The design of “Steve McQueen” is daring, especially by the Art Institute’s conservative standards. Gone are the brightly lit white walls that defined blockbuster exhibitions of Lichtenstein and Matisse. Curator James Rondeau gives this comprehensive survey of British artist McQueen’s 20-year career—which the museum bills as the first anywhere—an open floor plan and minimal wall text, allowing visitors to wander (and sometimes stumble) through the darkened space as they encounter each piece on its own terms.
American audiences mainly know McQueen through his feature films Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011), but works for gallery spaces comprise the bulk of his oeuvre. Rondeau assembles 15 video installations alongside short films, photographic projects and sculptures, nearly all of which reflect the artist’s concern with personal identity.
The show opens with McQueen’s dizzying long shots of the Statue of Liberty, taken from a circling helicopter, in Static (2009). The camera work makes the statue appear to rotate on a giant lazy Susan. Rondeau describes this odd visual effect as “destabilizing the symbol.” Like Danh Vo’s fragmented Lady Liberty on view at the Modern Wing—also a non-American take on the Statue—Static speaks of the promise and limits of exported U.S. ideals on the world stage.
McQueen’s other installations often explore his challenges as a black artist working in a largely white art world. One of the most engaging and poetic is Deadpan (1997). Inspired by Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), this silent black-and-white film presents multiple shots of a house facade falling around the artist. In each instance, McQueen remains standing and physically unharmed. The theme of repeated victories against adversity resonates throughout the show.