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Venice is doubly enamored of Bruce Nauman

June 7, 2009 |  1:58 pm

Nauman Venice

Given his stature among the crucial artists of the last 40 years, Bruce Nauman is no surprise as the artist whose exhibition was chosen to receive the Golden Lion for Best National Participation at the 53rd Venice Biennale, which opened Sunday. The award goes to the United States, but it's the second Golden Lion for Nauman. (He took an individual prize at the 48th Biennale, in 1999.) The artist, who first emerged as a compelling figure when he worked in the Bay Area and Pasadena in the 1960s, and who has lived in rural New Mexico since 1979, virtually never disappoints.

Among Nauman's established masterpieces is "Vices and Virtues," designed as a commission for the Stuart Collection at UC San Diego in 1983 and installed in 1988 around the top of the boxy Powell Structural Systems Laboratory, near the center of the campus. In Venice, an exhibition copy scales down the work.

The original's 7-foot neon lettering transforms a classical architectural frieze into the contemporary language of a commercial sign. Seven vices alternate with seven virtues in 14 flashing colors: FAITH/LUST, HOPE/ENVY, CHARITY/SLOTH, PRUDENCE/PRIDE, JUSTICE/AVARICE, TEMPERANCE/GLUTTONY and FORTITUDE/ANGER. In Venice the words now wrap around the "mini-Monticello" of the official, Georgian-style red-brick United States Pavilion (above).

As a Stuart Collection brochure explains: "The virtues flash sequentially clockwise around the building at one rate; and the vices circulate counterclockwise at a slightly faster rate. At brief intervals, both the seven virtues and the seven vices flash together." Virtue may be slightly more laconic than vice, but the slippery combination of the clashes is never simple.

Nauman San Diego Rizzoli International The neon vices and virtues illuminate age-old internal conflicts, giving personal struggles a contemporary public platform. The work's gestation during the Reagan administration added an inescapably political edge.

Many of the calamities first writ large during the 1980s have now come home to roost in the millennial wake of the Bush administration -- a disastrous Wall Street philosophy that greed is good, a fearful bellicosity in foreign relations masking potential criminality, a deadly indifference to healthcare as a fundamental right, the intrusion of religion into American statecraft and much more. I haven't seen the installation at Venice, but photographs suggest a powerful turn of the screw: Transposed to an international exhibition stage, Nauman's powerful piece seems almost like a generational marker.

Incidentally, a current exhibition at the Pasadena Museum of California Art -- not far from Nauman's old Raymond Avenue studio -- shows some roots of the artist's incisive sensibility. Nauman, 67, was born in Fort Wayne, Ind., and did his undergraduate work at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. ("Vices and Virtues" is an almost archetypal utterance by a plain-spoken Midwesterner.) From 1964 to 1966 he studied for his MFA at UC Davis, where the sardonic, pun-happy William T. Wiley was among his influential teachers. "You See: The Early Years of the UC Davis Faculty" features about three-dozen "California funk" and other works made between 1960 and 1965 by Wiley, Robert Arneson, Roy De Forest, Manuel Neri and Wayne Thiebaud.

--Christopher Knight

Photos, from top: Exhibition copy of Bruce Nauman's "Vices and Virtues" as installed on the frieze of the U.S. pavilion at the Venice Biennale; the original  "Vice and Virtues" as installed on the Powell Structural Systems Laboratory at UC San Diego. Credits: Michele Lamanna, courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art; Rizzoli International Publications Inc.

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