Contemporary History at the Barnes: Three Artists in Philadelphia
Mark Dion, Judy Pfaff, Fred Wilson: The Order of Things at the Barnes Foundation
May 16 to August 3, 2015
2025 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy (at North 20th Street)
Philadelphia, PA, 215 278 7200
The Barnes Foundation’s recent exhibit, “The Order of Things,” in their contemporary gallery, is at once dynamic and problematic. Intended to relate to Barnes’s enigmatic approach to exhibition design, fantasy and appropriation abound. Installations by three renowned artists — Mark Dion, Judy Pfaff and Fred Wilson — mine varying aspects of Barnes’s approach to installing artifacts and paintings. His system for exhibiting work was intended to be carried into in perpetuity and is mimicked in the work of the artists selected for this project.
Pfaff created a sprawling installation in the main space of the gallery. Center stage, this work honors Laura Barnes’s arboretum, which she cultivated alongside Albert Barnes and a cluster of specialists. The arboretum is an extensive garden of hundreds of rare trees and flora from around the world, still flourishing at the Foundation’s original museum in Lower Merion. Pfaff’s Scene I: The Garden, Enter Mrs. Barnes (2015) is a dazzling psychedelic display of photos of the arboretum and Henri Rousseau’s paintings gone awry. Perhaps an abject backdrop to Alice in Wonderland, the installation is replete with digital prints on plastic and vinyl, poured pigmented foam, natural wood and steel. Swirling renditions of a simulated pond’s edge and bank are constructed using wood and liquid foam. Repeated in several key locations within the installation, these frothy sea-green islands create a sense of boundaries and depth. Punctuating this expansive landscape are leafy steel structures, painted white.
Incongruent elements abound, with white steel chandeliers overhead and neon lights that are, disappointingly, never illuminated. An installation of plastic wallpaper with distorted floral patterns is strategically placed on the gallery’s southern wall. Plastic floor panels extend across the space and were based on Henri Rousseau’s paintings; they serve as a conceptual bridge between Pfaff’s installation and the collection. Other connections include an area over the eastern wall of the gallery that alludes to the framed lunettes of Henri Matisse’s The Dance (1910).
Laura Barnes was integrally involved in the development of the arboretum at the original Barnes Foundation. She cultivated an expansive array of flora from areas within the states and other countries. Laura Barnes selected blooming plants that were considered difficult to grow in the Pennsylvania’s blistery winters of Pennsylvania such as southern magnolias, etc. Her approach to constructing the Foundation’s gardens paralleled the landscapes found in the work of Calude Monet, Paul Cezanne and other landscape paintings in the collection. Pfaff’s title channels the contribution of Laura Barnes to the development of the Foundation’s botanical gardens.
Fred Wilson’s rooms, located to the right of the entrance, are conglomerates of staged tableaux, some more successful than others. At the entrance three scenes are created in a sparse, modernist fashion, using furniture borrowed from the Merion offices, desks chairs and even an early Dell computer. The interior rooms hold greater intrigue; these spaces represent a sculptural approach to furniture, art objects and glass works from the collection. While visitors walk through these spaces, African drums and chanting waft through the air. Wilson inserts the African presence through sound rather than including it materially in his installation. Perhaps using African art directly would have been too obvious a move for Wilson, based on his past installations at museums throughout America. The soundscape is a compilation tape. Wilson has chosen not to disclose its origin or name the people recorded. Nameless voices surround the viewer — the ubiquitous presence of Africa is in our midst.
In his 1983 book Flash of the Spirit, Robert Farris Thompson uses the metaphor that if aliens descended on earth and sampled the music produced around the world, overridingly the music from Africa and the African Diaspora would be the most prevalent. Wilson has reconstructed this reality for us in Trace. However, it is interesting that he has chosen not to name the African cultural groups represented in his compilation tape. Is this again an example of a Western intervention that includes the artistry of Africa and deciding to render it anonymous?
Mark Dion’s installation is delightful, yet foreboding, in its inclusion of guns, knives and the like; however, would these be included in the collection of a naturalist? These emblems are contrasted with butterfly nets, fishnets, satchels and garden tools. Dion’s The Incomplete Naturalist is a tour de force in symmetry. According to the curator, Dion’s use of symmetry is mimetic of Barnes’s aesthetic. Like an archeologist, he puts everything in order and builds relationships to construct a narrative.
Overall, the Order of Things was a fascinating array of dissonant styles of installation art brought together. Therein lies its intrigue. Each artist serves as an individual conduit into the mind of Albert and Laura Barnes.