Mixed Media: Illumination at the Parrish Art Museum

Parrish Art Museum.
Parrish Art Museum. Photo credit: Gary Mamay

The first wintry-mix Saturday of the new year provided the perfect opportunity for a visit to the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill to see the newly reconfigured permanent collection. As the title suggests, The Permanent Collection: Art. Illuminated sheds light on the way in which artworks interact—juxtaposing new acquisitions with artworks that a frequent visitor to the museum may be familiar with. The museum’s reinstallation happens annually—but this year, marking the second anniversary of the new building, it’s been thematically arranged in nine mini-exhibitions.

Before entering the subsequent galleries of the exhibition, there in the main foyer—a giant area flanked by windows facing a field leading out to Montauk Highway to the South and the back parking area to the North—are John Torreano’s “Ghost Gems,” 1989. Made of birch plywood, painted with gesso and sanded acrylic enamel, the ghostly white sculptures are scattered as though they fell from the sky—gem-shaped meteorites covered in moon dust.

The reinstallation begins in The Harriet & Esteban Vicente Gallery with an eye-catching explosion of metalwork and clear neon-green tubes. Dennis Oppenheim’s “Splash Building,” 2009, is a large-scale sculpture with a teardrop-like shape inside of a ring of steel expanding upward—topped with various globes. Oppenheim’s Splashes explore the dynamics of simple phenomena, like a water drop, within a visual language.

To the right of “Splash Building” is a Keith Sonnier neon titled “Saw Tooth Blatt,” 2004. Sonnier’s work can be viewed as drawing with neon, the wall itself being the background, and particularly in this work—where expansive, outstretched lines take on constellation-like forms. It can also be seen as a visual language for the transmission of energy—between the artist and the viewer, via the artwork. Sonnier’s inclusion and intentional reveal of the transformer and wiring is much like the Abstract Expressionist “drip”—there is nothing to hide. It also speaks to Sonnier’s interest in technology and the importance of the transformer within the artwork.   

In the same gallery, Ellsworth Kelly’s “White Curve,” 2010 offers a moment of contemplative silence and stillness—the pure glossy white abstraction fuses rounded lines with sharp, pointy intersections.

Proceeding to the left of the Kelly is Dan Christensen’s “Oreo,” 1990—a blurry pupil-like image on a gritty surface. Emerging from what almost appears black are cyan, magenta and yellow. Taking the gritty surface to the next level is Donald Sultan’s “Polish Landscape II, Jan. 5, 1990 (Auschwitz),” 1990—another artwork previously on view in the Museum’s permanent collection but now in a new place. Made from latex tar on tile and mounted on four Masonite panels, Sultan’s work is impressive and captures darkness and suffering in a way no words can express.

A wall text introducing the exhibition reads, “Works of art do not exist in isolation,” and continues to explain how they take on a new meaning when in a new context—such as a group show, where they can converse. The juxtaposition of Ross Bleckner’s “Architecture of the Sky,” 1990, and Robert Gober’s “Untitled,” 2012, is an interesting one. Both works are shades of whites and greys, but Bleckner’s oil on canvas is expansive, breathing and it’s like looking up into a celestial cathedral cupola while Gober’s sculpted sink—complete with a woven vine and wax with human hair backsplash—draws the viewer inward and downward towards a little drain hole.

The exhibition continues into several galleries. Land, Sea, Air is an exquisite mini-exhibition right there in the hallway—including works on paper by Michelle Stuart, Norman Jaffe, Ellen Phelan, and a noteworthy April Gornik charcoal, “Tidewater,” 1996—among others. “Painting Horizons,” “William Merritt Chase: The Shinnecock Years,” “Face Value,” “Material World,” “Still Life in the Studio” and “Esteban Vincente and Collage” provide visitors to the Museum with an abundance of important artworks arranged in such a way as to encourage dialogue. Each mini-exhibition has a lot to offer and requires more than one visit. Fortunately, The Permanent Collection: Art. Illuminated will be on view through November.

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