The Latest
July 16, 2024

Where Every Family Matters

Frist Art Museum Presents Works by Argentina-Born Artist Liliana Porter

The exhibition will be on view in the Gordon Contemporary Artists Project Gallery from February 5 through May 2, 2021.

The Frist Art Museum presents Liliana Porter: Man with Axe and Other Stories, a large-scale installation that will be shown with additional works by the Argentina-born artist. Porter (b. 1941) is renowned for arranging discarded everyday objects to create theatrical vignettes that are philosophically provocative and slyly humorous.

The centerpiece of the exhibition, Man with Axe and Other Stories (2017), on loan from the Pérez Art Museum in Miami, offers a bird’s-eye view of a civilization being reduced to rubble. The sprawling work features a small plastic figure of an axe-wielding man who appears to have demolished an array of items, from dollhouse furniture to vases, clocks, and a full-size piano. “The tableau illustrates that, like time itself, a tiny thing—a virus, a dangerous ideology, or a lone person—can bring down a kingdom or a world,” writes Frist Art Museum chief curator Mark Scala. “Rich with melancholy and humor and despair and hope, the installation shows the man with the axe as a sociopathic embodiment of time itself, forever frozen in a single moment, forever unfolding in a pattern of violence and renewal.”

The installation should read as scary and apocalyptic, but Porter does not wish to cause undue anxiety or limit the viewer to a pessimistic opinion of the human dilemma. Instead, she embraces multiple responses. “To one person it can seem fun, to another tragic, to another pretty, another a horror. And I think they’re all true,” says Porter. Always fascinated with paradox, Porter says about Man with Axe that “even though it is destruction, it’s not sinister. . . . It’s like a luminous destruction, we could say. I like that contradiction.’”

Liliana Porter. To Do It: Red Sand III, 2020Liliana Porter. To Do It: Red Sand III, 2020. Sand and figurine on wooden base, 36 x 40 x 40 in. (approx.). Courtesy of the artist. © Liliana Porter. Photo:Rhinebeck Studio

This enigmatic perspective continues throughout the exhibition, where other sculptures and a video similarly mix oppositional metaphors. In To Do It: Red Sand III (2020), a female figurine appears to be tirelessly sweeping an enormous amount of red sand arranged in a labyrinthine spiral. She is a small human with a big task, but the purpose and result of her work is ambiguous.

The digital video Matinee (2009) is a sequence of brief scenarios in which unexpected meanings arise from the juxtaposition or alteration of ordinary objects that trigger cultural memories or personal nostalgia. However banal the individual curios, toys, and accompanying music may seem, new poetic and humorous associations arise when they are combined. “Matinee affirms that artists and non-artists alike can find meaning, joy, and inspiration in things that may seem unremarkable by themselves, but when creatively combined can form a new lens for viewing the world,” writes Scala. “In Porter’s work, history is perpetually on the move and in a state of ruination, labor is essential but always being undone, and the associations between objects and language are endlessly and joyfully elastic.”


Thursday, February 11
Artist’s Perspective: Liliana Porter

Presented on Zoom (registration required)
Free; sign up at

Join Liliana Porter and chief curator Mark Scala for a conversation about the exhibition Man with Axe and Other Stories, Porter’s artistic practice, and how her theatrical vignettes speak of life’s paradoxes in ways that are at once surprising, absurd, and poignant.

Information on public programs will be posted at and @FristArtMuseum on social media.

About the Author

Michael Aldrich

Michael Aldrich is Nashville Parent's Managing Editor and a Middle Tennessee arts writer. He and his wife, Alison, are the proud parents of 4-year-old Ezra and baby Norah.