Sculptures by Liz Magor and photographs by Richard Misrach at the Henry Art Gallery shuffle realism and illusion, but deliver few insights.

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Here’s a gloomy installation for our troubled times. “The Mouth and other storage facilities” by British Columbia artist Liz Magor is an assortment of trompe l’oeil detritus: beat-up-looking jackets bristling with cigarette stubs and liquor bottles; trays of moldy food remnants, candy and wrappers; with the remains of dead rodents, a raccoon, a deer head. It’s all laid out on an array of grubby tables (also made by the artist). Splayed beneath them is a broad pole, sliced into segments that seem to ooze a toxic-looking foam.

It looks like stuff that could have been gathered at a homeless camp after some awful crime and saved as evidence. A few of the accessories are the real deal: a bottle of booze peeking from a pocket, bits of candy. But most of what you’ll see are synthetic casts meticulously painted to look like musty tweed, leather, moldy bread, gouged wood. Magor’s facility as a painter is remarkable. Some visitors will likely walk by without registering that these objects are simulations.

Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1948, Magor studied at Parsons School of Design and the Vancouver School of Art in British Columbia and has long explored artworks that mimic ordinary objects. Seattle audiences may remember her faux hollow log in the group show “Baja to Vancouver” at Seattle Art Museum in 2004.

Magor’s work in “The Mouth and other storage facilities” piques the intellect with its illusion of reality and suggestions of social and environmental decay. But that’s as far as it goes. In the end, the work struck me as a fruitless exercise. Sort of like watching a horror movie to get the frisson of adrenalin, when life outside the theater holds a lot more to be scared about. I left feeling vaguely disheartened.

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Upstairs at the Henry, the grand-scale photographs in Richard Misrach’s exhibition “At the Beach” impress for their size, technical acuity and airborne perspective. The show spans Misrach’s career since the 1970s, when he was making crisp, spotlighted black-and-white images of desert scenes, on through a series of landscapes resembling painted abstractions, and ends with the recent bird’s-eye views of beach and ocean the show is named for. Some are as large as 6 feet by 10 feet.

The series is titled after the post-nuclear bomb scenario of Nevil Shute’s 1950s novel “On the Beach,” later a movie with Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. The photographs look down at vast expanses of beach and ocean, composed as allover patterns or simple geometries. In some, a lone human figure or two sprawl on the beach, entwine or float in the surf far below. They exist to provide a trope, the notion of the tininess of human life in the grand scheme of things.

The untitled images demand admiration, yet few of them earned it from me. I felt a shiver in front of the 2003 image #19-03, a nighttime kaleidoscope of moonlight on black water. That minimal image said enough. My imagination snagged, too, on #586-04, a woman floating like Ophelia in a nearly endless turquoise sea, a sliver of shoreline anchoring the right corner.

The happiest, most outgoing image is #1132-04 with its colorful sunbathers spattering a beach dimpled with a million footprints. Some of the bodies are pasty and plump, others golden and chiseled among their striped and print accessories, sandals, floats, sun umbrellas. They all look like a bunch of scorched props for the photographer.

So, I was sorry to read a statement by Misrach that relates the polished photographs in “On the Beach” to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and images of bodies falling from the World Trade Center towers. It struck me as wrong to pin sparkly beach scenes to the coattails of such a profound disaster, even if those images partially motivated the artist. Best to let viewers form their own associations.

My own preference is for Misrach’s earlier photographs. They’re more eccentric and experimental, the gelatin silver prints glimmery as moonstruck desert sand. The bigger and slicker the photographs become, the more they strike me as calculated to the art market, where big and paintinglike equals important. With the advances in computer technology, it seems like there’s no end to photographers able to present these sort of monumental, perfected images.

Sheila Farr:

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