Franz West exhibit charms with playful, probing spirit

Franz West’s work “Plakatenwurf (Sisypho) [Poster Design]” is showing in a charming exhibition of his work currently at WCMA. Photo courtesy of www.hallartfoundation.com
Franz West’s work “Plakatenwurf (Sisypho) [Poster Design]” is showing in a charming exhibition of his work currently at WCMA. Photo courtesy of www.hallartfoundation.com
“I look at Franz West as the Einstein of art. People might think it’s craziness but its not and that’s what they thought of Einstein” said Joseph Mondia, the permanent guard of the current Franz West exhibition at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA). Having spent the past few months immersed in the playfully probing work of the Austrian artist, Mondia is an intimate authority on the exhibition which has been drawn from the Hall Collection and presented in conjunction with the Hall Art Foundation’s installation of West’s Les Pommes d’Adam at MASS MoCA.

Indeed, although his comparison of a quietly known Austrian artist to one of the greatest geniuses of our era might seem hyperbolic, Mondia has distilled the curious essence of West’s work. The main entry room of the exhibit contains all the ingredients for a traditional room: an assembly of two tables and four chairs (Natura Morte), three spectacularly oversized hanging lights (Hermo, Kobo, Prieso) and a spindly back table with a bottle of wine and an expectant glass on it aptly named Wine Drinking Table. The illusion of functionality reigns throughout. Yet there is something a little too oversized and cartoonish about the hanging neon lights, the table is jagged and frail looking and the chairs invite discomfort and the unopened wine on the drinking table is prepossessed by a stark stillness. As the WCMA catalogue states, “His slightly wonky furniture implies an invitation to sit, but stops short of offering comfort.” In this main room, West invites viewers to stand outside the routine of their daily lives and observe its framework. They are urged to become discerning outsiders, to revel in the uninhabited quietude of the room within a room. His work is possessed by various meta-textual and existential urges but is saved from the grasp of pretension by its impish teasing quality.

The room to the right is occupied by members of West’s early Adaptives collection, assemblages of everyday objects slathered indiscriminately in raw, misshapen plaster. Poster collages mixed with painterly materials accompany the objects, and at the back of the room sits a self-contained space containing a trio of works: Untitled (Liege), Labstück (Refresher) and Untitled. The foremost of these is a stark metal bench complemented perfectly by the third mentioned work, a framed hanging textile of muted olive green varnish on cardboard. Resting in the background is a functionless plastered stick with a wine bottle dripping in plaster perched on its top, an artistic or alcoholic interpretation of the tiki lamp. The trio follows the thematic metaphysical focus of a room within a room, a space within a space, function within art, art within function.

Upon turning into the next room, the viewer is confronted with a gleaming and oversized misshapen mint-green pellet. Entitled Sitzskulptur (Sitting Sculpture), it possesses a distinctly pop-art quality and is absolutely functionless but extremely inviting in its tactility. Its focus is form, shape and color. It just exists. As Mondia stated, “I think it’s all in the eyes of the beholder. [West’s art] is whatever you want it to be. There’s no in-betweens, you either do or don’t like it.” Indeed, West’s art is unapologetic, making no attempt to explain its presence or meaning.

The third room provides a change of pace from the diaphanous forms in the second and first. At its forefront are three rather spectacular standing paper-mâché rock-like structures, a trio called The Monster of the Black Lagoon. They are splattered in Pollock-esque swathes of bright acrylic paint; red, yellow, blue and ochers. To their back stands an equally assuming work, Plakatentwurf (Sisyphos). Collage and oil paint mounted on canvas, it swarms with thickly painted reds, oranges and pinks, with three collaged figures imprinted on it. The one in the bottom right corner is a young man sporting an impressive mohawk and tossing a phallic structure in the air, opposite him is a forward-bending older nude man with a phallic structure emerging from his face and in the background is a barely discernible smiling woman who appears to have been taken from a toothpaste advertisement or the like. It is an overtly sexual painting and denotes a change of pace from the more ambiguous structures in the other room, lending the strength of variety to West’s already powerful work.

The exhibition is provocative, both aesthetically and conceptually, but manages to be so without being simultaneously inaccessible or obnoxious. It can be as profound or as whimsical as the viewer inclines it to be, but however it is interpreted it is sure to be enjoyed. As such, I recommend that you go see it before its conclusion on Jan. 25.