Comic Relief

The Dalí Museum's namesake shines in a new show of Spanish art.

click to enlarge "Tattoo III," by Jaume Plensa (2004) - Artists Righs Society (ars) New York/vegap. Madrid
Artists Righs Society (ars) New York/vegap. Madrid
"Tattoo III," by Jaume Plensa (2004)

"War? Why?" asks sculptor Jaume Plensa in aluminum letters seven feet tall. He doesn't just spell it out; you have to work for it a bit. The giant letters wrap around each other and overlap, making the sculpture indecipherable until you walk around it, piecing the puzzle together in your head letter by letter. When you arrive at the ah-ha moment, the message feels paradoxically intimate, as if the artist had whispered his heartsick plea to you alone, though the gleaming letters practically scream it.

That unanswerable question could stand to be enlarged several times and displayed prominently in a public place — after all, Plensa is best known for his large-scale public works, so why not? Jacksonville has a public Plensa. Outside a sports arena there, the artist mounted six kneeling male figures cast in fiberglass on 30-foot steel poles. Each of the six-foot tall figures, part-Buddha, part-night-light, changes color as LED lights inside it turn off and on. The figures represent people of different cultural backgrounds trying to communicate with each other, Plensa says — sometimes they share the same color, sometimes they're at opposite ends of the spectrum. (You may have noticed that people from the same culture have this problem, too.)

A similar kneeling figure appears in Salvador Dalí and a Century of Art from Spain: Picasso to Plensa at the Dalí Museum. This one changes color but also has words molded onto its body, words describing human characteristics that could be either strengths or foibles (e.g., "love of sex" and "propensity to egotism"). It's a strange, amusing and powerful play on the idea of essentialism — despite seemingly definitive characteristics like culture and personality, we share more than we care to admit and take ourselves and our differences a bit too seriously.

The century-long survey includes more than two dozen Spanish artists, many heavy-hitters that will make you want to run, not walk, to see this show. If Plensa doesn't ring a bell, try Joan Miró, Juan Gris, Antoni Tàpies, Eduardo Chillida ... and, of course, Pablo Picasso. The artist whose 1941 painting "Dora Maar with Cat" fetched $95 million at Sotheby's earlier this month is represented by a handful of pieces. His "Head of a Woman (Fernande)" (1909), generally regarded as the first cubist sculpture, greets you as the first artwork in the show.

For an exhibit that traces a 100-year timeline from the birth of modern art to the present day, keeping the visitor tuned in and turned on from start to finish is no small feat. Each gallery is divided into a particular genre or time period — e.g., cubism, conceptualism — with judiciously chosen pieces that get to the point quickly and efficiently. There really aren't any supporting players here; each artist in the ensemble cast shines. Skillful curation leaves you with the sense that the works carry on a coherent conversation, whether about local/global politics or the politics of image-making — and because the exhibit doesn't waste time being didactic; it spends more time being fun.

Humor — ironic, appalling or taboo — is a running theme. It starts, perhaps, with Alfonso de Olivares' 1929 painting "The Clown," a celebration of banal kitsch, and reaches a fever pitch a few years later as Dalí comes into his full powers as a surrealist. That's when human bodies start growing object heads amid landscapes littered with the detritus of Freudian analysis. Even conceptualism wins a giggle with Francesc Abad's 1973 photograph "Counting and Numbering the Freckles of a Part of the Arm by Assistants (Documentation of an Action)"; surely this must go down in history as one of the most whimsical Fluxus happenings.

Picasso — who knew? — turns out to have tried his hand at drawing comics. In a politically charged series of vignettes, the artist portrays General Franco as a gnarled, hairy creature — looking not unlike a piece of ginger root — atop a porcine steed, bumbling through the countryside like a drunken Don Quixote. Antoni Miralda takes aim at the Bush administration with "X-mas in Guantanamo," a piece that includes a plastic pink flamingo penetrated by a strand of Christmas lights and hooded with a white athletic sock. The flamingo stands at the bottom of a defunct soft drink cooler; on the shelf above, a prisoner's meal tray bears a bread roll pierced by tiny American flags and a plastic figurine of Santa taking a crap.

Dalí, I thought, provides the biggest surprise of the show by looking fantastic interspersed among his compatriots. When he is shown solo, the intensity of the Dalí experience tends to be a bit overwhelming (OK, suffocating at times), but among a like-minded cohort he looks less like a megalomaniacal control-freak and more like an actual artistic god. The very thing that can be an overdose on its own — Dalí's astonishing technical skill and painstaking detail — provides a sharp pleasure when diluted by other artists' work. You've got to hand it to the folks at the Dalí Museum, they know how to make their man look good.

Of course, the idea that the influence of Salvador Dalí might be seriously underrated has been gaining currency in art history circles for years. Not that the surrealist has been a nobody, but a recent blockbuster exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the changing tides of artistic fashion suggest that he might be more of a somebody than ever. Flip open any issue of Juxtapoz, and you will see more artists with an affinity to Dalí than, say, Picasso or Miró. Today, works by the latter two can seem like the stuff of MoMA coffee mugs and umbrellas: once transgressive images leeched of potency and relegated to the status of cultural wallpaper. Dalí, meanwhile, looks fresh and relevant against the part-gothic, part-surrealist, anime-inspired representational art prominent among art trends now.

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