The hollow man

By GREG COOK  |  January 28, 2010

The main event is Mando Tiki VI (2007), whose twin scaffolding towers rise to the ceiling of a gymnasium-sized gallery. One tower is surrounded by piles of books, bricks, dirt, coal, and gravel. You can climb the rickety wooden stairs, past real and fake leafy green plants, Christmas lights, plastic hula skirts, and televisions showing videos of B-movies. Hawaiian music plays from various boomboxes. Once at the top, you look out at the other tower, this one not easily scaled; it’s decorated with inflatable palm trees, fake evergreens, and a television playing video of whales. At the end of the room there are flashing neon targets, to the left puddle paintings and a target mirror, to the right paintings of grids of flowers or spiders. Tractor tires turned into flower planters speckle the gallery floor. The walls are painted with patterns of brains, polka dots, and stripes.

NE DITES PAS NON! In the postmodernist marketplace of ideas, Armleder is saying, art is just another interchangeable accessory.

For Armleder, the sensory overload is a snare to draw in viewers. But into what? He’s not the only person making this sort of art. He has a slick, clean, disco style, but there’s a whole school of artists in their 20s and 30s producing a glam-grunge version of this stuff featuring heaps of drawings and photocopies and faux cobwebs. With Armleder, there’s a lot of fretting over previous art and other inside baseball but little concept or æsthetics at stake. His problem is the hollowness at the heart of his spectacle. There’s no there there.

In late 1912, the French artist Fernand Léger began a series of 50 paintings and 100 drawings that would establish his place at the center of Cubism, which Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque had invented some five years before. Organized by the University of Virginia Art Museum and now on view at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, “Fernand Léger: Contrasts of Forms” pinpoints this moment with a focused, scholarly exhibition of 13 of these works. For context, Harvard adds from its own collection 12 pieces spanning Léger’s career.

Everyone and his brother was working Cubist territory then. The style broke down traditional means of representation, offering simultaneous views from multiple angles. Addressing how we think about or remember what we see, it evolved into a distinctly pictorial language that dominated art for half a century. “Pictorial contrasts used in their purest sense (complementary colors, lines, and forms) are henceforth the structural basis of modern pictures,” declared Léger.

A pair of his 1912 charcoal drawings are straight-up Cubism, depicting a standing person broken up into a cascade of shallowly overlapping planes. Smoke over the Rooftops (1912) abstracts Paris into a ring of square-and-triangle houses, like outtakes from children’s drawings; they frame a diamond of smoke.

Léger adds cylinders to the Cubist vocabulary, a reference to urban life in an increasingly mechanized era. The effect can be a bit goofy, as in his 1913 drawing Two Reclining Women, which renders two women lying side by side as collections of cylinders. Elsewhere, a cylinder robot person seemingly tumbles down a hole that’s opened in the middle of a staircase.

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