Summer of Love

A powerful male/female dynamic gives life to MoCA's latest permanent-collection show

These two pieces pick up on the feminine half of the male/female current running through the exhibition. Two pieces in another gallery emphasize the masculine. More than any Marlboro Man ever could, Smoking Cigarette #1 (1980), a wall-relief composition in oil on wood by American-pop pioneer Tom Wesselmann, makes clear the sexual iconography used to sell tobacco. And Rob Pruitt and Jack Early's Scum (c. 1990) uses a stacked case of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer cans affixed with stickers to generate a wry commentary on young men and their connections to sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, and of course beer.

But the real kicker, a few feet from Smoking Cigarette #1and Scum, is an exceptionally provocative piece from an earlier MoCA show: Robert Chambers's Moto Shag (2000). It's an inspired contraption that consists primarily of a motorcycle and a motorized bicycle facing each other. They have been modified so that they share the same front wheel, and from time to time, a small control box nearby on the floor makes the wheel spin. When this happens, the motorcycle's headlight gradually begins to glow.

In this mechanical coupling, the two bikes -- not coincidentally, a '69 American Harley-Davidson and a '69 British Raleigh -- are metaphorically male and female, and their shared wheel represents sexual activity. When it spins, the Harley lights up with arousal. The "shag" of the title is also a double-edged pun, referring both to a dance step from the 1930s and to common British slang for sex.

Is that Tom Wesselman's Smoking Cigarette #1 (1980), or are you just happy to see me?
Is that Tom Wesselman's Smoking Cigarette #1 (1980), or are you just happy to see me?

Chambers was inspired, in part, by one of the most famous (and most written about) works of modern art, Marcel Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (Large Glass) (1915-23), which also uses mechanical objects to generate sexual innuendo. But whereas Duchamp's "male" and "female" components are forever separated, dooming them to eternal frustration, Chambers's devices are perpetually joined, spinning with an excitement that has been reduced to mechanical repetition. It's no accident that the wheel spins and the light comes on at precisely timed intervals; it has no spontaneity, just routine action.

Moto Shag is an amazingly resonant work, one that stands on its own but also reemphasizes the ideas running through "Selections from the Permanent Collection." When it comes to this kind of show -- one that's tightly focused yet airy and expansive at the same time -- nobody around does it quite as well as the folks at MoCA.

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