New Age

Courtesy of the Renaissance Society

“Hair” is doing a lot of public relations work for the Renaissance Society these days. The 1967 musical’s  upper-register anthem proclaims and repeats the name of the gallery’s newest exhibition, “The Age of Aquarius.” With the words,”This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius, the age of Aquarius!” ringing in your head, images of bell-bottomed hippies dancing atop the University of Chicago’s Cobb Hall can’t help but come to mind. This is a fanciful image for what initially seems to be a fanciful exhibit–after over 40 years of artistic fascination with the 1960s (the oft-called “Age of Aquarius”) it would seem as if there is not much left to be said about the period that doesn’t come across as ridiculous, trite, or inauthentic.

“Quadrangle,” a 17-minute documentary by filmmaker Amy Grappell, tells the story of a marriage in the early 1970s. “Everything is a tragedy. Everybody has a tragedy,” begins the film. “You think your tragedy is the only tragedy? Everyone has a tragedy. Everyone has an interesting life.” Already, the opening lines of the film–the first impression most visitors receive after walking into the gallery–border on the melodramatic. Despite the extravagant words, the voice sounds honest and unscripted. There are no over-dramatic musical flourishes, only a woman from New York City, driving her car and telling her story.

Gradually, the woman is revealed to be Grappell’s mother, Deanna, who, with her husband Paul, entered into an open relationship with another married couple in the early ’70s. The story is told by Deanna and Paul in separate interviews, masterfully edited together by Grappell to create the illusion that the two of them–who, until the film was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, had been separated for 30 years–are telling the story together, engaging each other in conversation.

Over the course of the short film, Deanna and Paul recount how after months of being in a foursome (a “quadrangle”), the couples ultimately divorced and married the opposite spouses. The film ends here, leaving viewers to form their own judgments about a relationship change that was intended to save a failing marriage.

“I’ve been carrying this story for a really long time,” said Grappell in a phone interview. “I don’t think it was very good for us, as kids, but in a way, them saying [the foursome] was an alternative to divorce, that ‘we’re all going to be honest about it,’ there’s something very idealistic about it…as a culture we just don’t have that kind of energy right now, or that kind of optimism, to try things. And maybe that was just a moment in time in our history, but there is something about that moment in time…I feel nostalgic for that.”

Although perhaps less direct in their approach, the other artists in the exhibition evoke the essence of the era no less effectively. A four-by-eight foot plinth in the corner of the gallery supports Carol Bove’s “The Difficult Crossing,” a piece consisting of over ten interconnected objects that include a piece of coral and concrete, a folk art bust, and a photograph of New Age icon Gerald Heard. On the wall is a tapestry of peacock feathers, another installation by Bove that toes the line between the garish and the beautiful. With its kaleidoscopic swirls of blue and green the peacock feathers are easily the most psychedelic piece in the gallery. Hundreds and hundreds of feathers hang together on the wall in an almost painfully flashy display that is more freakish than groovy.

One of the exhibit’s more striking pieces is David Noonan’s series of eight flat, life-size figures of dancers placed around the gallery floor. Taken from period photos of dance and theater performances, the frozen, black-clad figures look tribal and even fanciful in their various positions, one with its head down and hands shaking in the air, another appearing to be in the middle of a handclap, spinning on one foot. In their different positions each seems to tell a different story, and the variety of their appearances–even though all are dressed in the same black outfit–evokes a variety of emotions: amusement at the spinning figure, curiosity at the hand shaking figure and what it is he’s trying to do.

The ’60s are prone to oversimplification, perceived as either an idealistic time we should return to or an idealistic time that we should strive never to repeat. The exhibit succeeds by refusing to make these claims about the Age of Aquarius. The pieces evoke feelings of joy and sadness, hope and disillusionment, but rather than demanding a specific understanding from the viewer, they demand only to be experienced.

The Renaissance Society. Cobb Hall 418, 5811 S. Ellis Ave. Through May 1. Tuesday-Friday, 10am-5pm; Saturday-Sunday, noon-5pm. (773)702-8679.