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Alluding to a Human Presence

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Foraging in PMA storage. Photo: I. Schaffner

There’s no point in pretending there isn’t a flurry of excitement here at ICA when a critic from The New York Times comes around. Then of course, you have to hope they write a good review. And then you have to hope people read it.

There’s no point pretending, either, that one intention of this blog post isn’t to tell you that ICA’s exhibition Set Pieces, guest curated by Virgil Marti from the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), got a good review in the Times on Christmas Eve. Karen Rosenberg called the show “as irreverent as it is resourceful.” If you missed it, don’t worry; you can read it here.

_Set Piecesrestages objects from the PMA’s storage, often in little scenelets inspired by Virgil’s favorite films. Like the review, the catalogue too arrived shortly before Christmas, and it looks sensational: the size of a book of poetry, suffused with the bright orange and purple hues of the exhibition walls, with fold-out covers and Aaron Igler’s fabulous installation photography. ICA is a non-collecting museum, so we take our catalogues very seriously: they are our collection; they are what abides. ICA catalogues are published some time after the shows open, because it’s important to us that they document not just the art in the exhibitions but the exhibitions themselves: their arrangement, look, and mood. In addition to photographs and curatorial and critical essays, this one also has quotations from Joe Rishel, a senior curator at the PMA, who was Virgil’s main liaison there. Erudite, charming, witty, these quotations buzz through the pages like a wry wasp: “These objects were all sitting on the shelf in storage like that kids’ game called ‘dinner party.’ Who would you invite, if you had eight people to dinner, who would you put at the table and where?…I’d love to be at a dinner party with St. John the Baptist, Claes Oldenburg, and Aesop.” Those names refer to three sculptures grouped in a vitrine in the show as they were on a shelf in storage. A lucky accident, seen by an artist (Virgil) as an interestingly complicated conjunction, and presented to you, the viewer, to enjoy and consider. “Cinematic,” Rosenburg of the Times says.
Miranda: Joe_Virgil_Ingrid

Joe Rishel, Virgil, and Ingrid Schaffner. Photo: J. Katz

Virgil, who was brought up in St. Louis and moved to Philadelphia for art school in 1988, was in his first ICA show, You Talkin’ To Me? in 1996. “To have a show at the ICA made me feel like I was being taken seriously,” he told me. A Ramp project, Virgil Marti: Flowers of Romance, followed in 2003. Trained as painter but interested in printmaking, installations, and décor, Virgil is known for his exuberant, unlikely wallpapers and his colorful deer-antler chandeliers. Of the making of Set Pieces, he said, “I approached it much the way I would approach making work in the studio,” thinking of the juxtaposition of materials and the formal decisions to be made. But also, half-joking: “At least I didn’t have to make the work!”

Actually Virgil did make a little of the work in the show: the white furry poufs from which marble heads poke up in the exhibition’s final room in homage to a scene in Antonioni’s film L’Avventura.

The Set Pieces catalogue contains a great interview between Virgil and the art historian Richard Meyer, in which Meyer draws Virgil out about the artist-as-curator, about finding beauty in unwanted objects (“that unschooled way of seeing something as beautiful again,” Virgil says), about fakes and vitrines, and the humanizing quality of dust, and the way artists get attached to the museums in the cities they live in. Virgil is eloquent on the power of the decorative arts:

“I just don’t subscribe to the standard hierarchy of ‘fine’ art being necessarily more important than ‘decorative’ arts. One thing about furniture is that it’s made for people to use. A chair alludes to a human presence even if nobody’s sitting on it. One of my favorite paintings…is a painting that Van Gogh did of Gaugin’s chair, just an empty chair. I find it incredibly moving.”

There is an air of quiet expectation in the galleries of Set Pieces, as though you could catch the objects moving if you turned your head quickly enough. But really the only thing that moves is us: our bodies as we sidle around a great Renaissance bench and detour to explore the shadows of small metal animals thrown up dramatically against one wall, and our minds as we make odd elliptical connections between the objects Virgil has brought together. Maybe they’re the same connections he made, and maybe they’re our own. Either way is good.

Set Pieces was made possible by support from the Katherine Stein Sachs CW’69 and Keith L. Sachs W’67 Guest Curator Program.

Set Pieces, curated by Virgil Marti from the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is on view at ICA through February 13.

On Wednesday, January 19, 6:30 PM, the next of the Set Pieces screenings, Citizen Kane (dir. Orson Welles, 1941, 119 minutes), will be presented at International House .