No two exhibitions could be so different. Located conveniently in a capacious first-floor gallery, the Van Gogh show is perpetually teeming with locals. Weekday afternoons find corporate blue-suit-and-tie types brushing shoulders with high-heeled, tight-skinned housewives carrying tiny Louis Vuitton purses. On the weekend, the galleries and gift shop are aflutter with the titter of spectators having epiphanies about 19th-century art. Climb three flights of stairs, walk past a gallimaufry of Mayan artifacts and late 20th-century paintings by good but second-tier painters and, hidden away in the far reaches of the Tower Gallery of the DMA, you'll find no one watching Concentrations 50. Any time of day on any day of the week, there are no people there for the far more worthy and relevant videos by the contemporary artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla.
Two characters of the city, two sides of the local art world and two faces of an institution crystallize in one building. There is the safe and conservative side of the DMA given form in Van Gogh's Sheaves of Wheat, the one that lowballs our local culture. This face of the DMA panders by treating that culture's members like so many effete, mindless homemakers of 1957 while perpetuating its fear of intellectual provocation. Then there is the liberal derring-do of the DMA as seen in the two 6-minute videos of Concentrations 50 Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla, an exhibition that pleasantly prods a certain sector of local culture that is open and already malleable. This is the force of the DMA invested in the present, the one that brings cutting-edge art in new media to the city. It represents our city museum and its collection of contemporary art that will one day vie with Los Angeles for national primacy. Ultimately this disparity of location, quality and relevance is about profit. One show makes money and one doesn't.
The problem with Van Gogh's Sheaves of Wheat emerges in the cleft made by what it promises to be and what it actually is. The exhibition advertises itself as a "blockbuster" while not being one. Rather, it is an anemic demonstration of 19th-century and early 20th-century paintings culled under the lackluster theme of "sheaves of wheat." A handful of masterworks surrounded by bad paintings brought together at budget cost do not a blockbuster make. This isn't a show about Van Gogh; this is a lot of bombast about one luscious painting by Van Gogh, "Sheaves of Wheat" (1890), owned by the DMA.
A better version of this exhibition would have brought together only the 13 canvases of which the one owned by the DMA is a part. Van Gogh made the series of paintings in the last months of his life, from June to his death by suicide on July 29, 1890. They register as so many permutations of the artist's last existential stand. Case in point is "Roots and Tree Trunks" (July 1890), another painting from the series, with its twisting, amorphous tendrils in red, dark blue and dun. These paintings show up only in miniature form and as photographic reproductions at the end of the exhibition. They are on the wall right before you exit the gallery to enter the gift shop, where you can buy catalogs and chocolate ears while listening to classical music.
This is not to say there aren't any good paintings in the show, it's just that there are so few...and there are so many bad ones. This array of paintings and drawings represents a preoccupation on the part of 19th-century artists with realist subject matter, the rising transformation of the landscape from rural to urban and concomitant romanticism of the peasant. Think Jean-Francois Millet's "Gleaners" (1855-56), the painting that was hung on every third-grade classroom's wall as a sign of virtue in the form of backbreaking hard work. A more persuasive deployment of the theme would have coupled it with the rise of industrialization in order to show how tillage of wheat by hand would rapidly be subsumed by mechanization. As it stands now, the clarion academic paintings of happy peasants gleaning the fields, such as Julien Dupré's "The Gleaners" (1880) and Daniel Ridgway Knight's "Harvest Scene" (1875), are pedantic and bring to mind Soviet Socialist Realism or art officially sanctioned by the Third Reich. A glorification of long-lost peasant life, they seem almost removed from history rather than embedded within it.
The two videos by Allora and Calzadilla showing in Concentrations 50 are far more relevant to our contemporary moment. Though shot in disparate geographies, off the coast of Puerto Rico and in China, the videos both comment on the creative destruction of global modernization. In "Under Discussion" (2005), the camera trains above and alongside of Diego Zenón driving a boat made from an upside-down conference table jury-rigged with an outboard motor. Zenón circles around the island of Vieques in the table, an ingenious allegory for the topsy-turviness of global corporate and military power. An island six miles off the southeast corner of Puerto Rico appropriated by the U.S. Navy in 1941 for military training and to build a naval base, Vieques is the very real symbol of the folly of American empire. In 2003, the Navy gave ownership and management of the island to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Viewers watch Zenón as he passes along the shore of the island. Perspectives of and from him are cut with aerial shots of craters and metal carcasses of military equipment, so many scars of past American ownership and the military. The video's descriptive and almost sociological nature is tempered by disjunctive narrative, engine sounds and the slap and splash of ocean waves.
"Amphibious (Login-Logout)" (2005) deploys the hum of white noise to greater effect. Viewers hear boat engines throttling, hydraulic lifts for shipping containers clanking and the Pearl River gurgling while following six turtles balanced on a log placidly floating downstream. Though staged by Allora and Calzadilla, the turtles read like an opportune found object, a natural guide in the manmade over-underworld of the Pearl River Delta—the fount of one-third of the world's manufactured commercial goods. It offers a lesson on the art of extreme opposition. Sooty shantytown houseboats abut sooty cargo ships. Residential towers and tumbledown tin-roofed houses stand side by side on the shoreline of the Delta. The sun sets on a shipping container outpost, and the red lights of a rising global superpower flicker forth from the velvety crepuscular backdrop of nightfall.
Do we praise the DMA for offering an array of art forms catering to differing demographies? Or do we scold it for its not-so-subtle hierarchy, the way it privileges and panders by gallery placement and publicity, or lack thereof? Perhaps the fault lies with the public, who like a brood of chickens peck away in a feeding frenzy with a show such as Van Gogh's Sheaves of Wheat. But the duty of the museum is not merely to serve the public but to broaden and challenge it intellectually. There is a difference between education and entertainment. Perversely, the DMA has invented a new form of public communication: edutainment.