Ackland Art Museum
101 S. Columbia St., Chapel Hill
Reception: Friday, Sept. 11, 6–9 p.m.
Through Jan. 3

I’ve got good news and bad news about the Ackland Art Museum‘s new show. First, the good news: It’s packed with artworks that are very much worth seeing. And now, the bad news: It’s packed with artworks that are very much worth seeing. Jam-packed.

Somehow coherent despite its density, Testing Testing: Painting and Sculpture Since 1960 From the Permanent Collection crams in so much of the Ackland’s diverse repository that pieces are scattered throughout the building, with one more off-site. The show is proof-of-concept for what the curatorial staff could do with the collection if they had the proper gallery space in which to display it.

Let’s face it: The Ackland needs a new building. The blank brick frontage makes it look perpetually closed. No natural light gets inside. Institutional carpet and drop ceilings suggest a dentist’s office. In the bland, artless lobby, you’re greeted by a uniformed guard. In every way, it’s an academic building masquerading as a museum. Only someone whose calendar is stuck in 1995 would disagree.

Back then, Duke’s museum was entombed in the frumpy Friedl Building on East Campus. N.C. State’s Gregg Museum of Art and Design shared the campus center’s second floor with ballrooms and auditoriums. The North Carolina Museum of Art was in the dark-brick Brutalist fallout shelter that’s now called “the old building.”

But today at NCMA, tour groups are admiring not only the sea of Rodin sculptures but also the sun-drenched galleries. A construction site at N.C. State will soon house a spacious, stand-alone Gregg. At Duke, they’re sending their gowns and tuxes to the cleaners before the recently renovated Nasher Museum of Art‘s 10th birthday bash in November.

At UNC-Chapel Hill, the hope is just that the paperboy doesn’t fling more news of athletic or academic scandalsor stormy weather out of Art Pope’s officeonto the front stoop. Politically, it’s not the right time for the Ackland to stand up and point out that it’s been left behind. What’s an aging state-university museum to do?

In a politically conservative moment, Testing Testing is one answer to that question. As usual, the Ackland’s curatorial and preparatory staff has worked wonders designing the show, building extra-tall walls in the first gallery to give a grand feeling akin to a Nasher pavilion or NCMA wing. It’s meant to feel like a permanent installation of contemporary art, and it nearly succeeds.

In the first gallery, it’s hard to keep your eyes off Rachel Howard’s spectacular, glossy painting, “Gluttony,” which looks like it might have been manufactured by a high-end surfboard workshop. It benefits from your ability to see it from both across the room and six inches away. That kind of vantage would help much of the painting in Testing Testing, but the Ackland’s architecture denies it.

The east wall holds a run of ritualistic sculptural works terminating in Lee N. Smith III’s “Spirits at Dog Dump,” an oil painting that recalls a velvet one. In a larger space, Smith’s painting is an interesting counterpoint to Horst Egon Kalinowski’s leather-and-wood wall piece, H. C. Westermann’s strangely utilitarian “Vent for a Chicken House,” Renée Stout’s coarse metal figure, “Ogun” and Thornton Dial’s wall-like bird’s nest of a sculpture, “New Generation.”

But here, the Smith piece forces everything else too close together. The Dial is up against a wall so you can’t see its significantly different back. When it was installed diagonally in a corner of the Ackland’s 2012 show Thornton Dial: Thoughts on Paper, you could walk around it to see its intimate construction. Here, you can’t make the connections between the Dial, Stout and Kalinowski pieces that more real estate would allow.

In the second room, optically active works benefit from the close quarters. Eero Hiironen’s mirror-like stainless steel piece, “Springtime II (Kevät II),” reflects Henry C. Pearson’s topographical work, “4/1963 (Black on Yellow).” It’s a moment that should make you break out smiling.

Other highlights include the lenticular “Physichromie No. 641” by Carlos Cruz-Diez, which changes dramatically as you walk past it, and Julian Stanczak’s “Glare.” Its geometric patterning tricks your eyes into seeing colors that aren’t actually painted there.

But the abstract and figurative paintings in subsequent rooms aren’t activated by proximity. Without a spacious, naturally lit setting, the textured surfaces of Jules Olitski’s “Cauldron” and Larry Poons’ “Southern Loss” blur into frozen sleet. The ironic, ornate gown of trash that Julie Heffernan wears in her baroque “Self-Portrait as Dirty Princess” would stand out with a little more space between it and Hung Liu’s detailed portrait, “Peaches.”

Two of the most compelling works in the show are placed in other parts of the museumto their benefit. Tony Oursler’s video installation, “Eye in the Sky 1997” consists of a floating eyeball with a television screen reflected in its wet surface. It looks great in a dark alcove. Do-Ho Suh’s “Floor,” on which a viewer stands, supported by thousands of upraised hands of tiny plastic figurines, recontextualizes nearby ceramics from the Ackland’s Asian collection.

But there’s no doubt that Testing Testing would look better in better digs. Although its message might be too subtle to be heard, perhaps it will prime trustees, alumni and development staff for a conversation about a bigger, brighter future for the museum. After all, N.C. State was able to raise almost $10 million in grants and donations for the new Gregg. The first step is the political will to raise a topic no one’s been quite daring enough to broach: “the new Ackland.”

This article appeared in print with the headline “Testing the waters”