Salon-style, the Dolphin’s last Crossroads exhibition goes swimmingly

If you’re the nostalgic type, then get to the Dolphin gallery before it’s over in the Crossroads. Unless you’ve been under a rock, you know that the Dolphin is decamping for the West Bottoms, and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art is moving in. Owner John O’Brien’s desire to stake a new claim in an old territory drives him westward. Good for the Kemper and the Crossroads, bad for driving down to the West Bottoms to look at art or get it framed.

This swan song, delivered to us in a salon-style installation, is a Pitti Palace knockoff that works. Floor to ceiling, the walls are covered in art — so here’s a shout-out to the crack installation staff at the Dolphin. Hanging work this way isn’t as easy as it looks.

Salon-style installations naturally raise questions about what the mode of display is supposed to suggest. In the wrong curatorial hands, an art installation’s intent can be aggressively, clumsily or misguidedly expressed. Historically speaking, salon style has been a display of wealth. Anyone who had the most art and the most walls to display it — the Medici or the British country estate owner — obviously had the most money. And though money and real estate are inextricably tied to the politics of art and its display, here at the Dolphin it’s more of a theatrical experience.

The gallery is transformed by the art. Here the walls seemingly disappear, thus destabilizing the architectural authority of the space and even the authority of the gallery itself. That’s not a bad thing. The installation seems to suggest that the artists and their work come before the triumvirate of the economies of art display: money, power, real estate. As for spatial hierarchy, there is none. Each vantage point offers its own unique pleasures; this time, no one place on the gallery wall is better than another.

Such an exhibition doesn’t allow for serious study of a particular artist’s work, but there are standouts and intriguing combinations. With gallery stalwarts Archie Scott Gobber’s clever word paintings and Davin Watne’s monumental car-wreck painting, the exhibition provides not only a reminder of the work we’ve seen over the years at Dolphin but also an homage to O’Brien’s dedication to these artists and, more important, their own fealty to their particular visions and practices.

Debra Smith’s beautiful red-and-white patchwork textile piece feels fresh and significant, as do photographs from Mike Sinclair and one from a David Ford performance. Johnny Naughahyde’s tiny wishbone painting on paper, positioned under a Wilbur Niewald still life with skulls, appeals for its humor as much as for its witty juxtaposition with the Niewald.

This isn’t an exhibition to examine for conceptual themes or aesthetic precision. But it is a scrapbook of working lives: those of the artists, the gallery workers and their enthusiasts. The works stand as souvenirs of memory, experience and intent. It is a fitting culmination to a gallery’s presence, history and influence.

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