‘Peter Coffin: Here and There’ at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Peter Coffin/Mugrabi Collection - Fabricated by a taxidermist for conceptual artist Peter Coffin, “Untitled (Dog)” is a lifelike rendering of a Great Dane, scaled up to the size of a small horse.

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One of the pieces, “Untitled (Designs for Colby Poster Company),” is an installation of 80 framed lithographs, hung cheek by jowl on the walls surrounding the Hirshhorn’s third-floor escalator landing. But here’s the thing: Based on the day-glo underprinting of commercial posters designed by a Los Angeles print shop, they’re essentially the same image, printed over and over. Stripped of the black text that normally would announce a concert or other event, each colorful print is like a miniature Rothko color field abstraction, varying only in the combination of fluorescent inks used.

It’s an eye-popping display, to be sure, but Coffin, a conceptualist, is interested in ideas as much as in objects. Without the posters’ text — that is, without their obvious meaning — what’s left? The question is more intriguing, and lingers longer, than the eye candy.

A second installation also features multiple artworks. In a darkened gallery, “Untitled (Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum)” takes several objects from the museum’s collection — paintings by Pablo Picasso, John Singer Sargent, Jasper Johns and others — and temporarily “defaces” them, using projected video animations. The looping, 12-minute light show, which also includes sound, ends with a brief pause, during which the lights come up for a few seconds, allowing visitors to see the underlying art unimpeded.

Undoubtedly, some will take the installation as a kind of blasphemy, a pixelated graffiti attack on cultural masterpieces. And at first, it is slightly annoying not to be able to see the works that Coffin is using as movie screens.

But then something funny happens. Coffin’s animations often highlight a small feature of a painting, sharply isolating, say, the dress — or even the picture frame itself — in Sargent’s 1897 portrait of Catherine Vlasto. Ultimately, Coffin’s work isn’t about hiding but about revealing. Twelve minutes may seem like a long time to stand in a dark room, but it’s worth it, and is more illuminating than it might seem.

Coffin’s show was organized by Kelly Gordon, who normally handles programming for the museum’s Black Box video series.

In addition to the projected animations, the exhibition also includes a more modest video loop showing a whale breaching the surface of the ocean. There again, Coffin disorients the viewer by rotating the moving image, so the horizon — and the whale — spin in a feat of acrobatic impossibility.

The title of the show, “Here and There,” refers to the fact that Coffin’s works are scattered throughout the museum. One sculpture, on the museum’s outdoor plaza, is a large spiral staircase bent into a circular form that echoes the doughnut-shaped museum’s architecture. It’s an Escherlike visual conundrum but also a metaphor for a journey that takes you back to where you started.

That metaphor is nowhere better expressed than in what may be the show’s most understated piece. It’s also the hardest to find.

Hiding in plain sight in a gallery of works from the permanent collection, “Untitled (Rainbow)” is easy to overlook, even if you’re searching for it. I should know. I walked past it four or five times without noticing it, even with the help of a security guard and the woman staffing the information desk, neither of whom could tell me where it was.

Composed of 31 printed snapshots of rainbows arranged into a collage of a single, spiraling rainbow, the work is small and, at least by Coffin’s standards, unassuming. It is, however, one of the show’s most powerful pieces, embodying the sense of discovery and recombination that is at the heart of Coffin’s art.

The Story Behind the Work

Some of Peter Coffin’s work is anything but subtle. The showstopper of the Hirshhorn exhibition is a lifelike sculpture of a giant Great Dane that seemingly floats one inch above the floor, thanks to hidden pins that support its massive bulk.

With the dimensions of a small horse, the oversize pooch boasts penetrating blue eyes and a glossy black pelt. Fabricated by a taxidermist, not Coffin, the sculpture is covered with pony hide stretched over a carved, dog-shaped armature. Just like a real animal, its coat must be brushed periodically to maintain its gorgeous sheen.

The dog’s visual impact is hard to overstate. Traffic jams form in the gallery from folks whipping out cellphone cameras, and the museum encourages visitors to upload their own snaps of the dog to its photo-sharing Web site.

The work’s sheer size lends it power. Like the Hirshhorn’s “Big Man,” another giant, hyperrealist sculpture by Ron Mueck, Coffin’s dog combines a familiar form with an unfamiliar scale, transforming the ordinary into something extraordinary.

— Michael O'Sullivan

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