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'Desire' comes in all shapes and forms at Blanton

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

Desire it's not what you think.

Or perhaps, desire drives everything we do.

It's the latter idea that Annette DiMeo Carlozzi, director of curatorial affairs at the Blanton Museum of Art, used to organize "Desire," the surprising new exhibit of international contemporary art that opened last week.

"Desire is universal, and it's also particular," says Carlozzi. "Desire is so subjective and yet it's a driving force — perhaps the driving force — in our lives. It's something we all have in common, and yet our individual experiences of it are varied. There's nothing more individual than our desires, in fact. And the object of desire is different for everyone. We love what we love."

If the exhibit is surprising, it's because, as Carlozzi explains, she searched for art that didn't interpret desire literally. Forget saccharine romantic idealizations of love (whether it ends happily or tragically). Instead, Carlozzi gathered art that suggests desire in a more oblique and conceptual fashion and in which desire isn't necessarily, or ever, satisfied.

Which isn't to say that "Desire," the exhibit, is subtle: sex, the body, even pornography emerge as subjects in the exhibit's film and video installations, sculpture, paintings and photography. (There is plenty of adult content in the show.)

What also emerges are modern riffs on mythological love stories, reconsiderations of classic films, the nostalgia for a particular place and the yearning to find one's identity confirmed in popular culture.

It also might surprise some visitors with the notable number of edgy, sophisticated works plucked from a few private Austin collections. And even the exhibit's catalog steps away from the norm: Carlozzi jettisoned the usual collection of stuffy essays for a collection of writerly riffs and responses to the exhibit's art.

Carlozzi admits she somewhat crafted "Desire" with an Austin audience in mind. "People here are interested in new ideas and new energy," she says. (But no, the Valentine's Day timing of the show was purely a coincidence of scheduling.)

From the collection of venture capitalist and Texas Tribune publisher John Thornton and his wife, Julie, comes Gajin Fujita's vividly hued painting in which historic Japanese erotic art collides with pulsating East L.A. graffiti art. Also from the Thornton's collection is Jesse Amado's "L'Avventura, Tapes, #1-8," an homage to Michelangelo Antonioni's ground-breaking 1960s film about modern love and alienation. Petah Coyne's sculpture "Untitled #1103 (Daphne)," also from the Thorntons' collection, is a graceful depiction of a laurel tree made of lustrous black wax, a reference to the Greek myth of Daphne, who fled from Apollo's desire.

Other Austin collectors represented in the show include Suzanne Deal Booth and David G. Booth as well as Alexa and Blaine Wesner.

Perhaps the signature piece of the exhibit — and a painting that has elicited more comments than any other since it went on view at the Blanton a few years ago — is Marilyn Minter's "Crystal Swallow," a promised gift to the Blanton from Austin collectors Jeanne and Michael Klein.

Minter's magnified image of lipsticked lips wrapped around a crystal necklace at first seems like it's straight from the pages of a fashion-forward magazine. But its oversized scale — it's 5 feet by 8 feet — and magnified details make it as grotesque as it is compelling.

Minter — whose video "Green Pink Caviar" was used as a stage backdrop for Madonna's recent "Sticky and Sweet" tour — frequently mines the unsettled territory between high fashion and high art to challenge accepted preconceptions. "Most desire is never realized," Minter said last week when she gave a talk at the Blanton. "And there's a glass ceiling when it comes to women artists being allowed to own their own images of female sexuality. The art world always thinks of itself on a higher plane than (the fashion world), but it's not."

Carlozzi has chosen a diverse group of writers and creative artists, each of whom has written a creative personal response to a particular work in the exhibit, be it poetry, stream-of-consciousness narrative or even love letters. "I'm hoping the catalog spurs visitors to maybe write their own responses to the art," says Carlozzi. Novelists Sarah Bird and Jim Lewis offer their takes on painters Georganne Deen and Richard Prince, respectively. Choreographer Deborah Hay writes a poem to complement a video by Bill Viola. Dunya Bean imagines the love letter that's written on the giant crumpled pages of Michael Scoggins' paper sculpture. Kurt Heinzelman, University of Texas professor and co-curator of the Blanton Poetry Project — which gathers Texas writers to compose poems in response to works in the museum's collection — offers a hip contemporary poetic take on the ancient Greek myth of Daphne and Apollo as it's represented in Coyne's sprawling sculpture.

From the collection of Ballet Austin artistic director Stephen Mills and his partner Brent Hasty comes "Consummation" by Susie J. Lee, a delicate black-and-white video of two long wicks slowly disappearing as they burn, the image projected on an undulating piece of wood while a soundtrack of plaintive solo piano music plays. Write Mills and Hasty in the catalog: "It's an improvised dance of slow burning desire and lingering satisfaction, a consummation of the physical and emotional suspended in time. It's beautiful choreography."

And if visitors find the contemporary art in "Desire" not so beautiful or too risqu?? Carlozzi suggests they might want to check out the more than 50 works she's selected from the Blanton's renowned print collection, which spans more than five centuries.

There's a lovely nude drawing from the 1930s by famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera of his then-wife Frida Kahlo. And naked men ready for a skinny-dip in a pastoral swimming hole get an impressionistic treatment by Paul Cezanne. Rembrandt represents with a visual study of lust.

Carlozzi shrugs. Desire has, after all, been the concern of artists through millennia. "Today's artists are doing the same."

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

'Desire'

When: Through April 25

Where: Blanton Museum of Art, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Congress Avenue

Cost: $5-$9 (Free every Thursday)

Information: 471-7324, www.blantonmuseum.org

Tours: Guided tours of the exhibit at 3 p.m. Sundays. Free with admission.

'Desire' catalog book signing

When: 1:30 to 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 14

Where: Blanton Museum Shop

'Desire' film screenings

'Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,' today; 'She's Gotta Have It,' Feb. 21; 'Happy Together,' Feb. 28.

When: 3 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 28

Cost: $3-$5