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Space Cowboys

At the Dia Center for the Arts, two affecting takes on iconic imagery of the past; at MoMA, a narrow but deep Van Gogh show.

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Postmodern artists like to lampoon the heroic aspirations of the past. Often, their victory is too easily won. Their art looks like a setup, a rigged game in which smart graduate students hurl insults at old men -- often their betters -- who can no longer speak for themselves. I prefer a trickier contest, one in which the past is allowed a certain power and the artist almost resurrects what he buries, or at least respects what he betrays.

Two good examples of this more subtle relation to the past are now on view at the Dia Center for the Arts. As part of a larger exhibition called " . . . The Nearest Faraway Place . . . ," which confronts the mythical West in various ways, the artist Rodney Graham is showing a short and strangely disturbing film entitled How I Became a Ramblin' Man (1999). It depicts a cowboy slowly riding down a beautiful hillside to a stream bed, where he dismounts from his horse, sits on a log, and croons a lonesome song. Then he remounts and, with his guitar strapped to his back, rides off into the sunset until we see him slowly riding down a beautiful hillside to a stream bed, where he dismounts, sits on a log, and croons a lonesome song. Then he remounts . . .

The tape replays the scene endlessly, just as the myths of the West are repeated so often that they have become clichés. The film is marinated in the grand old themes: the melancholy drifter, the cowboy and his horse, the Western landscape as Eden. And yet it does not simply arouse a smirk: The cowboy never just lights up a Marlboro. The parody of the lonesome song is a tad too corny -- it's hard not to cringe at lines like "I'll be a drifter till the day I die" and "City life just got me down" -- but the film otherwise has a vivid physical presence that cannot be easily shaken. The snorting of the horse, the plash of hooves in the stream, the light above a dark ridge line, the twitter of birds and insects in the brush, almost (but not quite) transcend the Hollywood platitudes. And only terminal cynics will not feel a twinge of desire for that romantic landscape. Graham forces the viewer to experience, at one and the same time, two intensely contrary feelings -- deadpan irony and keen longing.

In another exhibit, called "Orbit," the Belgian artist Panamarenko is displaying two flying machines that he built, Aeromodeller (1969-71) and a recent work called Raven's Variable Matrix (2000). Both evoke the heroic early dreams of flying, when the desire to escape from the bounds of gravity inspired visionary inventors. Aeromodeller is a large fantastical cocoon-blimp from which dangles a gondola. Laid out inside the gondola are some outlandish flight suits (designed, presumably, to protect human beings from the dangers of an elevated existence). Propellers are mounted on the gondola to push the ponderous bubble through the air. Raven's Variable Matrix is a smaller work, designed for one person who sits in a little seat in front; on each side, bird- or insectlike wings flare out from the pilot. It looks as though once the motor is turned on, the wings might actually flap.

There is a smart and knowing tone to these primitive flying machines. Panamarenko knows of the imaginary constructions of Leonardo da Vinci, and he is well aware of the early history of flying. His machines may look as if they were resting in a hangar, but their real habitat is a sophisticated gallery space. There is a comical note to the works, too, reminiscent of those early films in which a man goes running down a hill flapping outsize wings while trying to take off. And yet, much like How I Became a Ramblin' Man, the pieces seem less ironic than poignant. Panamarenko clearly longs for a time when men identified flying with birds, and hobbyists like Icarus took their chances -- a time when technology was handmade and "machine dreams" was not an oxymoron or a description of what advertisers do. Panamarenko, a good engineer and scientifically competent, is not just a faux-naïf. He's a visionary who still hopes the fact of flight will not disturb the dream of flying.

Both Panamarenko and Graham create a mood of desire -- and of desire thwarted. A simpler, more heroic time is evoked yet remains beyond reach. A close relationship to nature is presented, but one that only reminds us of how alienated we actually are from the natural world. Who would really fly those machines? They're just metaphors. Who would go ramblin' on his horse? Only the Marlboro Man. Both the drifter in Eden and the dreamer who wants to fly today appear fixed behind glass, trapped in art's diorama. In our culture, work of this kind sometimes seems a form of diminishment, either a taking away of the illusions of the past or a hothouse re-creation of them. When carried out seriously, however, this diminishing can have a tough, bracing spirit: The truth is less than we would like it to be, so get used to it.

Van Gogh's Postman: The Portraits of Joseph Roulin, which recently opened at the Museum of Modern Art, includes five of the six paintings and two of the drawings that the artist made of this storied figure. Organized by Kirk Varnedoe, the show offers the sort of closely focused view of art that a wide-angle survey cannot provide. I wish museums did more exhibits like this -- the narrow but deep apprehension of art is just as important as the Olympian view.

Toward the end of Van Gogh's life, Roulin served as a source of constant encouragement to the troubled painter, and Van Gogh became obsessed with capturing not just the character of his friend but also his spiritual force. "I have rarely seen a man of Roulin's temperament," Van Gogh wrote. "There is something in him tremendously like Socrates, ugly as a satyr, as Michelet called him, 'until on that last day a god appeared in him that illuminated the Parthenon.' " As the series of paintings progresses, their intensity increases, and Van Gogh imbues the head with a godlike presence. Flowers float in the background, making rhymes with the postman's beard. In the last picture, the astral blooms seem interspersed with stars.

Rodney Graham; Panamarenko At the Dia Center for the Arts; through 6/17.
Van Gogh's Postman: The Portraits of Joseph Roulin
At the Museum of Modern Art; through 5/15.


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