The ICA: Exhibitionists?

By Rachel Levitt Slade | Boston Magazine |

WALKING INSIDE THE MUSEUM for the first time, through its monumental glass doors and into the foyer, the first thing I lost sight of was the water — blocked by, of all things, the gift shop. What those priorities would eventually mean for the shows, at the time I could only guess.

Fast-forward to 2010: One of the ICA’s most recent exhibits featured Dr. Lakra, a Oaxacan tattoo artist who draws tatt-like imagery onto pictures of vintage pinup girls, baby dolls, and other found objects. Vanity Fair called it “easy-to-love schtick,” and that’s where the intellectual exercise pretty much ended, unless you swallow the museum’s promotional statement that the work “challenges social norms by blurring cultural identities.” Sure. If you’ve never wandered over to the sidewalks in front of Berklee College of Music and dodged the dozens of smokers with (real) tattoos challenging social norms every day.

Compare Dr. Lakra with the Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal. In his performance, …and Counting, at the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts in New York last March, Bilal addressed the invisibility of Iraqi civilian deaths during the war by tattooing his back with a map of Iraq that marked the war’s casualties — 5,000 dead American soldiers signified by red dots in permanent ink, and 100,000 Iraqi deaths by dots of green UV ink. During the performance, people read the names of the dead. The work haunted long after it was over.

The Dr. Lakra exhibit was a shadow of Bilal’s. Its big takeaway concept? How cool and attractive graphics can be. And how buyable: Many of them were found on ICA-branded merchandise (from postcards to T-shirts) hawked to the crowds walking through that entryway gift shop.

More examples of flaccid art at the museum? Consider its biennial Foster Prize for local artists. One of 2010’s finalists, Rebecca Meyers, presented three short films that interwove various nature scenes such as whales, the moon, snow, and glaciers. Either the judges admired her courage (Isn’t it brave that someone born into the digital age is using film?), or they were pleased to catch an echo of Stan Brakhage, who presented the concept in a better light a few decades ago. Another finalist, Evelyn Rydz, is a decent illustrator who drew objects washed up on the beach to no particular effect. All in all, it’s occasionally clever and sometimes competent stuff, which leaves exactly no one’s mind blown.

And then there was the much-talked-about Shepard Fairey exhibit in 2009; the centerpiece was his “Hope” poster, which became iconic during President Obama’s campaign. The Fairey exhibit certainly got people through the door, but it didn’t give them much to think about once they were there. Like Dr. Lakra’s show, it was largely about graphics. Actually, Fairey’s work is controversial, but for reasons that have nothing to do with the art. Fairey is known for “borrowing” imagery liberally without compensating the original artist (as happened with said Obama “Hope” poster), but having zero tolerance when other artists incorporate his work into theirs. With Fairey, then, the debate isn’t really about art. It’s about money — who gets it and who doesn’t.

  • Blaxidermy

    Waah waah waaah

  • rob

    I actually agree about the Fairey and Dr. Lakra shows, but this reads like a screed by a frustrated architect. It really took you 15 minutes to figure out how to get inside the building? And you’re admitting that? In print?

  • Kenneth

    How dare Boston Magazine, a Boston institution, attack the ICA, another Boston institution. Not nice! Don’t they know that artists are sensitive, well-meaning people, whose feelings are easily hurt?

  • Jon

    For someone who has to “negotiate” a cross walk, I’m not surprised she had difficulty with finding the entrance.

  • Jon

    Glass doors can be confusing. So can the glass elevator. I thought people were flying.

  • Chico

    I knew there was something that bothered me about that place since the hyped Fairey exhib. They just seem to show trite stuff at the ICA.

  • Alexander

    I would have to agree with the author. The first time I went to the ICA I could not find the door to get in. What? Boston gets a building with a ton of wasted volume for what? All of you who know nothing about architecture consider it beautiful to look at simply because it is so “different” than all the other buildings in the city. ICA needs some major changes.

  • A

    It’s too bad that this author defeats some of her legitimate points about the low-quality of the Fairey exhibitions by reeling off a litany of clichés about contemporary art. The YBAs aren’t causing a ruckus anymore and when they were it was all manufactured. That’s hack writing, which was confirmed by the summation that “that’s the job of contemporary art: to piss us off” If that’s truly the author’s feeling she’s out of touch.

  • Carolyn

    I agree the ICA has had its eyes too closely on the $$ for some time now — anyone remember the awful “Design Life Now” from 2008? But still, it’s an institution. You have to play your cards right to be an artist that gets to be famous enough to be in the ICA — it’s not always bad, but it can also make things less avant garde. If you want to find something really out there, visit open studios or go to emerging shows.

  • Carolyn

    I think you’re right about the front door. I could find it, but every time I go I think about how fugly the entrance is. I actually think the building is really beautiful, but that parking lot needs some HELP. Even just a walkway to the front door would be a good first step (and it sounds silly, but repave the parking lot!)

  • Barbara

    Last month the ICA was being criticized for showing work that had been banned from the National Portrait Gallery; now the author says the ICA’s art is too safe. OK, I agree that the building has issues and Fairey is lame, but the ICA has succeeded in pulling a diverse public into an art museum, and if critics are arguing about the art inside, I think that means they’re doing something right.

  • Dave

    Three years after it opened, the ICA still seems like the little jewel box on the sea in the middle of nowhere. My friends and I agree that its location is its most alienating aspect. I’ll agree that it has yet to find a curatorial voice among the other Boston museums and in the larger pool of similar institutions. Fairey was a low point for some, but it got people in the building and it was a decent retrospective because the visuals were nice. (I admit that my respect for Fairey’s art went up only after I saw EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP long after the ICA show closed.) The sleep-inducing Foster Prize is also an easy target, as is their lackluster permanent collection. On the other hand Tara Donovan, Damien Ortega, Charles LeDray and the recently-closed Mark Bradford were each stellar shows.

    I know that there are a lot of people working very hard over there, particularly in programming and education. If the ICA’s exhibits have failed to be as provocative or inspiring as some would like, maybe a shakeup in leadership is in order.

  • Stephen

    I particularly liked “Adding to the challenge, to get true art benefactors you need a thriving art scene, which Boston notoriously lacks. In spite of our excellent art colleges, the city’s comparative dearth of galleries, museums, and community support tends to send working artists packing.”
    Having lived near Hartford for years, I know what an art-deprived area is. Boston is not such an area.

  • Jen

    The ICA is definitely cool.

  • John

    Yes, Boston needs its art booty shaken up. But I wonder if Ms. Levitt Slade has seen all of the ICA’s exhibitions in the last several years. I would hesitate to call the new ICA’s exhibition program as merely safe. There have been more provocative shows such as Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s brilliant suite of large-scale photographs of “dancers” posing on stripper poles with all their goodies showing. The words “contemporary” and “provocative” do not have to only mean offensive to middle America or loud or aggressive. Contemporary art can rage quietly and poetically in such artists as the lovely Tara Donovan and the shiny yet seductive sheen Anish Kapoor, both intelligently edited and installed by team ICA in recent years.