The Virginia Museum's "Vanitas" exhibition contemplates mortality. 

Life and Loss

Congratulations to John Ravenal, the Virginia Musuem of Fine Arts's new curator of art after 1900, on a beautiful and haunting investigation of life and loss. His inaugural exhibition "Vanitas: Meditations on Life and Death in Contemporary Art" is a lovingly pieced modern-day sampler of an ancient brow-furrowing concern: that of our own mortality.

Ravenal has sought out international artists with international reputations to give his viewers a full picture of the theme. Their interpretations range in subject from the decay of the flesh to the decline of civilizations. Two identical clocks, parenthetically titled "Perfect Lovers" by Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Seth Thomas tick away at the gallery entrance. They mark, in absolute covenant, the amount of time that has been spent from our own lives as we contemplate the objects within. Our own personal vanitas is insinuated into the exhibition through these two-headed (like Cereberus?) observers. We will leave the museum as donors of our moments there.

The exhibit is divided into two gallery spaces. Taking the large door to the left, one witnesses culture — in its manifestations of architecture, science and commodity — decreasing, rusting, slipping into a void. Take the right-hand entrance and it is the visceral that succumbs irrevocably to the worms. But, don't make the mistake of avoiding those two gates, for, in spite of the dark assurances lingering within, there is much beauty and disquiet, the two impulses we all rejected our comfy cradles to satisfy.

Among the most beautiful and imposing works is Leonard Drew's "Untitled No. 49." A monumental work that looms overhead like an urban landscape of vacant high rise tenements, it suggests a lost civilization. Each compartment is a rust encrusted, discarded shell. Some reveal remnants of their former dweller, some are without trace. Some swell out like overpacked hoppers, or like tumors.

Rachel Whitehead's "Untitled (Yellow Bath)" is another visual gem. Golden and translucent like a huge piece of amber, it gently divulges its ghost fossil as one peers inside: the exterior form of an old claw foot tub. Cleanliness being next to godliness, according to old reports, this piece is perhaps the afterlife of a thousand personal efforts toward that mutual end.

By all accounts, Yukinori Yanagi's clever "One Dollar Ant Farm Project" is the hit of the show. It is that rare sort of art that, although conceptually sophisticated, uses humor and mundane metaphor to get its point across to everyone. It is a pirate's picnic, a wholly innocent drama being lived out before our all-knowing eyes, and the devaluation of something we have already lost respect for, so the threat seems mitigated. Athough, a glance behind, as one stands engrossed by the ant activity, at Jac Leirner's "Blue Phase" might cause second thoughts. (I noted upon my last visit that all the ants had pretty much set up operations in the far right of the ant farm — let's hope they're not getting into the metaphor business, too.)

In the other gallery, "Black Kites" by Gabriel Orozco, "Entrails Carpet" by Mona Hatoum, and "2 x (060 x 190)" by Miroslaw Balka cause us to contemplate our own tissue as a medium for existential ideas. Orozco's piece is a simple turn on an old act — the contemplation of the human skull. This one, wrapped round by a chess board design, suggests the thinking mind that it once housed, and marks its activity with a harlequin pattern. It is a graphic depiction of the order, strategy and artifice that the former resident would have affected in the act of his life. All is quiet now on the old playing fields of this single example of us.

"Vanitas: Meditations on Life and Death in Contemporary Art" is a shell game. However, in this game there is a prize under almost every possibility. Thanks to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for making a spot for this excellent and intelligent show. It's great to see contemporary art honored in the galleries

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