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From charred wood to tropical fantasies

With its new permanent collection and exhibits, can the ICA build buzz?

One of the unalloyed delights of the Institute of Contemporary Art's new permanent collection is "Point of Sale," a funny and ingenious three-screen video installation by Christian Jankowski.

A business management consultant in the center screen interviews two proprietors of small businesses who appear on flanking screens: George Kunstlinger, who sells electronic equipment, and Michele Maccarone, who, in a gallery upstairs from Kunstlinger's store, sells contemporary art, including Jankowski's.

As the program proceeds, you realize that the two interviewees have switched roles. In response to the consultant's questions, the gravelly voiced, yarmulke-wearing Kunstlinger describes life as a dealer of trendy, cutting-edge art while the pretty, young, and stylish Maccarone explains the ins and outs of the electronic commodities trade. The effect is comically subversive, slightly surrealistic, and socioeconomically illuminating. And it is a good reason why the ICA should be in the business of collecting art.

The ICA won't be going on a wholesale buying spree. The plan is to acquire works only from exhibitions at the museum. So far, the collection includes about 30 items, which are on view now along with the inaugural "Super Vision" exhibition and several smaller shows.

At present, the permanent collection is a mixed bag. Highlights include biting, humanistic photographs by Nan Goldin, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, and Boris Mikhailov ; a dreamy digital animation projected on the floor by Paul Chan; and an elegant installation of suspended charred wood fragments by Cornelia Parker.

Some things obliquely speak to one another -- see the dialogue between Taylor Davis's beautifully crafted wooden pallet with interior mirrors and Mona Hatoum's Victorian chaise made from industrial steel-tread plate. Some pieces may be perplexing to the uninitiated: Kai Althoff's faux-adolescent paintings and drawings, for example, and a big wooden sculpture of a necklace with a Tower of Pisa pendant by Thomas Hirschhorn. And if the portentous expressionistic paintings of children, skeletons, and a naked witch by Marlene Dumas went into storage and never re-emerged, it would be just fine with me.

Building and maintaining a consequential permanent collection is a challenge for any ambitious art museum. Money, space, and energy must be allocated for storage and conservation, and relationships with people who help make acquiring art possible -- dealers, collectors, and donors -- have to be intelligently and ethically managed. If the ICA does it right, however, the growing collection will become increasingly valuable not only as a record of the museum's exhibiting program but as an in-house resource out of which exhibitions combining works in new ways can be curated.

So how good is the new building for exhibiting art?

Pretty good, I think. Too often, fancy museum architecture distracts from the art it is supposed to present. Diller, Scofidio + Renfro have solved the problem by separating the more showy and complicated parts of their building from the galleries, which occupy a simple long box on top. The galleries are unobtrusive and flexible; they can be easily altered to accommodate new exhibition configurations.

The new galleries are not huge, however, and some observers say that the ICA's 17,000 square feet, triple what it had at its cramped former site on Boylston Street, are still not enough. Compared to the huge increase in space for other functions -- the 325-seat theater, the Mediatheque with its rows of computers, the vast glass-walled lobby, the Wolfgang Puck cafe -- it doesn't seem like that much.

I can't help but fantasize about the kind of space for art there could have been had the ICA gone the route of rehabbing a giant old industrial building. I worry that the ICA's commitment to art might be reduced as commitments to the performing arts and film programming rise.

But I've come to be convinced that Boston needs a spectacular flagship building to galvanize and expand its historically unstable audience for contemporary art. If other space-eating attractions and amenities are needed to help make that happen, so be it. And if it all wildly succeeds and it becomes apparent that the current galleries are too small, that can only be a good thing. Then the ICA could look into creating a cheap but spacious satellite building, as the Whitney Museum of American Art is doing now in New York.

What it will take to grow the audience for contemporary art once the alluring novelty of the new building wears off is exciting exhibition programming. The ICA cannot just recycle last year's art and ideas from New York, Los Angeles, and Europe. It has to produce shows that generate buzz not only in Boston and New England but up and down the East Coast. It has to become a place that the smartest people in the business think they need to keep track of.

None of the ICA's current exhibitions are going to shake people up in Boston or beyond. As I wrote in an earlier review, the museum's first major show, "Super Vision," is not the big bang I'd hoped it would be. And if the ICA's upcoming schedule seems less than adventurous, it's only fair to wait and see. It took five years to get the building done; it might take a few years for the art program to learn how to use its new visibility.

One of the best elements of the ICA's planned exhibition program is the "Momentum" series of small, one-person shows. That program's sixth artist, now on view, is Sergio Vega, an Argentine who lives and teaches in Gainesville, Fla.

Vega's "Tropicalounge" is a complicated, colorful, and entertaining multimedia installation that deconstructs modern fantasies of paradise associated with Brazil. With walls painted avocado and mango; green lily-pad cushions on a blue lagoon-shaped rug; blown-up photographs of exotic birds and colorful, curvy modern buildings; and a stereo playing bossa nova music, Vega's installation could be the prototype for a retro - chic bar and lounge.

But Vega also included a full-scale re - creation of the front of a poor person's shanty, complete with chickens in a dusty front yard, pointing up the gap between modern fantasies of tropical bliss and social realities of poverty and multinational corporate exploitation. Essays by Vega posted on the walls further develop theories about Modernism and myths of the jungle as a New World Eden.

Suavely done though Vega's installation is, there's an element of the walk-in, liberal-minded textbook to it. I think it could plumb the psychic depths of its theme more deeply and disturbingly. But not every "Momentum" exhibition needs to be great. It's an occasion for experimenting, for exploring the outer limits of art today.

More complicated questions arise with an exhibition of nominees for the biennial ICA Artist Prize, now called the James and Audrey Foster Prize, which awards $25,000 to a promising Boston-area artist. This year's four finalists, all women, are not impressive. Each is given her own sizable space, and all four shows look like MFA degree thesis exhibitions, as each artist offers several disconnected, mildly clever conceptual projects.

Sheila Gallagher creates pastiches of romantic landscape paintings using smoke and soot instead of paint, and she built into a gallery wall a large "painting" of clouds in the sky made entirely of live, variously colored flowers that are watered by a hidden irrigation system.

Kelly Sherman presents a video montage of chairs for sale on eBay, computer-designed diagrams of wedding-party seating plans, and machine-printed copies of personal wish lists found on the Internet that are more monotonous than poetic.

In a video in her show, Rachel Perry Welty lip-synchs, to comical effect, messages left by mistake on her telephone answering machine. She also makes expansive Minimalist sculptures -- tapestry-like panels and a vertical, hanging box shape -- by connecting together thousands of twist-ties.

Jane D. Marsching has made a video compilation of views of the North Pole originally produced by a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration webcam. Her exhibition also contains photographs of glaciers with people doing acrobatic stunts digitally inserted for no clear reason. And she provides laptops by which visitors can participate in online conversations about the Arctic and climate change.

Pondering such earnest but routinely academic work, I wonder, can it be that there are not more ambitious, original, and daring artists working in the Boston area? If there are, the ICA needs to reconsider its nominating process.

Should the ICA do more for local artists? Not necessarily. I'm not interested in seeing affirmative-action exhibitions for Boston artists. I don't want the ICA to be a local community museum. I'd rather see the ICA double the prize money and make it a national artist's prize, like the Guggenheim's Hugo Boss Prize . I hope the ICA curators won't overlook any major talent that may be residing in the area, but I don't think local favoritism helps anyone very much, excepting the lucky individuals who win the big prize.

And then there's the Art Wall. Every year, the ICA will commission an artist to do something on the big wall in the museum's lobby, which measures 40 feet long and almost 27 feet high at one end and slopes to 13 1/2 feet at the other end. This year's mural is a huge, anime-style cartoon by the Japanese artist Chiho Aoshima called "The Divine Gas."

Designed on a computer, printed on sections of adhesive vinyl, and applied like wallpaper, "The Divine Gas" is a colorful, psychedelic vision of a giant nude girl lying in a meadow and expelling from her upraised bottom a swirling cloud in the midst of which sits a dark-skinned, Buddha-like divinity.

I love that what greets visitors to the ICA now is the image of a huge naked sprite giving birth to divinity through an act of flatulence. There's a spirit of playful impudence about it that I hope the whole museum will learn to embrace.

Ken Johnson can be reached at