Death becomes Adam McEwen at the Aspen Art Museum
If You Go …
What: Adam McEwen, ‘I Think I’m in Love’
Where: Aspen Art Museum
When: Through May, 28
How much: Free
More info: www.aspenartmuseum.org
What: ‘Another Look: Obituaries & Adam McEwen with Bruce Weber’
Where: Aspen Art Museum
When: Friday, Jan. 20, 6 p.m.
How much: Free
More info: Weber, a memoirist and former obituary writer for the New York Times, will discuss the exhibition; www.aspenartmuseum.org
Not all of the art that Adam McEwen has made in his career is about death. But plenty of it is — enough that the Aspen Art Museum has filled its second floor with more than 50 works from the past 12 years in a solo exhibition acutely focused on mortality.
There are airbags, deployed in car accidents and now cast in concrete. There are bones strewn across the floor. A coffin carrier, sculpted from graphite and modeled after one that carried McEwen’s family members to their graves. And there are obituaries for the living, an oversized roach motel, images of tragic accidents and acts of war.
That said, McEwen’s “I Think I’m in Love” — the first solo museum show in the U.S. from the British artist — isn’t a ghoulish affair. It’s filled with off-kilter humor and clever commentary that leaves you laughing, or at least guiltily smirking between your shocked gasps.
“Humor can be like glue that sticks together two different ideas,” McEwen said last week before the show opened. “And it can get people to a place where they don’t expect to be.”
The museum’s largest gallery has been split into two for the show. The first is filled with text-based works: most prominently McEwen’s fictitious obituaries for living figures. Among them are the novelist Bret Easton Ellis, model Kate Moss, actress Nicole Kidman and President Bill Clinton. The only untrue statement in them is that the person has died — the rest is written in the standard obit style that McEwen learned while writing actual obituaries for the London Daily Telegraph.
“They’re about death but they’re not only about death,” McEwen said. “They’re also about, How do you make your life closer to what you want your life to be? You make decisions every day, every second: shall I have a cup of tea? Shall I go to work? Shall I fall in love? Shall I leave this person? You make this narrative, through these choices, and in that respect it’s optimistic.”
McEwen was on the desk at the paper in 1999 when John F. Kennedy Jr. died. Writing that piece under deadline planted the seed that would grow into this body of work.
“I write this thing, the next day it gets printed, it’s technically ‘true’ and it’s ‘history’ and it gets put in archives,” he said, “and that seems absurd. Because, really I knew nothing about JFK Jr. except the clippings.”
Also playing with the idea of truth, McEwen has drawn replicas of actual text messages, sent or forwarded to him from friends. They’re fashioned in the antiquated mid-2000s Nokia font, saying disturbing things like “I want to die” and “Yes everything gone including dignity” and presented without context.
Many pieces in the show play with familiar objects and ideas. There’s a yoga mat sculpture and a stack of airport security bins, both made of graphite. A storefront sign, in the standard “Sorry We’re Closed” style, instead reads “Sorry We’re Dead” and a to-do list that reads:
“1. Get out
2. Leave the money
3. Don’t call.”
“They’re things we know, but they’re abstracted, they’re distorted,” museum director Heidi Zuckerman said last week during a walkthrough of the show. “It’s reflecting back something that we know is not quite right.”
This not-quite-rightness is a fruitful area of inquiry for McEwen, who said he’s not trying to make a particular statement with most of the pieces, but trying to destabilize the viewer enough to stop and think about some things. The airport security bins sculptures, for instance, are banal objects with complex and terrifying implications.
“We don’t even blink at the fact that everyone is assuming that someone wants to kill you,” he said. “We’re just like, ‘Yeah, sure, empty your pockets.’ It’s not a clever observation. But it’s interesting that we’re so participatory in this fear.”
Among the more jarring images in the show is a large format print of a photograph of the bloodied bodies of Benito Mussolini and his lover, Clara Petacci, hanging upside down in Milan following their execution at the end of World War II. The image had been passed around Italy in the days after the war.
McEwen has inverted it, so the couple looks as if they might be flying or dancing or raising their arms on a roller coaster. To certain viewers, however, the infamous photograph is instantly recognizable. McEwen recalled showing it for the first time in Los Angeles and getting passionate responses from Europeans who had lived through the war — some angry, some pleased to see him give it a new life.
“You get used to it, like, ‘Oh yeah, the Mussolini pictures,’” he said. “It gets normalized. I wanted to make it strange again.”
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