Saturday, December 6, 2008

Louise Bourgeois at MoCA

Like many 10-year olds, I was enamored of all things Impressionist. Specifically the artist Pierre Auguste Renoir became a major source of inspiration. It wasn’t just his romanticized dappled lighting and loose, feathery brushstrokes that beckoned me but mostly the fact that this man was so devoted to his craft that into his late 70’s, crippled with rheumatoid arthritis, he continued painting by strapping brushes to his hands. To Renoir, creating art was his purpose in life and everything else was supplementary. I was similarly moved by the comprehensive retrospective of American artist Louise Bourgeois at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Grand Avenue, Los Angeles). At age 96, Bourgeois, an influential figure of modern art, is still creating new works of art each day. The current exhibition at MoCA (organized by the museum with assistance from the Tate Modern in London and Paris’ Centre Pompidou) is a well-deserved homage to the prolific, Paris-born artist whose work spans from Surrealist/Futurist drawings and paintings of the late 1940s, to mid-century modern, abstracted sculpture, to pre-Feminist, sexually charged works, to massive spider sculptures and emotionally involved “cells” (installations) from the last two decades.

While Bourgeois may be assigned with many art periods throughout the twentieth (and into the twenty-first) century, she has managed to maintain an individual fingerprint that graces her entire body of work. The artist has executed this impressive feat by merging elements of both modern abstraction from the early to mid century (think Picasso, Matisse, or Brancusi) with more traditional methods and materials. MoCA’s Louise Bourgeois presents all aforementioned periods from the artist’s magnificent breadth of work without ever overwhelming the viewer or losing consistency. Perhaps this is because Bourgeois’ work always clings to the same major themes: a murky childhood, sexuality and sexual confusion, and the female psyche.

It would be impossible not to assume that the major Feminist artists of the late 1970s and 1980s (Judy Chicago, Faith Wilding, Betye Saar) took a footnote from Bourgeois. In the 1960s, she began to move from more geometric, wooden sculptures to latex, plaster, and marble works that took on decidedly more organic, sexualized forms. Her well-known Cumul I (1969) features smooth, egg-like shapes cradled in soft folds of white marble made to look like fabric or skin. The Janus sculptures (1968) are even more blatantly sexual with bronze shapes that blend elements of both male and female sex organs.

Fascinatingly, Bourgeois’ abstracted imagery often seems more overtly sexual than objects and ideas she is representing themselves. Surely considered offensive by some, the artist manages to overcome any real pornographic association with the fact that they sincerely symbolize softer ideas like peace, protection, motherhood, growth, and mortality.

Bourgeois has a truly profound way of making the otherwise explicit remain somewhat innocent. She does this by assuming a sort-of na├»ve perspective of a child, undoubtedly stemming from her less-than-ideal one that included an adulterous, aggressive father, and a mother who turned a blind eye. The dark experiences of Bourgeois’ childhood are threaded through the entirety of her work. In Destruction of the Father (1974) she uses wood, soft sculpture, and red light to create an abstracted installation that imagines a cannibalistic revenge against a “tyrant” father over the family dinner table.

In her contemporary work, Bourgeois continues to utilize her early memories as a driving force. In the early 1990s, the artist began creating “cells,” involved, large-scale installations that simultaneously represent domestic rooms and transcendent, spiritual havens. Her Red Rooms (1994) consist of one smaller, child’s space, and a larger, parents’ room, distinguished by iconographic objects to make the latter seem decidedly more intimate and curiously erotic than the other. These beautifully assembled, somewhat haunting spaces signal Bourgeois’ feeling of isolation from her parents.

In Spider (1997) she creates a giant bronze version of the insect straddling a cage that houses a lonesome chair. The spider, now a trademark icon of the artist’s work, is representative of her mother, who worked as a tapestry repairwoman. Echoing this idea is Bourgeois smattering of textile scraps over the outside of the cage.

Bourgeois’ most recent work continues to use fabric as a representation of her parents. The soft, plush figurative sculptures speak on issues like sex and birth in a manner juxtaposingly innocent to its subject matter. A particularly memorable work, Couple IV shows two stuffed-fabric, bulky bodies pushed together horizontally. The sculpture re-imagines a time Bourgeois’ caught her parents in the act of sex. The vagueness of what these sloppy figures may be doing perfectly exemplifies the confusion and curiosity a child might have in happening upon such a scene.

In looking at the body of work represented by MoCA’s Louise Bourgeois, one realizes that age has never slowed down this extraordinary woman. If anything, her maturation in life has enabled the artist to continually find new creative outlets from the pain she experienced as a child. As she has tried on different methods and styles throughout the years, the artist has never lost her ability to relay emotion and show the power of memory.

Cumus I

Red Room

Couple IV

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