A decade later, experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage would sandwich insect wings and other natural materials between strips of film, then reproduce the image onto a single length of film. It recalls one of the most basic, and earliest of photographic techniques, the contact print made by exposing light sensitive paper with a thin object, such as a leaf, on top. But the 1963 short film was as radical when it was made as anything in the exhibition. Superficially it seems connected to Dubuffet’s “Butterfly-Wing Figure,” but is much harder, and sadder, as thin slices of organic material flit rapidly across the screen. The viewer can decide: A moth to flame is a figure of death, or a metaphor for how we relate to intoxicating media such as film, or both.
Visitors emerge from Brakhage’s powerful film into a room of inorganic materials and sculpture, including an abstract form by John Chamberlain made in 1961 from enameled metal that looks to be part of a car. David Smith’s 1951-52 “Agricola,” a loosely anthropomorphic form, is made from painted steel, and its title — Latin for farmer — seems a deliberate provocation, underscoring the sharp contrast between a resistant industrial material and the age-old need of human beings to muck around in the dirt and humus.
As one artist in the exhibition said, “I work with materials that are already charged with significance.” That could be said of almost every artist in the exhibition. By using found materials to assemble new forms, you inevitably import more meaning than you can control. Scraps of paper, newsprint, candy wrappers, pills, pins and other thoroughly quotidian objects carry with them both public and private associations.
An 1989 installation piece called “Palimpsest,” by Ann Hamilton and Kathryn Clark, uses thousands of tiny, handwritten pieces of paper pinned to the wall of a rectangular room to suggest both its title — a text overwritten with successive layers of new writing — and a powerful sense how delicate and fleeting our private experience of the world truly is. An oscillating fan gently blows the papers, creating rustling pattern on the walls.
A rustling of meaning isn’t a bad way to describe many of the best works on display, which often feel like microcosms of emotional energy, small, contained systems set in motion by the powerful resistance or attraction of the objects they contain. Michelangelo Pistoletto’s 1967 “Venus of the Rags” takes this to extremes, with a plaster cast of the Roman goddess confronting a huge heap of cheap fabric, suggesting past and present, hierarchies of value, and the basic contrast between an art that imitates the world and an art that is inseparable from the world it critiques.
Inevitably, “Over, Under, Next” feels diffuse, coming into focus when the associative logic of its layout is strongest, weakening when the connections are more superficial or perhaps too idiosyncratic to be detected. A room with a large Damien Hirst installation feels like futile space, and one can’t help wishing that the work of Sarah Sze, who will represent the United States at this year’s Venice Biennale, was represented.
But the idea is to showcase the Hirshhorn collection in a new way, and there is enough powerful work in the loose layout to make it very much worth a visit.
Over, Under, Next
“Over, Under, Next: Experiments in Mixed Media 1913-Present” is on view at the Hirshhorn Museum through Sept. 8. For more information call 202-633-1000 or visit www.hirshhorn.si.edu.