Thursday, August 28, 2008

Look alikes: the artist’s studio

Museums had their great love affair with period rooms between the two world wars. Travel was expensive and museums could show other cultures and times to their audiences without their having to leave home. By the end of last century many of these rooms had been dismantled and the bits and pieces auctioned off. So how odd to see art museums embark on a late-Autumn love affair with the idea. An early entrant was the Renzo Piano version of Brancusi’s studio built on the north-west corner of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Although it is claimed to be “reconstituted down to the last detail,” in truth it is more like a studio-shaped gallery set up to exhibit the works left behind by the sculptor. The comparative pictures tell the story. Francis Bacon’s messy workspace has been painstakingly taken apart and reassembled in Ireland, and MoMA recreated Jackson Pollock’s barn in his last survey show – spooky. Now we have a home-grown example with an attempt to show Arnold Wilson’s studio (we assume circa 1958) in the Auckland Art Gallery. As with many of these constructions it is hard to know what it is you are meant to be thinking, as you lean back in ‘Arnold’s couch’ and peer over at his workbench. We assume the 'studio' is based on a contemporary photograph, but did he really have a full suite of furniture right next to where he worked? If Wilson really had this much space he must have had one of the largest studios of any artist in the 50s. Most contemporary pictures you we've seen of Wilson working shows him surrounded by the usual clutter in a shed-like area rather than a spacious, well-lighted place with white cube walls and a picture window view out to the CBD. Clearly we are not intended to take the studio idea too literally, but if not, why attempt it at all? As you look around it all feels a little thin. Its main problem is also the fundamental problem with the exhibition. There is not enough authentic material to create a convincing context for the idea. In the “studio’s” case it is a lack of clutter and detail; for the exhibition, it’s a lack of art.
Images top to bottom. Brancusi, now and then. Bacon, before and after. Wilson, as it is at the Auckland Art Gallery.