More-appropriate background music might include, say, Peggy Lee's melancholy rendering of "Is That All There Is?" At least that's the impression I had after entering "Out of Here." The installation consists of four 6-foot-by-11-foot paintings, each mounted on its own wall. The room is darkened, with spotlights focusing a viewer's attention on the images.
Those large horizontal images are variations on the same theme. In each we find ourselves looking down an anonymous stretch of highway at either dusk or dawn, with the largely empty vistas punctuated only by the taillights of vehicles in front of us.
East places us behind a car and a van or truck; a large yellow sign for "American Manor" looms to the right above a blurry, illegible road sign that might otherwise provide a clue to our location. In South (misidentified in the exhibition brochure as North), the taillights belong to another car and what appears to be an SUV, and pinpoints of light suggest headlights approaching from afar in the opposite lanes.
West, the starkest of the four compositions, has a car in the lower right corner and another much farther ahead in the center. And North features a trio of vehicles bracketed by a landscape dotted with power lines, highway signs, and streetlights. (Oddly enough, the lighting in this piece comes closest to suggesting what a person might see looking west at sunset.)
So, is that indeed all there is? Pretty much. The four paintings offer atmosphere, and that's about it. Their chief novelty is Dickson's choice of medium: She works here in oil painted onto not canvas but Astroturf, which gives the images a grainy texture.
The two brochure essays -- one by MoA curator Ginger Gregg Duggan, the other by Michael Klein, identified as "Curator, Microsoft Art Collection," whatever that means -- make a much greater fuss over Dickson's installation. Both insist that the artist puts us in the driver's seat, although it seems to me that a more logical vantage point would be the center of the highway portrayed in each picture. The images, after all, aren't framed by the edges of windshields. No rear-view mirror can be seen; no hood stretches out in front.
But the conceit of the lonely driver is necessary for the kinds of readings Duggan and Klein want to impose on the paintings. "Physically and metaphorically viewers find themselves at a crossroads -- each direction fighting for attention over the others," Duggan writes. A few paragraphs later: "The car serves to cleave man from his natural surroundings."
Klein gets even more rhapsodic, to the point of quoting Daniel J. Boorstin and Jean Baudrillard on what car culture has done to Americans. He also speculates that "the car is to this scene what the storm tossed boat was to 19th century Romantic painters: a symbol of the self struggling in the world; whether wind swept or rain soaked, a sure sign of longing and suffering."
Maybe Duggan's enthusiasm for this only modestly interesting installation is overcompensation of a sort. "Out of Here" is part of the Project Series, a program devoted to "alternative-media artists." Is this one of the "different things" MoA director Kathleen Harleman said she wanted to do at the museum when she canceled its sponsorship of the Hortt Competition after 41 years? Well, "Out of Here" may be different from such group shows as the Hortt, but it's certainly not better.
Elsewhere on the first floor is a halfhearted little show titled "Coming out of the Dark: Seldom Seen Selections from the MoA's Permanent Collection." Museums often use the off-season to showcase works from their permanent collections. Such a show, if well conceived and assembled, can reemphasize the breadth and depth of an institution's holdings.
But "Coming out of the Dark" is just a hodgepodge of works thrown together with little rhyme or reason. It feels like an afterthought, something just to take up otherwise empty space. The first few pieces are hand-colored Disney animation cels from the 1940s, followed by some Dalí illustrations for an Alice in Wonderland Suite.
Works by John Christie, Lucebert, and Arakawa are also on display. One big oil by Nicolas Levia, Fabula Criolla (1992), is of passing interest. A Picasso called 347 Series Aquatint (1968) is negligible, however, and several works are labeled "attributed to," including nine Goya etchings and aquatints from the late 18th Century. (One of them, Que Viene el Loco, is a harrowing image of what looks like the Angel of Death about to take two children from their mother. If it's not a Goya, at least it's a good imitation.)
A Diego Rivera watercolor, Project for Mural (1934), is notable mainly for the suggestive cactuslike forms on both sides of the image that prepare us for the show's one real stunner, the undated color etching Untitled (Series D'Amour), by the great Chilean-born surrealist Roberto Matta.
As in much of this underappreciated artist's work, a sort of deranged melding of eroticism and science fiction dominates. Its four main figures, vaguely humanoid but distorted beyond recognition and yet highly sexually charged, are positioned on and within a mass of something else that heightens the uneasy air of sexual menace.
It's an apt reminder that the prolific Matta, who's nearly 90 years old and still active, has not only outlasted the other prominent surrealists -- who eventually turned on him -- but has remained astonishingly faithful to the niche of surrealism he carved out for himself. But the picture's power also highlights the shortcomings of "Coming out of the Dark." The Museum of Art has many outstanding works in its permanent collection; unfortunately not many of them are included here.