Visual Arts Review: Revival — Monumental Materials and Forms

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By Chloe Pingeon

This exhibition is impressive in making connections between material goods and work, creating beauty from unconventional forms.

Revival: Materials and Monumental Forms at ICA Watershed, Boston, through September 4.

Joe Wardwell, “Gotta Go to Work, Gotta Go to Work, Gotta Get a Job”, 2022. Acrylic on wall, variable dimensions. Installation view at Materials and Monumental Forms, Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, 2022. Photo: Charles Mayer.

I arrived at the ICA watershed by boat. It’s a sunny afternoon, and the choppy drive through Boston Harbor feels like an abrupt departure from the clean, polished exterior of the ICA’s main location that I leave in the distance. The boat is open and surrounded by wind, spray and the approaching East Boston docks. I leave the sense of abstract space created by a gallery and connect with the physical world as I take the boat ride to the East Boston watershed. (It’s within driving or public transport distance of the ICA seaport location, so the boat ride is a welcome convenience.). Yet moving through Boston Harbor alongside the fishing boats of East Boston is part of the aesthetic experience of the ICA watershed, a connection to the natural world and the vibrant communities of the area.

Renaissance: materials and monumental forms draws on themes of production and dependency. Nothing is made out of nothing, no work is done by disembodied hands. The material used to make the objects is reused, laminated and recycled. Along the way, ownership and accreditation become increasingly difficult to determine. The watershed spectacle takes a critical look at these layers of production. The pieces here are made from repurposed materials, ranging from salvaged car taillights to protest song lyrics. The concept of the show is for artists to give credit to undervalued work by creating new forms from old ones. In the past, the East Boston watershed was a copper pipe and sheet manufacturing plant. In 2018, the building was redesigned for the ICA, so that the structure itself dramatizes the idea of ​​reusing material and recognizing the work of former workers.

As you enter the building, you see a phrase inscribed on a large white sign: “The ICA Watershed was born out of our commitment to connecting contemporary art and community on both sides of Boston Harbor.” Behind the sign, the rough stone walls and cement floor of the building are visible. The group exhibition presented presents six international artists who have created the same number of large-scale installations. Your initial visual perception is all the more powerful as the art is surrounded by the vast negative space of structure. From the entrance, only the first two installations are visible. There is a shimmering black wall of five collages mounted on a white frame by Ebony G. Patterson. At first glance, the piece depicts a brightly colored garden, flourishing in wild abundance. But a closer look reveals the figures of three women overwhelmed by growth. To create something, you have to destroy something, seems to be the ambivalent message here. The characters are engulfed by the gardens containing the fruit of their labor. The collages nod to the agricultural exploitation of colonialism; those who cultivate the land are lost and then forgotten once the harvest is in. Just beyond Patterson’s collages sparkles El Anastui’s “Zone B,” an aluminum and copper sculpture whose undulating form generates an illusion of fluidity, liquid movement, despite its mostly metallic makeup. The fluidity of the installation is symbolic of the changing character of maps, property and space.

Karyn Olivier, fortified, 2018-2022. Bricks, used clothes and steel, approximately 144 × 240 × 30 inches (365.8 × 609.6 × 76.2 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles. Installation view, Revival: Materials and Monumental Forms, Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, 2022. Photo by Charles Mayer.

The rest of the exhibit meanders in a maze-like formation. The echoing space of the watershed is constant as I make my way around the temporary walls and admire the towering installations. Madeline Hollander uses junkyard cars to create an almost lyrical display of flashing headlights and abandoned tailgates. Ibrahim Mahama’s wall of abandoned crates and suitcases sits alongside Kathryn Oliver’s wall of abandoned clothing in which textiles replace traditional mortar. Finally, there’s Joe Wardwall’s site-specific commission, Gotta go to work, gotta go to work, gotta get a job. The artwork, sketched against a glass wall through which the harbor and East Boston skyline are visible, layers protest song lyrics and personal reflections from the East Boston community against a view of East Boston. Boston. It is framed by a metal structure whose lines are parallel to the architecture of the watershed.

This exhibition is impressive in making connections between material goods and work, creating beauty from unconventional forms. But unlike other recent ICA exhibitions, such as the in-depth study of the life and work of photographer Deana Lawson, the message is disappointingly transparent. Six artists were commissioned to create works that treated the products of labor as abstractions, and they succeeded. The social concerns of these raw but beautiful works are their obvious starting and ending points. Ironically, the ICA watershed itself, a monumental example of the transformation and renewal of matter and the displacement of labor, says as much, if not more, than the show on this theme.


Chloe Penguin is a recent graduate of Boston College, where she studied film and journalism. She wrote regularly for the articles and arts section of Boston College’s independent student newspaper. Heightsand also wrote for the culture section of Lithium charger. She is currently a creative development intern at Foundation Films.

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