It's a go

Julianna Thibodeaux

Contemporary Galleries

Indianapolis Museum of Art

Ghada Amer's 'Barbie Loves Ken, Ken Loves Barbie' (2004) is now in the Indianapolis Museum of Art's permanent collection.

I don't know what I was expecting exactly, but what I encountered was beyond what I'd envisioned. When I visited the Indianapolis Museum of Art's newly opened Contemporary Galleries recently, I felt as if I walked into an alternate universe; maybe I'd accidentally stepped through a wardrobe and I was in New York - or maybe I was still asleep, dreaming visions of absurd and fantastical art. No - my feet were firmly planted on the ground, the walls were solid to the touch and the art around me, displayed in a sea of white - white walls that is, walls that reached wide and tall and gave the art room to breathe - was rich, compelling, sometimes familiar, and sometimes brand new.

Of course, the question must be asked: Does Indianapolis want to be New York? I hope not. Living in Indianapolis affords us the opportunity to forge our own unique identity. Where the New York comparison becomes important is when we're talking about that edge that contemporary art uniquely takes us to. That edge of thinking and perceiving, and sometimes even feeling.

Lisa Freiman, the museum's curator of contemporary art, came to Indianapolis just in time to formulate and implement her own vision - which includes a particular notion of what art's edge consists of. And what a gift that was - for her, and for us. Her vision has turned out to be compelling and inclusive, although the museum was already exhibiting important new voices when Katherine Nagler served as guest curator of contemporary art after Holliday Day's retirement. Freiman's vision of art is one that challenges the status quo and brings us to greater awareness, social and otherwise - in short, it's art with meaning. She also brings us the art of women.

Key works by artists such as Kara Walker and Ghada Amer, now in the museum's permanent collection, look at identity, but also speak to innovative media expressions. Walker's "They Waz Nice White Folks While They Lasted (Sez One Gal To Another)," 2001, a cut paper and projection installation encompassing its own gallery, is a strong representative of Walker's pivotal work, which insists we take a harder look at African-American stereotypes. Ghada Amer looks at feminine and masculine identity; employing needlepoint, she challenges us to question our perceptions of what it means to be a woman - or a man. Amer's "Barbie Loves Ken, Ken Loves Barbie" (2004) is now in the museum's permanent collection.

Both artists were introduced to IMA audiences before the museum opened its new Contemporary Galleries this month, as teasers of what Freiman and her staff had in store for us. Now, with the galleries' reopening, we see other works that offer a more complete view of the museum's vision, one that both reflects the national and international contemporary art scene, and one that, again, reflects Freiman's own particular view.

Korean artist Do-Ho Suh's permanent installation "Floor" is destined to become a signature piece for the museum; one of those works of art you visit and revisit like an old friend. It's both accessible and provocative - and even my toddler enjoyed the sensation of walking on a clear surface, looking down to ponder the endless plastic hands that appeared to hold her up. For Do-Ho Suh, the piece suggests more than a trick of perception; it gives us the opportunity to ponder cultural vs. individual identity.

The galleries in total comprise the entire third floor of the new museum building, allowing for a chronological arrangement of galleries and displays along the lines of the previously reopened American Galleries. For those who are interested in educating themselves about contemporary art since roughly the 1960s, the opportunity is here. Even without a guide or docent, viewers can take as much time as they like viewing the art and edifying themselves with the accompanying wall text. Special exhibitions allow the museum to bring in the latest of contemporary expressions in its Forefront Galleries and Off the Wall space; and a special gallery allows for a revolving display of important print collections. The museum also gives a permanent gallery to its nicely honed studio glass collection.

The best contemporary collections both challenge and invite. The IMA's inaugural offering opens its doors to both experiences: Some art will perpetuate the requisite scratches of the head, and other works will invite contemplation and wonder, even to the most uninitiated. But whether you "get it" or not, you're likely to be impressed - and, more importantly, you're likely to come back. This, perhaps more than anything, is what sets the new museum apart from the old.

The Indianapolis Museum of Art is located at 4000 Michigan Road; call 317-923-1331 or go to for hours and information.


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