Winter Arts Guide 2021: Liliana Porter at the Frist

“Man With Axe and Other Stories,” (detail), Liliana Porter

Condense the mess of recent events — everything from the pandemic to the Trump administration — into a single piece of art and you’d come up with something like Liliana Porter’s “To Do It: Red Sand.” (See it on the cover of this week’s issue.) In the installation, a female figurine holds a broom like she’s in the opening credits of The Carol Burnett Show, the task before her a monstrous swirl of bright-red sand. The New York-based Argentinian artist made the work in 2020, and if it were any more symbolic it would be wheat-pasted to a highly visible building like an overserious Banksy graffito. But Porter, whose long art career includes the Alice in Wonderland mosaic murals that line the walls at the 50th Street subway stop in New York’s Theater District, tempers the work with a dollhouse scale.

“To Do It” is the most recent of the works in Porter’s exhibit Man With Axe and Other Stories, but the exhibition’s title takes its name from the show’s centerpiece. Its scale is both miniature and grand — the man and his axe are tiny, but the items he’s left in his path of destruction include plates, books and a full-sized piano. 

“The tableau illustrates that, like time itself, a tiny thing — a virus, a dangerous ideology, or a lone person — can bring down a kingdom or a world,” writes Frist Art Museum chief curator Mark Scala in an exhibition statement. The array of destroyed objects in “Man With Axe” works like an illustration in the children’s book series I Spy, and the novelty of seeing a pile of broken dishes and dirt on a museum floor is similarly compelling. Like the sand mandala that was painstakingly produced by Tibetan monks inside the Frist in 2017 only to be swept away in a ritual cleansing, Porter’s exhibition shows that destruction is often the first step toward rebirth.

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