Saturday, August 22, 2015

Da Vinci codex at MIA

Security is tight at the Minneapolis Institute of Art where patrons enter an exhibition devoted to pages from the Leicester Codex, a notebook made by Leonardo Da Vinci.  Burly thugs strip-search customers and conduct body cavity inspections, a generally degrading experience that dampens the art lover's enthusiasm for the rather dour and arcane specimens of late 15th century calligraphy on display in the darkened galleries.  I didn't mind the rectal probe or the urethral sounds, but was quite upset when my pens, mechanical pencils, and highlighting magic marker were unceremoniously snatched from me, put in a sealed plastic bag and deposited with a receptionist for later retrieval.

It's hard to know why this heightened level of security is necessary.  The exhibit consists of three darkened rooms each containing about ten pages of Da Vinci's notebook.  The pages are covered with tiny reverse handwriting -- Da Vinci used "mirror writing" to encrypt his observations.  In the first room, the pages enclosed front and back (recto and verso) are entirely covered with microscopic inscriptions -- some vaguely worded labels explain in very general terms what Da Vinci wrote on the page.  A page covered with writing, probably about eight-hundred words is summarized in three or four sentences.  In the second two rooms, the pages in their plexiglass cases have minuscule drawings on them -- the drawings are elegant depictions of swirling water, intersecting river currents, angled excavation and earth-ramming equipment, little scaffolds, and pulley and lever mechanisms.  The images are very small, sketched with a spidery precise line, and fairly interesting -- but the notes don't provide enough context to understand exactly what we are seeing and the sketches are marginal to long columns of handwriting.  There's no reason to travel to see these things.  Images that you can summon to your computer will show you these codex pages more clearly than you can see them in the darkened rooms with crowds of people.  Furthermore, the sketches are not particularly interesting -- they have the artistic qualities of extra-lucid illustrations in an old Victorian science book or a nineteen-fifties Scientific American.  The rest of the exhibition, ostensibly something about creativity, with one exception is devoid of any interest, artistically or otherwise.  This part of the show consists of engineering sketches for automobiles, some eccentric inventions, and drawings mapping the evolution of such important developments in world culture as "in-line skates."  A gallery full of crocheted facsimiles of coral reefs is particularly pointless.  It's obviously intended to be a sop to women viewers since the rest of the show seems to pretty much adamantly imply that creativity and inventiveness is a male characteristic -- but it seems condescending and dimwitted to suggest that female contribution to the world of imaginative creation is limited to textile work, colorfully, if inaccurately, simulating coral reefs and their creatures.  One great work is on display in the galleries annexed to the Da Vinci codex pages -- this is Bill Viola's The Raft.  This high-definition digital video shows 11 people of various races and ages standing together, apparently waiting for a bus or train.  In super slow-motion, the people look down at their shoes, congregate more tightly together, mostly ignoring one another while reading books or checking on their cell-phones.  Seven people join the group.  Then, great jets of water are blasted into the crowd, horizontal waterfalls smashing against the people from both sides.  The water cannons continue to inundate the people, knocking them onto the ground, for about three minutes.  Then, the flood gradually subsides and we see the people, bedraggled and disoriented, several of them embracing as they attempt to help fallen, and, possibly, unconscious members of the group.  The video raises many thought-provoking questions and is spectacularly gorgeous -- the actors stand against a black background and the torrents of water look like jets of quartz; a woman shaking her head and long hair after the assault casts strings of glittering diamonds into the air in graceful slow-motion arcs; the drapery of wet clothing is, itself, very beautiful.  Some material introducing the "creative process" that engendered the work show references to Gericault's great and terrible painting The Raft of the Medusa.  Although Viola's video is wonderful on its own merits -- both beautiful and disturbing (do people really only interact meaningfully in the face of calamity?) -- the work is only tangentially related to the Da Vinci codex pages (like them, it features swirls of water) and not connected at all to the embarrassing coral reef simulacrum or the wacky (and not-so-wacky) inventions in the room with the engineering diagrams.  In general, the theme of the exhibition seems questionable:  if you buy yourself a notebook and write down your observations, you will be a creative person. 

Prodigious, if disturbing, creativity is on display in the adjacent galleries, a big exhibit devoted to work by Mark Mothersbaugh, the founder of the indy rock band DEVO, and a composer of some note.  Mothersbaugh seems to have to made postcards his preferred m├ętier and the results are astounding -- for more than 40 years, he has made one postcard-sized work of art a day:  the post cards are bound into photo albums and off-loaded onto pallets so that viewers can bend down to inspect them by flipping through the pages of the albums.  Mothersbaugh's post cards are all different and all wildly, if grotesquely, inventive -- he favors parodies of 1950's educational and scientific images, modified in monstrous ways.  In his music, Mothersbaugh adopted the persona of a masked figure called "Booji Boy" and videos show him prancing about in that guise.  There is a horrifying image of oozing bandages being unwound from the head of an insectoid creature that, then, takes up an electric guitar or keyboard to play DEVO rock and roll.  A sort of improvised pipe organ periodically plays herky-jerky calliope tunes -- the Rube Goldberg style machine is far larger than the music that it produces, an amusing disproportion.  Another gallery is devoted to images that Mothersbaugh made as parodies of daguerrotypes -- the pictures use the simple, if alarming, effect of mirroring right and left, creating eerily symmetrical faces either too wide or narrowed to the point of heads looking like hairy vulvas with ears.  In another room, armies of kewpie dolls splashed with paint stand on carpets of artificial grass.  Mothersbaugh's mutant-geek aesthetic has an authentic counter-cultural edge -- we are taught to regard artists as hip, cool seers, but, in fact, the show discloses an unhealthy, half-crazed wallowing in the deformed and desperately uncool and unhip. Perhaps, this sort of stuff is best experienced in small doses, but the exhibition has a real power and is far more fascinating, and disquieting, than most of the stuff in the prestigious, adjacent Da Vinci show.  If Mothersbaugh illustrates unfettered creativity, it's clear that this faculty is closely related to unwholesome obsession -- maybe, a little creativity goes a long way.

Also on display is a small but beautiful show of paintings collected by a Twin Cities businessman, Myron Kunin.  The show is comprised of "American Modernist" canvases, an unhelpful title for a variety of ingeniously painted pictures including a powerful New Mexico landscape by Marsden Hartley, some Bowery-style "ash-can" realism by Paul Cadmus and Reginald Marsh (in particular a Goya-esque painting of a line at a soup kitchen called "Holy Name Mission.")  Kunin liked to collect erotic images and I wonder what his private stash looked like -- the show features three ripe nudes of the kind that used to grace the wall behind old-time saloons.  These are unashamedly pornographic (or verging on the pornographic) works by Robert Henri and John Steuert Curry. 

The MIA's greatest painting, Bonnard's paradisical and uncanny "Dining Room in the Country" is on loan.  An interesting small show on the 2nd floor features anatomical engravings and a frontispiece to a folio-sized treatise by Vesalius reminds us in a startling way that during the 17th century dissection was like grand opera, a form of decadent entertainment. 

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