Game show

By GREG COOK  |  November 18, 2008

Bostonian Andrew Witkin's installation appears to be a combo of a high-end boutique furniture showroom and art monk's cell. It features exquisitely spare plywood furniture: a day bed, an end table, a large table (looks like an interior-design geek's ping-pong table), and deep shelves neatly stacked with boxes and portfolios. Atop the shelves sit precisely arranged photos and clippings showing fashion models, boxers, a couple, a chair. It's easy to miss the visual rhyme Witkin makes between a stain across a leaky ceiling in a photo and pink printing stains on a couple of newspaper clippings.

This is a polished but difficult installation, and frustratingly buttoned up, right down to a row of framed somethings stacked next to another so that you can't see what any one of them is. "It's a place of potential," Witkin tells me. "No rules, no decisions, no final decisions, but nonetheless careful."

A typed sheet of paper on the end table describes meeting a friend and his twin brother with HIV — and offers clues as to what Witkin is up to. Key passage: "I wished I could photograph him. As he was talking, I felt shame for thinking of art when this man was talking about such pain, suffering, and death. . . . It was not the time or place to be thinking about art but the topic, his appearance, his clothing, and the light all kept me thinking about art." Witkin looks to turn life into art by æstheticizing it, putting it in the perfect OCD order.

Who will win the Foster Prize? I suspect visitors will be most attracted to Matar's photos. But my guess is that the jury will pick Witkin. His work, which has an air of correcting the world via awesomely tasteful home decoration, rubs me wrong. But you can't deny the force of his vision.

Whoever wins, it's pleasing to see local artists given so much museum real estate, and to observe how easily they hold their own amid the other exhibits. Locally made installations and conceptual art may have fewer places to exhibit around here since the closing of a handful of galleries that supported such work (like Allston Skirt, which showed Witkin and Zane) during this year's Boston gallery shake-out. Museums and school venues need to take up the slack.

Also new at the ICA is New York-based Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone's installation Clockwork for Oracle. He covered the large lobby "Art Wall" with newspapers, whitewashed it, and then hung 52 candy-colored mirrors on top. It certainly brightens up the joint, and it nicely directs your gaze toward the Boston skyline behind you (as well as toward a plaque on the wall listing ICA donors). But it's a sweet nothing.

Dublin artist Gerard Byrne's new exhibit, part of the ICA's "Momentum" series, is a playful conceptual-art riff on the Loch Ness Monster mystery. The installation comprises a slide show, a grainy silent film, audio of a guy reading what seem to be accounts of sightings of Nessie, text summaries of "sightings" pasted to a wall, and a tree stump. But mostly it's black-and-white photos depicting a strange ripple on the lake, driftwood, a swimmer's arm breaking through the water — all things that might be mistaken for a monster if you were so inclined. It's fun, but really Nessie is meant to help Byrne's æsthetic questions go down. And these questions — how do we see? how do we trick ourselves into seeing things that might not be there? — are old hat.

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