MASS MoCA explores modern Austrian art in ‘Vienna Project’

If for no other reason, go to MASS MoCA’s exhibition “Uncommon Denominator: New Art From Vienna” for the flabby car. Erwin Wurm’s bubble-gum pink, fatly swollen life-size automobile is itself worth the trip to North Adams. Viewing the paunchy car hood swelling over the headlights and the rolls of obese side-paneling bunching on the ground around the wheels may inspire one to consider the bloated state of our consumer culture and the insatiable appetite for fuel and space of our motor vehicles. Or it may just be really, really cool. Actually, the same can be said of much of the work in this show; there’s plenty of conceptual depth, but a great deal of the art is also very entertaining and playful.

“Uncommon Denominator” is MASS MoCA’s contribution to the “Vienna Project” that has involved cultural institutions across the Berkshires this summer. As such, the art in the show is related primarily by geography, which means that the show is more of a survey of many different artistic methods and concerns than an in-depth investigation of any one issue or style. For the most part, this survey quality works well, and it certainly never risks being boring, but it does require a lot of energy on the part of the viewer. There’s a tremendous amount of information to take in, and the desire to keep moving on to yet another artist prevents one from dealing with any of them in any depth, at least in a single visit. The flip side of this is that the show rewards and encourages return visits.

Stylistically, the exhibition seems intentionally diverse. It ranges in media from Barbara Eichorn’s delicate charcoal drawings to Peter Kogler’s computer generated wall projections to Lois Weinberger’s plants in big plastic shopping bags, and covers everything from the abstract expressionism of Otto Zitko to the genre-painting realism of Johanna Kandl. The show also covers the waterfront conceptually: psychological issues, social commentary, questions about the nature of artistic production, critiques of the museum patronage system and everything in between.

Herbert Brandl’s colossal paintings of mountains may seem uninteresting at first – from a distance they seem like the kind of thing that any reasonably competent amateur landscape painter could do. But this actually turns out to be part of the fascination of these works: Brandl clearly isn’t overtly concerning himself with breaking new ground in his subject or methods, and so his paintings become more like meditations on the act of painting itself. He also distinguishes himself technically from amateur landscape painters; the quality of brushwork, color choice and above all the successful management of giant canvases indicate a great deal of proficiency. The sculptural couches made by artist Franz West provide an excellent place to sit and chill with these paintings.

West also contributes several sculptures aside from the couches (which are surprisingly comfortable) and they all encourage physical engagement with the audience. West is probably best known for his wearable, “adaptive” sculptures, and here several of his works allow the viewer to touch, sit on or otherwise interact with them. Unfortunately, the sculptures which would be the most fun to play with are off limits: a larger-than-life pink intestinal sculpture practically demands to be climbed on, as well as some bizarre, wildly colored lumps in the lower gallery that I really wanted to toss around and whack someone with.

Walter Obholzer’s compulsively neat abstract designs are easy to love. Two in particular, “Blue Dumpling for a Wall” and “Fence,” created a sense of energy and even violence in the case of “Fence,” trapped within the confines of Obholzer’s obsessively controlled lines. The works project a sense of industrialized dementia and rigidly ordered chaos; they’re immensely satisfying to study.

Hans Schabus’s installation “Headquarters” plays with conventions of science fiction and spy movies. It includes a video that follows the artist as he barricades himself inside his studio while being stalked, in classic horror-movie style, by a copy of himself. Outside the video room is the artist’s studio from the movie, including the barricaded wall he patches together and a table/control panel that looks like it came straight out of a James Bond movie where the set designer has been indulging heavily in controlled substances.

Also wonderful is Erwin Wurm’s giant photograph of Laura Heon, a talented woman who is at once the curator at MASS MoCA, a Williams Museum Associates alum and an occasional teacher here at the College. Looking swollen and dyspeptic, she glares down on the puny artists who must grovel for her approval. She was brave to be photographed in the name of fine art, looking about 50 pounds heavier and a lot meaner than she actually is, but she probably got a really big kick out of it.

Finally, don’t forget to see the fat pink car. It really is that cool.

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