The Met’s Big Idea: Part Art, Part Anthropology

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is presenting Splendid Isolation: Art of Easter Island , the first U.S. exhibition devoted to the art of (as its homelanders refer to it) Rapa Nui. It’s a gem of a show, and by “gem” I refer both to the exhibition’s quality and size. Occupying an inauspicious nook of the Rockefeller Wing, Splendid Isolation is an anti-blockbuster: proof that bigger is not necessarily better.

Of course, what most of us know about Easter Island is big. Who isn’t familiar with the colossal stone figures, called moai , that populate this remote Chilean island some 1,400 miles off the east coast of South America? Seeing those famed behemoth sculptures in situ must be an incredible experience–one that no museum could hope to replicate. What the Met offers instead is a fragment of one moai, a head shaped from volcanic rock measuring almost four feet high. Placed at the entrance of the show, it regards us sternly. We tiptoe around this imposing visage lest we incur its displeasure.

One would think the moai would be a tough act to follow. Yet the nearly 50 objects included in Splendid Isolation , particularly those carved from wood, are more distinctive in terms of their sculptural vitality. The most compelling aspect of the art of the Rapa Nui–a people who have a common ancestry with those of Hawaii, Tahiti and the Maori of New Zealand–is its tautness and precision. Whether depicting a human, an animal or a seamless mixture of the two, their sculptures haresan extreme, though not unpliable, tension. It’s as if each figure were captured in a moment of unflinching attentiveness.

A sea-turtle pendant–one of the real beauties here–grimaces with determination as it snugly holds its flippers at its side. A gaunt moai kavakava , a figure thought to represent a spirit of the dead, teeters with what can only be called a strict elasticity. Even the forceful manner in which the belly of one well-fed gentleman sags suggests that no aspect of life is without its own peculiar pull.

The detail and finish of the carvings is finely honed. Less refined are the manu uru , figures constructed from wood, paint, reeds and barkcloth. The specific religious function of these rough-hewn effigies is a matter of conjecture; some may represent ancestor figures. Yet the manner in which they herald the supernormal is unmistakable. One barkcloth figure lifts its hands gingerly, retracts its legs and sets its mouth as if to urge caution to something coming its way–a something that we intuitively grasp is formidable, unearthly but not entirely unwelcome. It is with moments as exact and uncanny as this one that Splendid Isolation fascinates. Splendid Isolation: Art of Easter Island is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, until Aug. 4.

Tricky Paintings For Shifty Eyes

I was going to write that the Katharina Rich Perlow Gallery is hosting an exhibition of paintings by Joe Naujokas, but Mr. Naujokas isn’t a painter; he’s a tinkerer. Employing oil paint and canvas–and, in a couple of unfortunate instances, toy trains and shrubbery–Mr. Naujokas constructs elaborate contraptions out of the conventions of pictorial art. His pictures are incessant juxtapositions of image and incident. In one work, the Lincoln Tunnel is revealed to be a painting within a painting, which is then interrupted by diagrams of corresponding architecture; overlaid on all of this is a painted bolt hanging from a painted string. This type of intricately contrived imagery has as its antecedent the trompe l’oeil paintings of 19th-century American artists like William Harnett and John Peto. Except that Mr. Naujokas isn’t out to fool the eye; he’s out to keep it hustling and bustling, shifting and jerking. His pictures are tricky. Irresistible, too.

On the day I saw Mr. Naujokas’ exhibition, visitors to the gallery delighted in the work’s quicksilver illusionism. And why not? The pictures are perpetual firecrackers–they never stop going off. Yet as much as they keep the eye occupied, the pictures don’t truly engage us. The work, being all surface all of the time, is too intent on yanking our eye to settle down to the extent that we can settle in. Having said that, not once did I wish the artist would play it straight–you know, paint the Lincoln Tunnel without the surrounding gimcrackery.

Gimcrackery, as it turns out, is Mr. Naujokas’ gift. Once he discovers a way to deepen that gift, he’ll make paintings that merit the name. In the meantime, his expert entertainments entertain pretty well. Joe Naujokas: Tabletop Vistas-New Work is at the Katharina Rich Perlow Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, until Feb. 28.