Solace; Solemnity: Doris Salcedo at the Guggenheim

Doris Salcedo,” Guggenheim Museum (NYC), through Oct 12 (originated at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago)

Doris Salcedo (b. 1958, Bogata, Columbia) received a Guggenheim grant twenty years ago, so it’s fitting enough that the NY venue of her first US retrospective is here. On the other hand, it’s broken up into three floors of the museum’s tower, so visitors walk through the louder “contemporary acquisitions” show on the ramp to enter each level, breaking the overall, palpable haunting aesthetic of her sculptural oeuvre.  Certainly, its characteristic large-scale and installation layout is a good example of why the museum felt it needed the once-controversial addition to Wright’s idiosyncratic building (determined to compete in “Contemporary” broadly–rather than to more selectively consider historical strengths in evolving; same for MoMA).   Yet, a major one-person show at the Guggenheim  that does not somehow engage Wright’s incomparable (if also often inconvenient and impractical) ramp and (especially) rotunda–the omnipotent stars of any show here–somehow tampers or sleights the potential experience.  Although . . .inhabited by Salcedo’s serial, Minimalist-oriented, somber constructions, one or two of the closed, squared-off back galleries appropriately evoke solemn tomb rooms.

Anyway,  Salcedo’s art is undeniably moving, thought-provoking, expressive, slightly magical.  Her most characteristic works over several decades involve fragmented and imaginatively reconfigured, primarily wooden, furniture to suggest eco-sensitive monuments that encapsulate both human loss and conflicted emotions associated with memory and commemoration, with very occasional glimpses of hope for some sort of spiritually-infused regeneration.  The constructions often include volumetric, cemented portions, a la Rachel Whiteread, but more tuned to content that suggests both the suffocation and preservation of signs of life.  Other distinguishing, sometimes disarming alterations appear at the surface in uncanny treatments with silken threads, human hair, live grass.

Other installation types include found objects glimpsed behind scrims over punctures in gallery walls; garment-type creations that may symbolize missing bodies; and the use of Eva-Hesse-waxy textures blended with ephemera.   And then there are the stacked dress-shirt sculptures, shot through with metal stakes–somewhat reminiscent of Ann Hamilton’s early feminist folded shirt installations.  Both touch on the topoi of labor–Salcedo’s evoking more violent, erased exploitation.

Salcedo’s art ethics as well as aesthetics, distinctly informed by the political conflict that has pervaded her homeland for much of her life, find kinship with those of Christian Boltanksi and Mona Hatoum, in so far as their broad implications of absence and displacement, conjured through a compelling, art-refined scavenging, retrieval and subsequent bricolage.

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