In the March special section of the New York Times devoted to museums, our nation’s newspaper profiled Dallas Museum of Art Director Bonnie Pitman in a piece entitled, “In Dallas, the Art Is Only Part of the Show.” The article looks at Pitman and her staff at the DMA’s efforts to rethink the museum experience and craft exhibitions that engage multiple audiences. The latest exhibition at the DMA, Coastlines: Images of Land and Sea, is the perfect example of both the effectiveness – and shortcomings – of the DMA’s populist-leaning approach to the museum show. Curated by Heather MacDonald, who also curated the similarly coastally themed The Lens of Impressionism (closes May 23), Coastlines reaches into the DMA’s own collection to pull work that deals with the relation between land and sea in a variety of ways, and accompanies these works with a variety of other media and side projects: computer stations in the galleries with images, video, and text that offer background on creating the exhibition; a Flickr page where DMA visitors can post their own coastal images; title cards that contain poems and other literary excerpts, rather than academic texts; and, most significantly, a site specific series of sound compositions installed in the show’s five galleries.
Judged merely on the work in the show, Coastlines is a reminder of the high quality of the DMA’s permanent collection. The exhibition was dreamed up as a summer project, a lighter affair. Each of the five galleries take on a coastal theme, beginning with work that explores the relationship between earth and sea, and progressing through a series of other themes: the coast as a location for tourism and industry, the bather, abstract representations of the coast and sea, and a magnificent final gallery with some of the exhibit’s finest work, photography by Hiroshi Sugimoto, Gerhard Richter, and Catherine Opie.
Each gallery offers a set of highlights, including Edward Hopper’s Lighthouse Hill, 1927, Frederick Handrik Kaemmerer’s At the Seashore, c. 1890s, William De Kooning’s diptych Clam Digger and Figure at Gerard Beach, 1970, John Marin’s Casco Bay, Maine, 1918, and Paul Signac’s soft and lovely pointillist piece that opens the exhibition, Mont St. Michel (Setting Sun). The bather gallery offers some of the show’s most surprising and captivating pieces. Max Lieberman’s At the Swimming Hole, 1875-78, depicts a group of young boys dressing for swimming in a bath house. The painting possesses a raw and ambiguous sensuality and a palpable sense of adolescent tension – inspiration, it would seem, for many a Morrissey song. Opposite Lieberman’s large work, Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s Bather with a Cigarette, 1924, provides an interesting foil. Plump and round, knees pointed in, the bather holds a cigarette in hand thrusting outwards – those bold eyes directed back towards Lieberman’s painting, as if she is tempting the boys like Fellini’s La Saraghina in 8 1/2.
Photographic work also stands out, perhaps because the beach is a surprisingly odd and awkward setting for human action – men and women standing around half-naked engaged in pure idleness. Dallas photographer Paul Greenberg’s panoramic beach images capture this sense, but perhaps no work gets at it better than Frank Welch’s Sunbather on the Seine, negative 1953, print 1988. Shot from above, a woman in a bikini spreads out across the frame on a mat of newspapers, her left leg bent at the knee. She is both sexed and un-sexed, casually unaware of her body, and yet unthinkingly seductive.
The final gallery is entitled “The Spectacular Landscape,” though the title is a little misleading. We are not dealing with spectacle here, but rather a transfixing beauty possessed in the minimalist images of Opie, Sugimoto, and Richter. If there is a thread the ties these three artists’ work together, it is the powerful silence of each of the images, an ease with which they draw the viewer not merely into the image itself, but into a transcendent tonality. One tension here is that although these are silent, still images, they somehow still manage to convey a sense of the meditative rolling roar of the sea.
Or at least they would if we weren’t listening to a recording of various sea noises and a saccharine piano chord progression that is being played through the gallery. This is the sound installation designed by graduate students and faculty at the Arts and Technology program at the University of Texas at Dallas in collaboration with students from the Université du Sud-Toulon Var in Toulon, France. Each room features an ambient soundscape that floats through the background of the experience of viewing the work, from a low bass rumble that seems to appear from nowhere, swelling into the space, to more melodic piano (the more abstract the artwork, the more explicit the tonal composition, it seems). In addition to these general sound pieces, designed to respond to each gallery’s theme, there are sound compositions designed in reaction to specific works in the show. These pieces are projected onto felt circles in front of the works by special directional speakers.
The effect of the sound installation is that Coastlines does not exist as an exhibition of visual art, but rather as a multi-media experience, one in which the viewer’s reaction to either work – sound or image – is inseparable from the other. In other words, although museums sometimes can feel like sterile petri dishes set up for viewing art objects in an uninterrupted, unobstructed environment, Coastlines moves the museum’s function in the opposite direction. We can not view each of the images in Coastlines as an isolated work of art, each its own complete experience, but rather we have a composite experience comprised of multiple phenomena. Whatever Opie’s intention for the viewer experience of her grey-toned image of tiny surfers clustered together on their boards, floating on the silken surface of the sea, our experience of the image in Coastlines is informed by the cawing seagulls being played through the directional speaker over head. The silence of Opie’s image is unavoidably lost.
Sound, especially environmental sound – bird songs, waves, etc. – possess a mysterious and powerful ability to conjurer specific emotional responses from memory. This is part of the power of Coastlines; sound provokes emotion drawn out of dormant memories. But moving through Coastlines, the sound pushes the viewer to react to the work in a particular way, and it becomes an almost sentimental experience. You could argue that this is how curation works, hanging and organizing a series of artworks to provoke new responses. But juxtaposition is less intrusive than sound. There is no avoiding the sound in Coastlines, which doesn’t mean it leads to an uninteresting exhibition – it doesn’t. It just suggests a low regard for power of visual art – that regular people can’t encounter artwork on its own, but rather they have to be helped towards an emotional response to the work through a sonic nudge. Perhaps we have our first art exhibition where instead of handing out headphones at the entrance, viewers could have the option of choosing earplugs.
Main image: Frank Welch, Sunbather on the Seine, negative 1953, print 1988. Black and white photograph.