Ice and fire

By GREG COOK  |  June 28, 2007

These works stand out for their humor and engagement with the world. But much of Ice Cream art is caught up in boring formal and conceptual theorizing, dusty inside baseball stuck somewhere around 1962. Sculptor Eva Rothschild’s big flat plastic triangles propped against each other supposedly speak of the wide range of cultural references — from teepees to Swiss cheese — called to mind by basic geometric forms. Sutton writes that Runa Islam’s film (recently exhibited at Boston’s ICA) of a nattily dressed woman knocking fancy china onto the floor in slow-mo is about “a flow of abstract images,” “emotional resonance,” “sequencing” and “ambiguous experience.” Vergne argues that Mathias Poledna’s film of dancing actors, with smarty-pants references to a 1948 Maya Deren film, is without sound “so that the silence can be filled by our own imagination and interpretation.” Maybe. But such arguments sound like curators inventing meanings to fill vacuums.

The formal and conceptual work included here could have potential — it’s the stuff that inspired the best of 20th-century modernism — but you know the art world has lost its moxie when smashing a tea cup is considered avant-garde. The book is dominated by a generation of academically trained artists (and curators) who’ve lost faith in images, statements, and meaning — and art. Risk-taking and fun have been schooled out of them. They ignore (don’t realize?) the magic of art, its power to seize control of images and words and to re-energize them.

Oakland-based A. Leo Nash’s photo book Burning Man: Art in the Desert provides evidence that a lot of wonderfully wild and woolly art is still being made out there, off the Academy’s radar. Thank goodness. Burning Man began as a San Francisco pyromaniacs’ beach party in 1986. The name comes from the finale: torching a giant wooden man. The event moved to the desert near Reno, Nevada, in 1990, after it grew too big and fiery for the city. Now some 40,000 drive out for the week each August.

Burning Man’s main ingredients are desert, giant sculptures, fire, technicolor, naked people, and dropping ecstasy. It’s a place to escape the rules, a time when all bets are off. Nash’s photos from 1997 to 2006 show monster and rocket cars, a penis tower with a vagina door, a giant metal ribcage, a motorized canoe wheeling across the desert, a temple crowned with onion domes, a massive metal viper with razor fangs, giant dominos, a marooned 40-foot-long Spanish galleon (built atop a school bus so it could motor around), and, of course, the Burning Man, now an eight-story-tall stick figure.

There are few people in Nash’s images, and few flames. He favors the quiet early-morning hours before construction starts, before the masses begin to party. “Between the nudity and everyone pushing the freak envelope, it’s easy to get diverted by it all,” Nash writes. “It’s why I switched to shooting in black and white and concentrated on the landscape. It seemed that what I needed to express was what I saw in the space — an area separate from the people who populated the event.”

The result is a curiously tasteful introduction to a Mad Max bacchanal. I’ve not had the pleasure to attend, but it seems that Nash skimps on fundamental aspects of the thing: crowds, spectacle, fire.

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