Bilateral Engagement

Sculpture/Installation
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Editorial Review

'Bilateral Engagement' at Art Museum of the Americas is a visual poem

By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, January 1, 2010

The engagement in "Bilateral Engagement," a contemporary sculpture exhibition at the Art Museum of the Americas, is a little lopsided. In art, as in diplomacy, that's not always such a bad thing.

The exhibition -- a two-sided showcase for work by members of the Washington Sculptors Group, on the one hand, and the museum's permanent collection of Latin American art, on the other -- strongly favors the local delegation. And that's a good thing. The work by the Washington area sculptors is simply better.

What does the show tell us about contemporary sculpture? For one thing, that it's often about the material itself -- and its properties -- and seemingly little else. That idea's not new, necessarily. But Kyan Bishop's "A Fascination With the Potential of Completely Falling Apart" epitomizes the trend.

It's a mountain of white ceramic fragments piled on the floor. Designed to resemble a heap of smashed china that has been swept into the middle of the room by a janitor, it's actually made to look broken. In other words, though its theme is entropy, it's very orderly. That gives the work a subtle tension.

Other WSG pieces get their kick from a different sort of materiality. Take Cheraya Esters's "You Spin Me Round Sweet Darlin." It's three automobile tires, made of wood. And painted pink on the inside. That's it. They're not oversize monuments to industry, like a Claes Oldenburg. Rather, they're kind of sweet. Call them corny love letters to improbability.

Other works do something similar:

Check out Brent Crothers's "Golden Egg No. 2" (outside, on the museum grounds). The size of a small refrigerator, it's a giant egg, made of tire treads.

Or Joel D'Orazio's "Dreadlock Chair (1003)," in which the artist has woven hundreds of pieces of black tubing -- like hair -- through the holes in the seat caning of a chair.

What do they mean? They don't. Or, if they do, the question isn't what they mean, but how. They're visual poems, meant to make us look at an egg, or a chair, a little differently.

Ax grinding is largely absent. A multimedia installation by Washington's Renee Butler, "2 States/4 Dimensions," features video of melting glaciers and heaving lava, along with a plinking soundtrack. It makes a point about the environment, but a quiet one.

Of the work from the museum's collection, the Dominican artist Tony Capellan's "Mar Caribe (Caribbean Sea)" is among the best. Made from a "sea" of blue rubber flip-flops with barbed-wire toe straps, it's practically an editorial on immigration and poverty.

It's also the rare instance of shouting, in a cultural-exchange show that prefers to speak softly and carry a big stick.