Gabriel Kuri looks back on ‘contractual thingness’ in Aspen Art Museum show

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Marcel Broodthaers' 'Decor: A Conquest" was originally shown in London in 1975. It has been recreated, with the help of the artist's widow, in the Aspen Art Museum.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: Gabriel Kuri and Marcel Broodthaers exhibitions

Where: Aspen Art Museum

When: Opening reception Dec. 19, 6 p.m.; Kuri remains on view through March 15; Broodthaers through March 1

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A residency program will usually give an artist time and space, away from their familiar day-to-day life, to practice and to create work. When the Aspen Art Museum invited the Mexican-born, Los Angeles-based artist Gabriel Kuri to be its first resident artist in a new program, however, he wanted time and space in the museum, and not to make new art, but to reflect on past work.

The result is a survey of Kuri’s artwork from the past decade, titled “with personal thanks to their contractual thingness,” opening today in the museum. It fills two galleries and includes 49 works — among them are sculpture, collage, photography and installation. Kuri and the staff at the museum also are putting together a book on Kuri’s career while he is in town as the inaugural Gabriela and Ramiro Garza Distinguished Artist in Residency.

“I like learning from the work I’ve done,” Kuri said this week as he helped finish installing the show. “It really challenges me when it’s all together. The last four or five years, I’ve just been working nonstop and producing a lot of stuff. … I don’t get too much time to take a pause and really assess what’s going on. It’s really only in shows like this that I get that opportunity.”

The museum and Director Heidi Zuckerman take what she calls an “open-ended” approach to working with artists. They left it up to Kuri what he wanted to do with his time here.

“He said, ‘I’d like to learn about my work. Learn what you see in it,’” Zuckerman explained.

So Zuckerman looked over all he’d done, with a curatorial eye. In recent years, Kuri has had solo shows at the ICA Boston and the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston, along with international exhibitions. His work, she found, touched often on transactions, exploring themes of money and human relationships.

“Some of them are economic transactions, some are about emotional or romantic transactions,” she explained.

She pulled together the show by borrowing Kuri’s works from collections around the world — pieces have come to Aspen from as far as Beirut and Tokyo. The most literally transaction-themed pieces are Kuri’s massive tapestries, called Gobelins, for which he used a traditional Guadalajaran weaving method to make replicas of paper receipts from around the world.

“I like my practice to be open and incorporate anything that happens to me,” Kuri explained. “So the idea of a transaction somehow references a lot of the work that I do. It’s a good starting point.”

Kuri’s sculptures include large matchsticks leaned against the gallery wall, paper-towel dispensers and various trash can-like pieces, and cylindrical forms that subvert expectations about trash cans and waste. There’s a large rock attached to a wall, pinning a plastic bag, and a large rock on the gallery floor beside a man-made cement parking barricade that looks strikingly similar.

His two-dimensional work includes collages of Life magazine advertisements, and a photo of gum stuck to a tree juxtaposed across from newspapers covered in stickers from store-bought bananas.

“What I was initially drawn to in Gabriel’s work is that initially it looks familiar, but when you look up close, there’s something more there,” Zuckerman said. “The longer you look the more you see.”

For example, a piece mounted on the wall appears to show two slabs meeting one another, but when viewed up close, one finds the two parts are squeezing a single peso bill. The show, in that regard, plays well with Lutz Bacher’s “How Will I Find You,” on display one floor up. That installation features a pile of discarded plaster molds that, upon close inspection, also offers many hidden visual surprises.

As installation neared completion on “with personal thanks …” Wednesday, Kuri’s survey was shaping up to be a busy, brain-scrambling show.

‘Décor: A Conquest’

Anyone who’s been through a traditional roadside museum or visited a historically preserved house will be familiar, at first glance, with Marcel Broodthaers’ “Décor: A Conquest,” which opens downstairs at the museum this weekend.

Broodthaers’ installation presents two period rooms — “XIXth Century” and “XXth Century” — that jarringly displays the era’s domestic styles and tools of combat. The 20th century room juxtaposes patio furniture with automatic rifles. The 19th century room, plant-life and a snake with period-appropriate furniture and canons.

The groundbreaking exhibition was the first show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London in 1975, and also Broodthaers last before his death the following year.

It’s been replicated at the Aspen Art Museum with assistance from the artist’s widow, Maria Gilissen, who sketched the layout and configured the show during a visit to the downtown museum.

Zuckerman said this show from 40 years ago, alongside new work by artists like Kuri, can help give visitors to the still-new museum perspective on the progression of contemporary art.

“I saw it in London 18 months ago and I was just struck by how contemporary it feels,” Zuckerman said of the Broodthaers installation. “Now that we have more space and can broaden our program, I think it’s important to see Gabriel’s work, and see that juxtaposed with Marcel Broodthaers, which can provide new ways of thinking about new work. .. Probably Gabriel couldn’t have happened without Broodthaers.”