The Many Angles and Perspectives of “Multiplicity” at the American Art Museum | At the Smithsonian | Smithsonian

The Many Angles and Perspectives of “Multiplicity” at the American Art Museum

A new exhibition of contemporary art explores the concept of multiples in a variety of ways

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D Train, by Richard Estes. Photo courtesy of the American Art Museum.

“I’ve always wanted to curate an exhibit with a simple, one word title,” says curator Joann Moser of the American Art Museum. “And when I as looking at the works we wanted to use for this show, I realized they all had one thing in common: the idea of multiplicity.”

“Multiplicity,” the museum’s new exhibition of contemporary art selected from its permanent collection, explores the titular concept from a variety of angles: collaborative efforts between artists and printmakers, series of related images, repeated design motifs, and works contrasting depictions of similar subjects. The 83 artworks filling the expansive gallery challenge the viewer by presenting multiple angles, perspectives or meanings.

Many of the pieces were conceived of by artists and then executed in tandem with printmakers. “This interaction alters the stereotype of the artist working alone in the studio,” Moser says. “It celebrates the power of collaboration.”

One of the 43 panels in R. Luke DuBois’ "Hindsight is Always 20/20" series. Photo courtesy American Art Museum.

Some works take the concept of collaboration to a whole new level, using software programs as a partner in generating art. R. Luke DuBois’ Hindsight is Always 20/20 is a jarring series of historically charged words—”emancipation” and “slavery” are bolded at the top of the two panels on display—laid out in the seemingly neutral form of an eye chart. “For each president, he took their State of the Union addresses and with a computer program, generated a list of the most commonly used words,” Moser says. “So what you have in these is a sort of capsule of what that presidency is all about.”

Many other pieces also hint at political relevance, often using contrasting images to comment on social issues. Enrique Chagoya’s Illegal Alien’s Guide to the Concept of Relative Surplus Value is an intricate, multi-paneled collage of characters and speech bubbles that obliquely relate to the identification of someone as “illegal.”

“He does it in the form of a codex, which is a traditional Mexican form of expression,” Moser says. “It’s not a story, but it has the feeling of a narrative.”

The many large-scale prints on display evoke multiplicity by creating multiple worlds within the same enormous visual space. D Train, by Richard Estes, is a nearly 7-foot-wide panorama of New York City divided sharply into two halves: an excessively bright day outside, and a richly glistening florescent subway car inside. A viewer can easily lose oneself in either side, depending on the position taken while standing in front of it.

One of the final works seen by visitors, at the back of the gallery, ironically conjures multiplicity by illustrating a once-abundant animal species that has now gone extinct. “The subject of this work refers to how passenger pigeons were killed to extinction in the 19th century,” Moser says, describing Visitation, by Walton Ford. In the painting, thousands of pigeons are packed to the horizon, fighting over the last scraps of food available. The painting is a striking convergence of art and science. (The actual body of the last surviving passenger pigeon is now in the collection of the Natural History Museum.)

The museum plans a full slate of public programs to complement the exhibition, including gallery talks and printmaking demonstrations as listed on the exhibition website. A full slideshow of the exhibition’s works is also available online, including complete images of the series that were too large to be displayed in their entirety in the gallery.

“Multiplicity” is on view at the American Art Museum through March 11, 2012.

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