The tone is set early on by longtime California conceptual artist John Baldessari, who has made a career out of upending viewers' assumptions about art and mass media. His silkscreen lithograph, The Fallen Easel, is true to form if a bit convoluted. A geometric arrangement of old movie stills and vintage graphics, Easel suggests a do-it-yourself mystery story, perhaps a Dadaist assassination plot set in 1950s Hollywood. Created in 1988, it still seems somewhat fresh thanks to Baldessari's algebraic precision and infectious enthusiasm. Nearby is a 1980 golden oldie, a faux-historical metal plaque by conceptual art legend, Jenny Holzer. It reads: "Put food out in the same place every day and talk to the people who come by to eat and organize them," and it's the kind of cutesy-goofy thing she was known for in various media. Meant to mimic the role of advertising in public spaces, but with quasi-subversive messages, her one-line wonders wore thin over time, but at least this one has the benefit of being something of a prototype.
Telephones, a short mid-1990s video by experimental musician and video artist Christian Marclay, features snippets of people in movies answering phones. It's fairly typical of the fascination with mass media evidenced by postmodern conceptual artists of the 1980s and 1990s -- a fascination that sometimes fetishized the very things they intended to critique. Thomas Hirschorn's Necklace CNN is a vastly oversized, wall-high gold foil-and-cardboard replica of a necklace with the CNN logo. Intended, perhaps, to illustrate the way news is treated as a commercial commodity in popular culture, it's also a great ad for CNN!
The show is enlivened by some fairly large and lush photographs, works such as Katy Grannan's startling Shane, Mystic Lake, Medford, MA, 2002, a view of a nude young woman on a wooded shore. Bathed in the radiance of the setting sun, she sits with knees pulled up toward her chest, exposing alabaster flanks in a pose that might border on the salacious, only her expression is thoughtful, as luminously pensive as those mystery women who populate Vermeer's domestic interiors. German photographer Thomas Demand has made a career of recreating workaday environments in paper and then photographing them as if they were real places. His 6-by-9-foot color photo, Labor, is more abstract than most, yet still compelling in its obsessive recreation of a strangely airless and totalizing environment. Another German, Thomas Struth, explores urban landscapes among others, lucidly illuminating the ways people orient themselves to the world around them. Here his view of an elongated modernist building in Geneva, Switzerland, covering the landscape like a vast wall, conveys an oddly claustrophobic sense of wonder.
Even larger, yet opposite in effect is Karla Klein's untitled oil painting suggesting a highway careening into some unfathomable horizon in a composition that evokes speed and distance in a sweeping and surprisingly kinetic gesture. And it may seem improbable that a sense of speed, instantaneity and flux, the interplay of the personal and anonymous forces that characterize so much recent art, are embodied in a work created through the most traditional medium of all: oil paint on canvas, even as some of the most meditative pieces were made through the instantaneous medium of photography. But art, like life, is full of surprises, and Breathing Time offers an unusually insightful perspective on the trajectory of contemporary art from the recent past to the present.