Art Review: Art Museum's 'In Good Company' tests the memory

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11255107451964.jpg’, ‘Photo by Susan Webb Tregay’, ‘“In Good Company": Selections from the JPMorgan Chase Art Collection” will be on display until Oct. 16 at Rockford Art Museum, 711 N. Main St., Rockford. Pictured above is Maya Ying Lin’s edgy, broken-glass filled funnel. Lin was also the creator of the Vietnam Memorial.’);

Our Rockford Art Museum now hosts the exhibition “In Good Company,” a challenging journey through the obscure pages of your art history books. Familiar names—and some that just ring a bell in the back of your mind—test your memory in interesting ways.

I can’t pick the most interesting piece in the show; it’s impossible. But the little Etruscan helmet from 6th century B.C.E. has a remarkably contemporary look. Tiny eyes are pierced into it, an abstract nose is cut and lifted from the helmet, and above these are decorative, embossed eyebrows. The green patina on this bronze helmet is deeply etched and textured. Then there are appendages, meant to hold feathers and things, that remind us of the Teletubbies. It is a thoroughly contemporary piece made for war 8,000 years ago.

Postmodern ideas such as “Computer Virus, 1994,” a case of five floppy disks, depend on humor and irony to fulfill their artistic expression. It is hung at eye level, so you might become the next computer worm. Next to this piece is an alluring digital print. A fog-shrouded field in misty, cool colors carries a legend at the bottom of the print. It reads “114 Homes for Sale, Dallas/Ft. Worth.” Irony in the new millennium.

Many of these pieces are early works or drawings by now-famous artists. There is an impressionistic landscape by Piet Mondiran painted in 1905. The catalog sees the beginnings of his geometric break-through paintings in “the relationship between the horizontal and the vertical” of this work. I see an artist in love with a triangular black roof. Against a stark white sky, this roof dominates the exact center of the painting. Did he come to hate painting boring roofs? Did he create “Broadway Boogie Woogie” many years later to become the master of his small universes? As an artist, my styles change and grow. I am fascinated to see Mondiran dealing with these same questions and insecurities.

Jasper Johns, my all-time favorite artist, is represented in the collection by the lithograph and collage “NO.” The paper is covered with a dense gray scribble. Then a string is painted onto the work. This string begins as trompe-l’oeil realism that fools the eye with its shadow and a collaged anchor “holding” the string in place. At its end, though, the string turns into the real thing suspending the cut-out word “NO.” Johns then returns to a painted shadow of the word. His job is to make us study the painting and think, and his goal has been accomplished.

Ansel Adams’ iconic photograph, “Moonrise, Hernandez, NM” takes your breath away. Having seen reproductions of it everywhere, I was unprepared to see it full-sized in Adams’ crisp darkroom technique. The beauty of this exhibition is that there are no ropes or alarms to keep you from getting nose-to-nose with the tiny crosses in the Hernandez cemetery. Gawking is encouraged.

The simple tear-shaped drawing by Agnes Martin is comforting and peaceful. Created with her signature, closely-spaced pencil lines, this tiny drawing is both familiar and totally unlike any Agnes Martin you may have seen.

Other artists are not so recognizable. You need to read every label—and perhaps look up some names—to get the most out of this show. Sculptor Louise Bourgeois, a flamboyant woman whom we all want to be just like when we grow old, is represented by a pen and ink drawing. Maya Ying Lin, the creator of the Vietnam Memorial and the woman we wish we were when we were young, has an edgy, broken-glass filled funnel hanging out from the wall. Most surprising is the Josef Albers watercolor. A still life of crocuses on a table is painted on a wonderful cock-eyed piece of paper that would have turned his stomach in his later years of precisely colored squares.

I could go on and on, but you must see this show—and finish this article—for yourself. It continues until Oct. 16 at Rockford Art Museum, 711 N. Main St., Rockford, 815-968-2787. Admission is $3, free for children and students. It’s free for everyone on Thursdays.

Susan Webb Tregay’s paintings can be seen in the window of the Rockford Art Museum Shop.

From the Aug. 31-Sept. 6, 2005, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!