Anniversaries inevitably trigger nostalgia, but they rarely produce anything so vacuous as Liz Deschenes' "Gallery 7" installation at Walker Art Center. The banality of the show is irksome even without the nonsensical claim that it relates to the architecture and history of the Walker, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary as a modernist art venue.
Billed as a "photographic intervention," "Gallery 7" consists of 11 white-framed panels, each about 5 feet tall and 3 feet wide, lined up shoulder to shoulder, parallel to the long wall in an otherwise empty gallery. The exhibition's title is the former name of the gallery itself. Nine of the frames contain slightly angled mirror-like panels treated on one side with chemicals that will change over time. Their flip sides resemble brushed stainless steel. The other two frames contain similarly angled panels, one blue, one teal.
An explanatory card states that the New York-based artist is a big deal who has been doing this sort of thing for a quarter-century. Her résumé is fat with honors and appearances, including the 2012 Whitney Biennial. She doesn't use cameras. Her "photogram" panels darken in response to light, humidity, movement. This will take a year.
The card includes a diagram of the metal grid in the gallery's terrazzo floor (spoiler alert: It's divided into 100 identical rectangles) and two drab photos of 1943 and 1973 Walker exhibits that inspired Deschenes. The '43 show prompted her to have three rows of picture-hanging niches inset into the gallery's walls. Unused, they look like decorative white-on-white stripes. The effect, if any, of the '73 show is not apparent.
Even for dyed-in-the-wool minimalists, this high-minded hokum seems condescending. Photograms — images made by exposing photographic chemicals without the aid of cameras — have been around since the medium's start 175 years ago. As seen here, Deschenes' "speculative research into photography" is little more than dinking around with stuff that pretty much everybody knows.
Gallery 7, as the space was called in the days before the Walker started selling naming rights to its internal real estate, has always been my favorite among the seven original galleries in the 1971 brick-clad wing designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes. Now dubbed Medtronic Gallery, it is the topmost display space in a series of subtly varied and interlinked galleries that fan out around a central stair-and-elevator core. Its most inviting feature is an east-facing window wall that opens onto a rooftop sculpture terrace and offers splendid views of Loring Park and downtown Minneapolis.
Originally it was reached via a tall, narrow stairway from the skylit gallery below, a dreamlike ascent that opened as if magically into the luminous light that always seemed to suffuse Gallery 7, even on cold winter afternoons. That lovely stairway was walled off more than a decade ago and permanently removed in the recent re-bricking of the building. With its demise a crucial bit of Barnes' architectural poetry died, and Medtronic was severed from the spiral of interconnected galleries that made the Walker so distinctive. Now accessible only via the central elevator and stairwell, the Medtronic Gallery is just an untethered afterthought.
At least its beautiful window wall has been restored after years in which that, too, was boarded up and the space turned into a claustrophobic coop.
In the early days, Gallery 7 often served as a kind of lounge where visitors could settle into leather sofas, chat and thumb through art magazines before stepping outside to enjoy sculpture and urban views. Over the years it was often a showcase for new work by Minnesota artists and the site of offbeat installations and events, including the unveiling of "Hefty 2-Ply," Jud Nelson's trompe l'oeil garbage-bag sculpture carved from Carrara marble; a cooking demo and campout by Rirkrit Tiravanija, and a display of museum founder T.B. Walker's Hudson River landscape paintings — complete with potted palms to evoke the hothouse atmosphere of his overdecorated Victorian manse.
From the start, the Barnes building was heralded as a brilliant example of mid-20th-century minimalism. With its white floors, illusion of floating walls and coffered ceilings whose recesses masked the spotlights, it was an unassuming and flexible backdrop for paintings, sculpture, photos, installations — art of any sort. That's a heritage worth celebrating on a 75th anniversary. Sadly, Deschenes' facile trivia fails to match the occasion.