Exhibit of the week
One Day at a Time: Manny Farber and Termite Art
Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, through March 11
Something special is going on here, said Christopher Knight in the Los Angeles Times. A show of work created across the past seven decades and loosely united by ideas put forward in a 1962 essay, “One Day at a Time” turns out to be “exactly the kind of exhibition we need right now.” The essay, “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,” was critic Manny Farber’s attempt to use a handful of movies to champion art that celebrates the quotidian over art that aims to make a grand statement. Farber, who was a marvelous painter who gained greater notoriety as a film critic, sets the tone of the show with 23 still lifes that have been surrounded by the work of three dozen other painters, sculptors, and video artists who shared a similar sensibility. Though few of the artists are blue-chip names, seeing their work in one place is like stepping into a lively conversation. “In our often soulless, lopsided celebrity culture, it’s an anti-celebrity show—iconoclasm for an age swamped by icon worship.”
Farber, unfortunately, “was always a better writer than painter,” said Hunter Drohojowska-Philp in KCRW.com. His method was to fill each canvas with a bird’s-eye view of a flat surface strewn with common objects: candy bars, notebooks and pens, plates of food, withered flowers. The resulting images are rarely ingenious: “They are earnest and competent, occasionally witty,” but nothing more. His wife and muse, Patricia Patterson, was the better artist, as a handful of her colorful domestic scenes demonstrates. And “the exhibition is rescued, somewhat” by the work of artists the curator sees as humble, industrious “termites.” Catherine Opie’s catalog-like photographs of Elizabeth Taylor’s belongings are here, as is a Rodney McMillian painting of a lemon against a black void. One odd but welcome addition: Josiah McElheny’s An End to Modernity (2005), a giant, spiky, chandelier-like evocation of the Big Bang.
Farber’s work is sneakier, but a single one of his tablescapes “contains more life than many galleries,” said Jenni Avins in Qz.com. In Domestic Movies, from 1985, the flowers and fruits of a classic still life share space with books, a dead bird, a half-eaten doughnut, and scraps of ribbon-like red film leader. In Passive Is the Ticket, a pad of yellow paper sitting under a roll of tape and a spear of asparagus displays an anxious to-do list: “Do everything at once yoga, writing, f---ing, painting, teaching.” Other Easter eggs abound in an exhibit that “suffers no shortage of special delights.” There’s plenty of ambition in “termite art” as well. “It just concentrates on smaller stuff, as Farber wrote, and will chew through boundaries as it does.” ■