Activating an unnoticed museum hallway

At the MFA, Jim Lambie draws on a love of music as well as a fondness for broken chairs

Email|Print| Text size + By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / November 25, 2007

Scottish artist Jim Lambie specializes in vibrant, eye-popping installation art, but he pays a lot of attention to what he hears.

"Do you hear all the ambient sounds around us?" Lambie asks, sitting in the Museum of Fine Art's Galleria cafe over a glass of ice water. He was in town earlier this month to oversee the installation of his exhibit "RSVP: Jim Lambie," which opened Nov. 10 at the MFA. "Snippets of conversation, tables getting moved, glasses clinking. There's a certain music about the space."

Lambie is a DJ as well as a visual artist. "In my day-to-day life, I get up in the morning and start playing tunes. I used to play in bands," says the mop-topped Scot. He hunches his shoulders in a sheepish slouch and makes only brief, shy eye contact as he talks. "I still mess around making music."

There's no sound component to "RSVP: Jim Lambie," but the taped arcs of parallel black lines pulsating along the wall opposite the cafe and museum shop do have an audio reference.

"They're a large graphic of the grooves in a vinyl record," Lambie explains in his soft Scottish burr.

Over that Op-Art-style backdrop, Lambie has mounted sculptures made of chairs sliced in half and assembled into many-legged forms, painted gaudy colors and hung with mirrored handbags. "The sculpture elements are like, well, you know the way dust gathers on the needle?" he asks. "[The tape] goes on like a skin on the wall, almost like a tattoo. Then you have the needle on the skin, and on a vinyl record. If you get too much dust, the record will jump. That's my myopic view of what's going on."

Lambie, 43, who was short-listed for Great Britain's Turner Prize in 2005, has made taped installations since 1999. They sport wild designs that echo the architecture of the spaces they occupy. Lambie is the third artist tapped for the MFA's "RSVPmfa" program, a sporadic series that invites rising stars in contemporary art to create an installation in response to the museum's collections and architecture. Previous "RSVPmfa" artists were Jonathan Borofsky in 2000 and Sarah Sze in 2002.

Lambie hops up from the table. "The more expansive view has to do with the architecture," he says. He points to the arcs that several assistants are applying to the wall, then runs his hand along the round table's edge. "The curve of the table. It's the same as the curve of the dome," he says, gesturing at the ceiling. Even the museum shop's glass walls arc outward. I.M. Pei's West Wing is sinuous with curves.

Once on his feet, Lambie is eager to see the chair parts, which haven't yet been mounted on the wall. He hasn't looked at them since he shipped them from Glasgow. William Stover, the assistant curator of contemporary art who organized the exhibit, leads him through the museum to a large storage room, where the candy-colored half-chairs lie on great brown sheets of paper on the floor.

"This is my palette," Lambie declares excitedly. "I'm really making paintings with these parts. Selecting colors, putting them together, kind of like brushstrokes. It's sculpture meets installation meets painting."

He found the chairs in used furniture stores and junk shops around Glasgow. "I've always used readymade material," he says. "The familiarity is an entrance for people. The chair constructions are like little conversations, fractured."

"They're beautiful," Stover says of the half-chairs. "We opened the crates and gasped."

Stover has been following Lambie's work for years. When he saw the artist's black-and-white floor installation in a palazzo at the 2003 Venice Biennale, he knew Lambie would be a good fit for the RSVP program.

"I find Jim's use of space interesting, and how he relates to art history," says Stover. "He's related to Marcel Duchamp's readymades, to Op Art and Bridget Riley. His work is very accessible - people recognize the materials - and it's very beautiful. It's got the wow factor."

Back in the West Wing, Lambie walks the long hallway stretching out from the Foster Gallery for contemporary art. The wall his installation is going up on has always been a blank space that nobody took much note of. Now it has caught the eyes of museum visitors, made them pause, sparked conversations. "I feel that the space separates the gallery and the museum's entrance, which is slightly dead," he says. "It's interesting to activate it, and pull both sides of the museum together."

"Jim, how does this look?" calls out an assistant, positioning yet another black-and-white rainbow up near the ceiling. The installation has gone more slowly than expected, as the assemblage of taped arcs has become more and more dense and dizzying, a visual evocation of the DJ's needle skipping back and forth over an album.

Lambie responds with a wave. "Yeah, that looks good, definitely."

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