The highlights: ICA exhibit showcases collection
After many decades, Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art went from showing temporary works to building a permanent collection in 2006, shortly before moving to its current waterfront location. Now we’re able to see the fruits of this transition in “First Light: A Decade of Collecting at the ICA,” on view through Jan. 16, 2017. The show is structured as a group of distinct but interrelated exhibits that highlight both new acquisitions and prized pieces from the permanent holdings. The result is a bold, contemplative presentation of what the art world has deemed important in the last decade.
Facing viewers as they enter the space is an expansive Kara Walker mural in her signature silhouette style. Walker is famous for her stark portrayals of the sexual and physical violence inflicted on the slave population. Around the corner, “Nature Morta” by Mona Hatoum portrays a more silent killer. Her sculpture is an Edwardian wooden china cabinet filled with Murano glass figures. At first glance, it appears to be a simple, domestic scene, but on closer inspection the figurines are grenades, a reference to the dangers lurking in what appear to be safe settings.
In the fiber arts room, classics like one of Nick Cave’s soundsuits adorn the gallery. “Inchworm” by Francoise Grossen lies lethargically on the floor. The ICA has been a longtime champion of fiber artworks, and having a room devoted to them further underscores their importance in contemporary art.
Female artists also are thriving in this exhibit, thanks to the Barbara Lee Collection of Art by Women, which was established in 2014. In a particularly striking set of photographs called “ID,” Lorna Simpson looks at the judgments based on her race and gender. One photograph is of the back of her head and shoulders; the other is a close-up of her hair. Both solicit unfair assumptions and treatment, but in different ways. The Lee gallery also includes work by Cindy Sherman, again juxtaposing big names with lesser known artists.
Identity is a recurring theme in the collection, as in the contemporary world. “Ricerche: three,” a video piece by Sharon Hayes, interviews a group of Mount Holyoke students about their identity — sexually, politically, culturally — and examines how words, both public and private, shape that identity.
Collection overviews are a difficult beast. There’s pressure to represent the institution, but also to show the diversity of artists and media. “First Light” accomplishes this with ease. It takes the best and the brightest of the collection and condenses them into bite-sized galleries with specific themes. It appeals to both the veterans of contemporary art who are looking for abstract creations and big names, and the newbies who have yet to identify which medium makes sense to them. Though the artists struggle to find individual identities, here they come together to represent the pulse of contemporary art in Boston.