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ICA’s ‘Dance/Draw’ exhibition worthy of second look. And a third and a fourth.

Susan Saccoccia | 11/2/2011, 9:17 a.m.
Tseng Kwong Chi Bill T. Jones Body Painting with Keith Haring, 1983, Silver gelatin selenium-toned print Muna Tseng Dance Projects/Estate of Tseng Kwong Chi and courtesy of Paul Kasmin Gallery, photograph by Tseng Kwong Chi ©1983 Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc. New York Body drawing by Keith Haring © 1983 Estate of Keith Haring, New York.

As mid-century minimalists focused on the fundamentals, the grid emerged from its behind-the-scenes status as a compositional tool. Brown adopts the grid in the gallery-sized installation, “Floor of the Forest” (1970). Like a giant net, its sloping ropes hold assorted used clothing and, at predetermined times (Thursday evenings and weekend afternoons) also dangle a pair of her dancers, who silently crawl among the ropes and poke through the jackets and sweaters as if they are cocoons.

As Brown and her contemporaries playfully and often with great beauty investigated the building blocks of their art form, they moved dance off the stage onto plazas, the sides of buildings, roofs and mountaintops. The section entitled “Dancing” renders their pioneering experiments through photographs, films and drawings.

A wall-sized video projection shows an iconic performance by Yvonne Rainer, along with Brown a founding member of the seminal Greenwich Village Judson Dance Theater. Wearing a black top and pants, she dances her mesmerizing “Trio A” (1978).     Debuted in the ’60s, her flowing, narrative-free study of pure movement launched a thousand classes in modern dance.

In another large video, choreographer William Forsysthe conducts a droll demonstration of his craft in the soberly named “Lectures from Improvisation Technologies” (2011). As he maneuvers his body to show each element in a dance composition, animated lines track his movements, making visible the implicit 3-D geometry of dance.

Born in Ghana and now living in London and New York, Senam Okudzeto combines comedy, art history and social commentary in her video and installation, “The Dialectic of Jubilation; Afro Funk Lessons” (2002-05). Partly a tribute to African American artist Adrian Piper, who instructed a white audience in her video “Funk Lessons” (1983), Okudzeto shows herself teaching a group of Europeans how to dance to the Afrobeat music of Nigerian Fela Kuti.

In “The Breaks” (2000), a 5x5 grid of freeze-frame photographs, Mexican artist Juan Capistran break-dances in an art gallery on a square of lead — a floor sculpture by the archetypal minimalist Carl Andre.

The fourth section, “Drawing,” looks at the metamorphosis of figure drawing through media as varied as 3-D digital imaging, neon and body paint.

With a nod to tradition, the works include Fiona Banner’s painstakingly hand-drawn covers of books designed to teach amateurs the essentials of life drawing. Nearby, another affectionate and humorous installation introduces the Friends of the Fine Arts (FFARTS). The artists’ collective gathers periodically for a “life drawing circle” that brings a contemporary skill-sharing ethos to the Beaux Arts practice of drawing nude models. Members don the poses and props of a particular period — say Old Testament stories — and swap roles as curators and models.

Dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones is the subject of two works. In photographs by Tseng Kwong Chi, he poses covered head to toe with white geometric patterns that artist Keith Haring has painted on his body. A mesmerizing 3-D projection by the OpenEnded Group, “After Ghostcatching” (1999), shows Jones in shimmering afterimages. As he dances, his figure dissolves into meandering ribbons of color.

The exhibition will reward repeated visits. Among the works that will draw you back is Sadie Benning’s 29-minute animation, “Play Pause” (2006). Her gouache drawings spin across two screens to Solveig Nelson’s pulsing sound track. Benning’s raw and tender cartoons take the viewer on a stroll through a teeming city, from its discos and soccer games to parks and storefronts. Her video is an urban rhapsody in the tradition of “Manhatta,” a 1920 silent film by photographers Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler. Their visual paean to the energy and grandeur of a young Manhattan has a worthy successor in “Play Pause.” With hints of post-9/11 tension (an occasional surveillance-camera view), Benning’s animation celebrates the persistent variety and verve of city life.

And with variety and verve, Molesworth’s exhibition honors generations of artists whose ephemeral subject is the human body in motion.