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Tarantula on Nude, Orangutan Art Jazz Up Trockel Show

'Ceramic Room'
An installation view of "Ceramic Room" (2012) by Rosemarie Trockel. The white-tiled room includes singing mechanical stuffed birds, a palm tree and revised black-and-white digital print of Courbet's erotically charged oil painting "The Origin of the World." Photographer: Benoit Pailey/The New Museum via Bloomberg

“Rosemarie Trockel: A Cosmos,” an intriguing, perplexing retrospective filling three floors at the New Museum, purports to conjure an “imaginary universe.”

Trockel’s amorphous, rough-hewn ceramic sculptures, minimalist “knit paintings,” books, drawings, collages and installations are interspersed with an array of artworks and artifacts.

These include birds handcrafted by the Outsider artist James Castle, 18th-century botanical and zoological drawings, delicate 19th-century glass models of sea creatures and three washy abstract paintings by an orangutan named Tilda.

Especially charming is Wladyslaw Starewicz’s animated 1912 film “The Cameraman’s Revenge,” a comical domestic quarrel played out by promiscuous and jealous insects.

Also of note is Trockel’s “Ceramic Room,” a white-tiled installation with mechanical singing birds, a palm tree growing upside-down out of the ceiling and a print of Courbet’s erotically charged nude “The Origin of the World,” with a Trockel-placed tarantula on the female’s pubis.

Big on variety, the show is also occasionally witty. Trockel’s decorative white-neon relief sculpture “Spiral Betty” (2010) is a pithy feminist sendup of both Dan Flavin and Robert Smithson. Her journal page “Emergency Exit” (1988), illustrated with a crude depiction of a guillotine, made me laugh out loud.

Scavenger Hunt

A rambling thesis covering wildly varied terrain, Trockel’s “universe” suggests an artist’s wish list, a naturalist’s scavenger hunt and an archaeological expedition.

Organized by the artist and Lynne Cooke, it demands that viewers make enormous leaps among objects and engage in free-association. This is exactly what encyclopedic museums have always done -- without forcing the issue.

Trockel’s “cosmos” represents a trend at the New Museum and elsewhere -- exhibitions curated as cabinets of curiosities. These shows attempt to set up and focus on far-reaching relationships among objects and art.

When this kind of environment is done well, as it was last year in “La Carte d’Apres Nature: An Exhibition Curated by Thomas Demand” at New York’s Matthew Marks Gallery, we experience a meditative immersion in art, artifice and nature.

Yet this kind of hodgepodge amalgam is also a visual and philosophical gamble that without enough “eureka” moments can leave visitors more confused than elated.

Unfortunately, Trockel’s hybrid universe, though laudable, and compelling in fits and starts, never quite fully aligns.

“Rosemarie Trockel: A Cosmos” runs through Jan. 20 at the New Museum, 235 Bowery. Information: +1-212-219-1222;

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Jason Harper on cars and Rich Jaroslovsky on tech.

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