Last night I went to the Morbid Curiosity exhibit at the Cultural Center. The exhibit is a showcase of pieces collected over the years by Richard Harris, who collects are on the theme of death and the insubstantiality of life. The exhibit consists of two rooms: the Kunstkammer (Curio Cabinet) of Death, which is basically a room jammed with stuff, and the War Room, where the works explore the relationship between violence and mortality.
I've been excited to go for a while, and there were some really great pieces -- the Dance of Death figurines were outstanding, and the chandelier made from fake plaster bones was pretty compelling. The Dia De Los Muertos portion had some fantastic skulls and there were quite a few masks and oversculpted skulls, which are my area of expertise, so I always like encountering new examples.
I felt it was rather poorly curated, though. The Kunstkammer is a concept borne out of rich people who just bought stuff they thought was interesting or educational and threw together any old way; while this show did nominally divide the artefacts and art into sections by culture, it kept true to the Kunstkammer aesthetic without really understanding how a museum show works.
One whole wall of the room was given over to paintings, starting at eye level and extending up to the ceiling, fifteen or twenty feet, so it was impossible to placard them. Instead you had to grab a tabloid-sized laminate sheet of paper and check it for information on any painting that caught your eye, which I could deal with better if the paintings hadn't been so badly placed. You put the big epic easy-to-see ones at the top and the detailed ones at the bottom, so people can see them. There were some lovely oil paintings that were totally ruined by the fact that you couldn't get closer to them than fifteen feet. The one really compelling piece by Jasper Johns (similar to this one) was halfway up the wall, which was a damn shame.
In addition, there was a long table directly in front of the wall and blocking partial access. It was covered in death heads, skulls, and sculptures of death, which would have been awesome except again, they weren't placarded, so you had to grab another lamiate sheet and squint at it to find the one you were looking for. It was pretty much a mess, and I don't think it did the better pieces any good service. The whole thing was an exercise in mild frustration.
The War Room was better arranged, but most of the works were somewhat soulless pop art; there were engravings and photo serieses on the walls, some of which were really interesting -- some of the prints of bones laid out in shapes were especially nice, wish I could remember the artist -- but most of which sort of overwhelmed with their sheer number, and many I'd already seen in a recent Art Institute exhibit. White Collar fans, you remember the pop art episode where Peter and Neal argued about whether a giant heap of clothing was art? There was an actual heap of clothing at one end of the space. It was very hard not to laugh.
Essentially the Kunstkammer was interesting but badly done; the War Room was well done but not very interesting.
So it was a good time, but it could have been a lot better, which is sadly what I've come to expect of exhibits at the Cultural Center. I can't be too hard on them; the thing was free, and the Cultural Center has never really known what to do with itself as a space, though it's beautiful architecturlaly and I personally think it would make a marvelous museum if one could take it in hand the right way. But it doesn't have the money or the security to attract really top-level exhibits, and even if it did, it's competing with the Art Institute a block away. The placard in the War Room talks about Harris buying Picassos and Renoirs, and I have to admit I was really hoping for a Picasso skull, but of course the more well-known artists weren't in evidence. Half the time neither were the security guards, which is why I was able to snap as many photos as I did.
If you're in downtown Chicago between now and June, it's definitely worth a look, but don't plan your day around it. Swing by on your way out of the Art Institute, or go visit it and then head up the block to Sugar Bliss for a cupcake (which is what I did).
Mmm. Death and Red Velvet Cupcakes.
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