Liliana Porter’s large-scale installations fill up the Frist Art Museum in Nashville

The Frist Art Museum presents Liliana Porter: Man with Axe and Other Stories, a large-scale installation that will be shown with additional works by the Argentina-born artist. Porter (b. 1941) is renowned for arranging discarded everyday objects to create theatrical vignettes that are philosophically provocative and slyly humorous. The exhibition will be on view in the Gordon Contemporary Artists Project Gallery through May 2, 2021.

The centerpiece of the exhibition, Man with Axe and Other Stories (2017), on loan from the Pérez Art Museum in Miami, offers a bird’s-eye view of a civilization being reduced to rubble. The sprawling work features a small plastic figure of an axe-wielding man who appears to have demolished an array of items, from dollhouse furniture to vases, clocks, and a full-size piano.

“The tableau illustrates that, like time itself, a tiny thing—a virus, a dangerous ideology, or a lone person—can bring down a kingdom or a world,” writes Frist Art Museum chief curator Mark Scala. “Rich with melancholy and humor and despair and hope, the installation shows the man with the axe as a sociopathic embodiment of time itself, forever frozen in a single moment, forever unfolding in a pattern of violence and renewal.”

The installation should read as scary and apocalyptic, but Porter does not wish to cause undue anxiety or limit the viewer to a pessimistic opinion of the human dilemma. Instead, she embraces multiple responses. “To one person it can seem fun, to another tragic, to another pretty, another a horror. And I think they’re all true,” says Porter. “Always fascinated with paradox, Porter says about Man with Axe that “even though it is destruction, it’s not sinister. . . . It’s like a luminous destruction, we could say. I like that contradiction.’”

This enigmatic perspective continues throughout the exhibition, where other sculptures and a video similarly mix oppositional metaphors. In To Do It: Red Sand III (2020), a female figurine appears to be tirelessly sweeping an enormous amount of red sand arranged in a labyrinthine spiral. She is a small human with a big task, but the purpose and result of her work is ambiguous. The digital video Matinee (2009) is a sequence of brief scenarios in which unexpected meanings arise from the juxtaposition or alteration of ordinary objects that trigger cultural memories or personal nostalgia. However banal the individual curios, toys, and accompanying music may seem, new poetic and humorous associations arise when they are combined.

Matinee affirms that artists and non-artists alike can find meaning, joy, and inspiration in things that may seem unremarkable by themselves, but when creatively combined can form a new lens for viewing the world,” writes Scala. “In Porter’s work, history is perpetually on the move and in a state of ruination, labor is essential but always being undone, and the associations between objects and language are endlessly and joyfully elastic.” 

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