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"Death is Irrelevant" at HVMoCA

Who Crucifies a Skeleton?

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"Death is Irrelevant" (detail shot), Damien Hirst
  • "Death is Irrelevant" (detail shot), Damien Hirst

"Some collectors will go into a studio and they'll buy everything by an artist. We've never done that. It always had to be our favorite piece," explains art collector Livia Straus. Celebrating its 15th anniversary, the Hudson Valley Center of Contemporary Art in Peekskill has changed its name to the Hudson Valley Museum of Contemporary Art (HVMoCA). Also, for the first time, the museum presents an exhibition drawn from the private collection of its founders, Marc and Livia Straus. "Death Is Irrelevant" surveys figurative sculpture over a 40-year period, with artists from 15 countries. The overview was curated by Tim Hawkinson and Ken Tan.

It's a spare show, arranged in a maze, with each sculpture commanding a little realm of white space. It's almost like meeting a series of eccentric strangers, each in her own room. Pawel Althamer's The Power of Now depicts a person in a welder's mask—probably a man—bent over in anguish on a whitewashed park bench. The soundtrack is a talk by Eckhart Tolle, the German self-help guru and author of The Power of Now. Tolle's idea is to "be in the moment," but the nameless protagonist seems to find this moment excruciating. What good is New Age philosophy to a guy who works in a factory? As in many of the works in "Death Is Irrelevant," wit, philosophy, and deep emotion are intertwined.

Mother by Kiki Smith is the torso of a woman with milk pouring from her breasts and long hair flowing down her shoulders. Both the milk and the hair are paper; Mother is papier-mache. The delicacy of the material heightens the tenderness of the work. The nameless mother holds her breasts in her hands.

Death Is Irrelevant is the title of a stunning sculpture by Damien Hirst consisting of a skeleton he purchased at a curio shop in London "crucified" on two perpendicular planes of glass. One glass wall bisects the bones along the midline; the other is at the level of the arms. The skeleton's feet are crossed, as in most artistic renderings of Jesus. Floating above the eye sockets are two ping-pong balls painted like eyeballs, held aloft by two streams of compressed air. A reddish discoloration on the rib cage suggests the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Hirst's sculpture presents Jesus's sacrifice in quite literal terms. A human being died to create this art installation.

It's hard to imagine anyone liking all these sculptures. Some are disquieting, even nightmarish. This is art that provokes disagreement, debate and conversation. Some of it makes you LOL, as the teenagers say. My favorite piece is Patricia Piccinini's Undivided, in which a lifelike six-year-old sleeps in a bed, with a grotesque troll-like creature hugging him from behind—the same sort of monster that usually terrifies a six-year-old boy. Maybe our demons are also our protectors.

—Sparrow

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