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Trash and vaudeville
Tim Noble & Sue Webster at the MFA, and Jessica Stockholder

There was a time — in the late 1980s, late-Thatcher era — when a group of British artists, frustrated by a lack of money and support for contemporary art in the London gallery scene, began to organize raucous, media-savvy exhibitions in alternative spaces. Curated most visibly by artist Damien Hirst, these shows featured Hirst’s fellow recent graduates of London’s Goldsmiths College, whose work was collected most notably by British advertising biggie Charles Saatchi. These provocative folks came to be known as the Young British Artists, or "YBAs". Now that many are in their 40s, the term is a bit crusty, but it still conjures a bold group whose unapologetic embrace of publicity and fascination with life, death, and mass spectacle made them the Sids and Nancys of a new British art. Tim Noble and Sue Webster emerged on the London scene in the noisy wake of the YBAs, and their compelling art is the focus of "Tim Noble & Sue Webster," which opens at the Museum of Fine Arts on April 21. There’s a free public preview, complete with artists’ talk and reception, at the MFA on April 20 starting at 5:30 p.m.

A couple in life as well as in art, Noble and Webster met while studying at Nottingham Polytechnic in 1986 and moved to London in the early 1990s, the YBA heyday. Their first solo exhibition — "British Rubbish," in London in 1996 — parodied the hype and the stereotyping rampant in the art world, and the two have continued to investigate, criticize, and capitalize on modern PR techniques and post-Warholian aspects of the lust for celebrity. Their interest in advertising and excess extends to the body of work they’re best known for — over-the-top sculptures made from flashing commercial lights and using the vocabulary of Las Vegas casinos to embody contradictory elements of Western culture, like our simultaneous cravings for love and fame/immortality/riches. The pair are also widely admired for their "shadow pieces," in which they pile up heaps of household garbage, often their own, in such a way that a light shone upon them casts delicate, beautiful silhouettes onto the wall, usually portraits of the artistic couple themselves, as if lovingly intertwining ourselves and our junk. Then there’s Girlfriend from Hell and Puny Undernourished Kid (2003), which is presented for the first time here, a neon pair of sculptures in which androgynous figures appear as if tattoo’d with (mostly profane) references to romantic love.

Piles of disparate materials also describe the colorful, site-specific installations of artist Jessica Stockholder, who will speak about her dynamic work at Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts on April 15 at 6 p.m. Over the past decade, Stockholder’s painterly sense of hue and composition, her sculptural feel for architecture and for space in general, and her evident sense of humor, both in composition and in choice of materials (which have included plastic pumpkins, twine, a sweater, and a water can), have situated her at the forefront of the investigation into where sculpture ends and installation art begins, or of how painting might exist simultaneously in two and three dimensions.

"Tim Noble & Sue Webster" is at the Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Avenue in Boston, April 21 through August 15, with a free viewing and lecture by the artists in the MFA’s Remis Auditorium on April 20 at 5:30 p.m. followed by a reception; call (617) 267-9300. Jessica Stockholder speaks about her work at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, 24 Quincy Street in Harvard Square, April 15 at 6 p.m.; call (617) 495-3251.

Issue Date: April 9 - 15, 2004
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