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Six international artists in the ICA’s sprawling current exhibitions prompt discovery, discussion and surprise



"The history of art has all been about closure," an esteemed, octogenarian contemporary art collector Hubert Neumann of New York tells W Magazine in its current issue.

In other words, Western art has aimed to be coherent and complete. "But you look at the world today, with the Internet, which is probably the greatest achievement in human history, you will see that closure is out the window," he says.

I was thinking of Neumann's words as I wandered through the Institute for Contemporary Art on a recent, brilliant Saturday morning. Sunlight filtered through the huge, opaque windows of a building with many sinuous spaces to create an otherworldly quality. It was the visual equivalent of white noise, there, but not there.

In the relative quiet of the galleries, I was struck by the spareness of this second installation at the new art destination. It is "Hedges Edges Dirt" and "Provocations: Rashid Johnson." Unlike the busy goings on and overt socio-political bent of the institute's lively opening salvo, "Declaration," the featured artists are each given amble space to present their works. Now we can see how Steven Holl's architecture magnificently interacts with and elevates, yet defers to, the work being shown.

It's funny. The title "Hedges Edges Dirt," could easily be appropriated by say, Yale's Center for British Studies' or the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' collections of sporting art for an exhibition of fox hunting scenes or 18th- or 19th-century landscapes. But those three words — hedges, edges and dirt — are deceptively simple in how the talented staff at the institute uses them. The current installation, with an international cast of artists, is every bit as pointed socially and politically as was "Declaration," but this show is not about closure. The works prompt discovery, discussion and surprise. And many of them are cleverly subversive.

Consider "Plastic Tree" by Pascale Marthine Tayou, a Cameroonian artist. The slender tree branches that spring from the long wall of the Reynolds Gallery explode in joyous color, like popcorn cooked in pastels. But not so fast: The colored plastic merchandise bags, blown up like party balloons, become horrific when considering the same objects are polluting the oceans of the world. The situation grows worse with each ring of a cash register.

Equally subversive is Brazilian artist Jonathas de Andrade's languid film, "O Peixe (The Fish)" that is as sun-filled and sensual as it is hard to watch. A bronzed fisherman spears a large fish, pulls it from the river, removes the hook and then caresses the terrified creature as if stroking a kitten. It is a slow kill. Question: Is water pollution in South or North America destroying aquatic life at a faster or slower pace?

Abbas Akhavan's work is more subtle, but this Iran-born artist's intent is equally unsettling. Visitors entering the Reynolds Gallery are confronted with an unremarkable wooden planter box filled with evergreens, each some 6 feet tall. Live plants are familiar enough in gallery or museum settings, but something unsettling is going on. In every other ICA space, the curators and designers have placed objects and signs to aching perfection, with plenty of breathing room. These live trees are pushed up a little too close to the entry as if to ask: "Who invited you?"

Maybe "Hedges Edges Dirt" would work well for an English landscape exhibition. What is more traditionally English than property ownership? "Hey, stay on your own side of the fence." But Iranian-born Akhavan, who lives in Canada, has something more pressing in mind: Blood is being shed, worldwide, over political, economic and military borders.

As for dirt, Philadelphian David Hartt's camera, zeroing in on frayed and unlovely American urban and suburban landscapes via drone, focuses on the underbelly of our industrial and consumerist society. Why dwell on these places? Can't Hartt be more like motorists trying to ignore the truck stops, power plants and warehouses along the New Jersey Turnpike en route to the delights and lights of New York? The thing is, and subversively, Hartt mines great beauty from his subject. And he pulls a bravura turn by translating a still image from his film, "The Last Poet," into a handsome, woven, wall tapestry. "Negative Space" shows a once picturesque Staten Island townscape-turned industrial dumping ground for dead motor vehicles.

The fifth featured artist is also American, Julianne Swartz. In addition to Hartt's tapestry, her sculptural work comes closest to fulfilling a sense of closure, in the tradition of Western art. Dozens of hand-blown, milky glass vessels lie on finely-crafted plywood platforms. But like her colleagues in the exhibition, she has more in mind. Swartz is harnessing sound from her organically- if not erotically-shaped glass pieces, and fills the gallery with Zen-like sounds. These can cross boundaries, and will not be fenced in.

On the top floor, in the cathedrallike Luck Gallery, Rashid Johnson, a Chicago artist, presents another exhibition, "Provocations." It is a towering, architectonic work commissioned especially for this glorious, light-filled space. A huge black steel grid, like a crisp erector set, contains shelving for house plants, books, and totemlike sculptures made of shea butter. And if there is a sacred feeling to the space, why not invite local musical groups to perform alongside this life-affirming piece? Composer David Dominique performs Nov. 30 and Dec. 1.

All in all, "Hedges Edges Dirt" and "Provocations: Rashid Johnson" are quite the sound and light shows that offer no closure. S

"Hedges Edges Dirt" is on exhibit through Jan. 6 and "Provocations: Rashid Johnson" through July 7 at the Institute for Contemporary Art. Free and open to the public Tuesdays through Sundays.10 a.m. to 8 p.m.