced consumables, and the “supersize” Heartland is a quintessential example of the turn this exploration has taken in the past couple years. Similarly, artist Alex Hay’s Paper Bag (1968) (on loan from the Whitney), commands attention with its nearly five-foot-high crinkles and folds. These couple well-placed giants serve as ostentatious reminders of the “on loan” clout of an exhibition of this size. For every beautifully unassuming work one hasn’t encountered prior to Lifelike, there exists one that brings to mind a glossier, Jeff Koons-ian approach.
Photo opportunities with an oversize milk carton not withstanding, there are two true tour de force installations garnering the majority of visitor traffic. The first honor goes to Keith Edmier’s Bremen Towne (2006–7). Bremen Towne is a re-creation of the tract house in Chicago the artist called home in the 1970s. Constructed from era-appropriate materials salvaged from eBay, the interior of the family kitchen was remade by Edmier with only vintage photographs to guide him. Consequently, the constructionwas necessarily part literal re-creation and part educated guesswork. There was not enough bygone JCPenney and Sears stock available for the completion of the kitchen, inspiring the ingenuity an exhibition such as Lifelike requires. Linoleum tile flooring was scanned from one example of the original and laser-etched onto a contemporary replacement. Wallpaper had to be hand drawn and silkscreened and a dinette set formed and painted from scratch.
The second aha moment comes courtesy of internationally renowned artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss. Empty Room (1995–6) appears instantly iconic to the duo’s practice of reimagining commonplace materials. Discarded tape rolls, half- empty paint buckets, wooden planks, and tool boxes are in reality counterfeits, fabricated from polyurethane. Sprawling the ground of a small auxiliary gallery, many of the objects are reminiscent of found materials pilfered from the Walker Art Center’s 1996 retrospective of the pairing. Fischli and Weiss were allegedly inspired in their creation of Empty Room by the equipment in the basement of the museum, which they discovered during installation. The completed still life, blocked off by tape to indicate an ironic fragility, comes to life within the context of a frenzied exhibition design process. Though initially executed nearly a decade ago, Empty Room emerges as something “left behind” from Lifelike’s install in June 2013.
It’s important to detail that Lifelike does not purely pay homage to the evolution of sculpture since the 1960s. Artists like Peter Rostovsky, Vija Celmins, Leandro Erlich, and Jeon Joonho also contributed drawings, paintings, and video animations that illustrate the progression of hyper-realism in other media. Rostovsky’s Curtain (2010), only slightly dwarfed from lifesize, is painted from oil with arresting tactility. Similarly, Jeon’s The White House (2005–6) (the amusing animation of the verso of a $20 bill), depicts a shadowed, paint roller–clad figure transforming the building’s iconic architecture into that of a militarized “bunker.” The action takes a full thirty-two minutes to transpire, again offering a subtlety in its comment on the presidentially sanctioned conflicts of the past decade.
Overall, Lifelike’s intentions are honorable ones. The vast presentation of sculptural undertakings is both thoughtful and gratifying. However, the inclusions of other media (while not without merit) seems to be a bit more fractured. The exhibition is divided into five non-medium-specific subgenres, but each remains dominated by objects. Nevertheless, the cooperation of the Walker Art Center with the Andy Warhol Foundation has brought together a visual anthology of the meticulously fabricated.
Lifelike is on view at the Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin, through September 22, 2013.