According to curator Douglas Fogle, the work of Luisa Lambri and Ernesto Neto is linked by their focus on the "subjective experience of space." While that may be true, it is the vast differences in form and approach between these two artists that defines Forum 57, an exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Art.
Lambri"s soft and subtle photographs are luxuriously spaced across the gallery walls. In these works she records dense, mysterious clouds of light permeating modernist architecture. Most arresting is the "Untitled (Barragán House)" series, where each photograph is focused intently on window shutters in various states of revealing and concealing a glowing exterior view. In these and other images reverently arranged here, Lambri"s expression is measured, sensible, familiar.
How, then, to process Neto"s "Okitimanaia Ogu"? The sprawling sculpture hovers expectantly overhead, an amorphous skin of nylon with interwoven hollow ducts that sporadically sag with the weight of heaps of clove, turmeric and annatto. It resembles a giant, sterilized pig skin stretched to air-dry, its distended, aromatic teets drooping toward the ground.
The specter of Neto"s strange construction looms like the harbinger of chaos over an otherwise tidily composed gallery space. And where Lambri"s work is inarguably approachable, the most accessible element of Neto"s sculpture is the least tangible: its sweet, complex smell.
Incorporating smell is an unusually invasive approach to making art; we rarely expect a sculpture to enter our bodies in such a physical way. The presence of "Okitimanaia Ogu" is so visceral, unorthodox and immediate that Lambri"s work feels miles away, occupying another universe and communicating with its own vocabulary.
Fogle"s exhibition statement draws parallels between these two artists" conceptual interests, namely the intersection of rational space and the world of dreams. The statement provides some helpful context for interpreting these samples of much larger bodies of work.
But in bringing these two artists in such close proximity, Forum 57 asks first and foremost a very intriguing question: Can an art audience find meaning at both ends of such a vast aesthetic spectrum?
Lambri"s photographs suggest a pattern of viewing and absorbing that we all enter into, almost unconsciously: drift from wall to wall, image to image, and inspect the contents of the frame. We know where the Art is here. Neto, meanwhile, doesn"t just push these established conventions; he ignores most of them entirely. His sculpture hangs from the ceiling, but it"s not a mobile. It looks like a model of a cosmic wormhole, constructed out of pantyhose. It smells good and it looks vaguely grotesque. Something about it is really funny. It begs for free association, and offers little means of orienting the viewer. Where Lambri"s photographs might inspire the question, "What do these mean?," Neto"s sculpture will most likely inspire the contemporary revision of this question: "What the hell is this, and why is it Art?" It"s a great question, but unfortunately, one that most visitors will unconsciously defer to the authority of the museum rather than tackling it themselves.
There is beauty and confusion in this stylistic contrast. Visitors to the gallery space will inevitably consolidate their attention on either Lambri or Neto, and probably not both; there is simply no easy transition. In the greater context of objects and images made in the name of Art, neither artist is quite as polemical as he or she appears here; Lambri"s work is not quite so conservative, and Neto"s sculptures aren"t quite so bizarre. Maybe this was Forum 57"s point all along: to prove to us that the museum space, the gallery space, is as subjective as any other.
Forum 57: Luisa Lambri and Ernesto Neto continues through Nov. 12. Carnegie Museum of Art, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. 412-622-3131