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'Frontiers' sums up one decade and many approaches

Worcester show is a hit-and-miss sampler of recent works

WORCESTER -- You could hear the blast for miles around Auburn that July afternoon in 1929. Worried residents rang the authorities: Had a plane crashed? Rescuers raced into the countryside, only to find Robert Goddard. The Worcester native and his crew had just fired a test rocket 90 feet into the sky above his aunt's farm and were hunting for a part lost when the rocket crashed back to earth 171 feet away. ''Moon Rocket Misses Target by 238,799 1/2 Miles," one headline teased.

Nam June Paik's 1995 sculpture ''Robert Goddard," a portrait of the pioneer of rocket science made of blinking televisions, flashing lights, faux rocket tubes, and orange neon flames, is one of the highlights of ''Frontiers: Collecting the Art of Our Time," at the Worcester Art Museum through Feb. 12. The witty, jazzy piece comes from a series that Paik, the recently deceased pioneer of video art, made in homage to his ''technology ancestors." It looks like something a Victorian fabulist dreamed up -- a chunky robot rocket cobbled together from junk parts, with an old-timey radio for a head. Paik's televisions strobe fluorescent rocket launches and astronauts. Slowly the irony dawns on you that the work of Goddard, who had a testy relationship with the media, led to adventures we know primarily through TV news, through signals beamed to us live via satellite.

The Worcester show, a hit-and-miss sampler of art the museum has collected from the past decade, accurately represents what you might call our Anything-Goes Era. Twentieth-century Modernism was built on a tale of linear progress -- a train chugging logically from Impressionism to Cubism to Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism and so on. Since, say, the 1980s, it sometimes seems as if all the routes have been mapped, and all that's left is to turn back and reexamine what got passed in the great forward rush.

The result is our era of pluralism and postmodernism, of individuals charting their own paths from the end of the line or rediscovering routes overlooked because they weren't on the Modernist mainline. The wealth of possibilities and lack of clear common direction are disorienting. Curator Susan Stoops offers us some bearings by dividing the works of 40 international artists into explorations of place, identity, storytelling, and materials.

There are some big names here: Sigmar Polke, Faith Ringgold, Kiki Smith, Rachel Whiteread. And a number of Massachusetts artists are represented, with Laylah Ali's menacing cartoon fables, Ambreen Butt's contemporary Persian miniature, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons's photographic performance, Robert Ferrandini's painted Yankee apparition, Howard Johnson's visionary jottings, Sharon Lockhart's anthropological photos, John O'Reilly's collaged photographic dream, and Alexander Ross's painted biotech blobs. Shellburne Thurber of Cambridge offers a great moody photo of an abandoned Southern house, the plaster crumbling down around the empty coat hooks of an upstairs room.

Stoops sharply pairs Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle's portrait of artist Byron Kim and his family reduced to their DNA charts (the perfect likeness) with Kim's own painting of his adolescent son reduced to bars the color of his skin and clothes. These are OK pieces, but together they represent many artists' attempts to figure out just what individuality means in a digital age when everyone is reduced to their identifying data.

Stoops's most daring move presents video-art star Bill Viola's ''Union" (2000) amidst the mourning Madonnas and crucified Christs in a gallery of medieval art. Viola's paired television screens show a bare-chested man and woman silently writhing, sobbing, wailing. Viola took their one-minute act and slowed it to eight minutes, giving it a majesty and reverence, though it verges on schmaltz. And the curator's brilliant installation makes you see the old work and the new afresh.

Before you leave, check out Tony Feher's ''Linear B" (2001), a couple dozen blue-capped Sprite bottles slung from the ceiling like a bunch of fruit sprouting from a vine. The piece is representative of a lot of what is difficult about art of the past century, which is why I'd suggest spending five minutes with it, even though it's a bit boring. Consider again if all the modern disposable junk that we surround ourselves with -- all the plastic and television and data -- could be art if you looked a little differently. It's a question artists have toyed with for more than a century; you can see it in Monet's paintings of smoky train stations. And it's a question they continue to wrestle with in this thrilling, disorienting moment.

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