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Review: America 

D. Eric Bookhardt on Will Ryman's sculpture installation at the New Orleans Museum of Art

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During President Abraham Lincoln's inaugural address, he emphatically stated he had "no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I have no inclination to do so." Honest Abe, faced with a budding rebellion by the slave states, was being diplomatic. We all know how that turned out. In his memory, Will Ryman (minimalist maestro Robert Ryman's 43-year-old son) created America, a life-size gold resin replica of Lincoln's log cabin childhood home. Acquired for the New Orleans Museum of Art by local art godfather Sydney Besthoff, it features an interior where every surface is covered with neatly if obsessively ordered objects that arguably symbolize America's amazing history, ranging from corn and coal to iPads. Everything is real, and everything except the coal is finished in the same gold resin. A late bloomer, Will Ryman has been something of a dabbler, but in his most recent works he seems have to found his voice — and in this installation it is powerful.

  In recent decades, the contemporary art world has been obsessed with irony, but irony that is clinical and lacking in emotional impact is impotent. No such problem arises here. Seemingly anticipating Pope Francis' recent critique of oligarchical capitalism, Ryman's deft interweaving of bullets, Native American arrowheads and slave chains with railroad spikes, spark plugs, pills, pull tabs, candy and consumer electronics paints a picture of progress that came at a price.

  Their arrangement, reminiscent of Louise Nevelson's obsessive monochromatic taxonomies of found objects, is initially seductive — a metaphor for the Old World view of America as a gleaming land of gold — but the details are chilling. Sweatshops that now produce our clothes and electronic gadgets in remote spots are modern versions of the exploited slaves and immigrants who built America, and if some complain that such critiques are insufficiently patriotic, emotionally healthy nations, like sane individuals, understand that acknowledging our history is how we grow and become wiser as a people. In that sense, Ryman's America is profoundly patriotic. — D. ERIC BOOKHARDT


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