Laib exhibit at Hirshhorn goes au natural

Naturally, exhibits at the Hirshhorn Museum of Modern Art are going to be a little different. The Hirshorn’s current exhibit, Wolfgang Laib: A Retrospective fits this description perfectly.

Showcasing the work of German artist Wolfgang Laib, the exhibit abounds with works that go beyond the scope of what is normally considered art. Laib works exclusively with natural materials, such as beeswax, pollen, and rice, to create three-dimensional designs.

Laib’s work is concerned more with shapes and medium than it is with making a commentary. The majority of the works are houses, three-dimensional shapes that roughly resemble houses.

Laib’s Rice Houses consist of metal houses perched on top of loose rice grains. The rice flows out from underneath the structures in what seems to be carefully designed chaos. Similar houses are made from beeswax.

Laib’s experiments with bee pollen stand out among other exhibits. Set in large rooms with nothing inside except bare white walls, the bright yellow pollen stands out and begs to be examined. The pollen is spread out in a perfect square on the ground, completely flat and uniform. In one of the works, Laib spreads the pollen out beyond the perfect square, creating a wind-blown effect. The work is puzzling as it is hard to tell exactly what one is looking at.

To say that Laib is innovative is an understatement – his Milkstones are an example of his creativity. Laib carves intricate patterns into square slabs of white marble that are about two feet long on each side. Laib then carefully pours milk into the engraving, making the surface of the stone perfectly flat on top. Laib’s work is truly high-maintenance art, as exhibitors must continually replace the milk.

The exhibit also features a beeswax room. Walls are composed of huge cubes of beeswax stacked on top of each other. Viewers of the exhibit can walk into the room, making themselves part of the art. The irregular shape of the cubes creates an aspect of warped perspective that is only truly realized when the piece is viewed with somebody standing inside it.

The presentation of the exhibit reinforces Laib’s minimalist style. The exhibition rooms are solely bare white walls with floors painted industrial gray, resembling storage areas.

The exhibit also displays Laib’s sketches that mostly relate in some way to the three-dimensional art presented at the exhibit. The sketches are simply pencil drawings that resemble the shapes of Laib’s sculptures, dabbed here and there with a little yellow paint to show where beeswax is used.

Laib’s overriding philosophy is difficult to place. The complaint that modern art has gotten too bizarre certainly could be made about this exhibit. However, Laib’s work does force viewers to think hard about the medium he uses and to define art.

Wolfgang Laib: A Retrospective runs until Jan. 22 at The Hirshhorn Museum of Modern Art.

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