NAC in Chelsea

Jacob Kassay @ The Kitchen

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The room is quiet in the sleepy daytime manner of an old building. Above my head tubes of florescent light hum like a bank of bug zappers while square panels in the grey-blue floor creak under foot. Eight paintings by Jacob Kassay hang on the walls and a ninth is placed somewhat precariously on the floor, angled between a black brick wall and a thick structural pillar.  I survey from a central spot, spinning like a second hand (only slower and with less regularity) in a clockwise direction.

The paintings on the walls have irregular shapes with uneven corners and edges that seem slightly askew. They look awkward, lopsided, formally arbitrary; their principle technical achievement perhaps being the fabrication of the wooden support the canvases are stretched upon. That would mean these are paintings whose major distinction is essentially sculptural. Sounds odd, but seems true. The structure of these pieces is further accentuated by the plainness their surfaces, which are raw and bare and leave little for the eye to catch on but creases and surface lint. They are not sexy things; for me they are as easy to look away from as Kassay’s silver plated canvases are to stare upon.

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As I approach the metallic rectangle in the corner I’m wondering why the work with what is obviously the most attractive surface in the show is placed in such a way as to downplay its flat illustrious beauty? Placement is clearly critical so I squat to look at the shadowy space between the canvas and the wall. This is the shiny thing’s dark side, a little wedge of emptiness to look through. Perhaps in this setup the surface is a decoy, because what you see when you aren’t distracted by it is how the object rests in its place. The painting leans at a precise angle because that’s  the angle given when an object of this size fits in that space. Perhaps this piece isn’t about painting at all, but about the relationship of an art object to the architecture of a building–and if that’s so, then maybe the artist’s thinking is more classical than one might first imagine? In any case I decide I’ve come into physical harmony with the piece when I’ve gotten into comfortable lean against the pillar, facing my blurry self head on.

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I’m jotting notes as I exit into a different stairwell than the one I came up. It’s quite. Someone suddenly yells “watch out!” as I nearly knock into another silver-plated painting propped inconspicuously on the landing. Heart thudding, I walk half a flight up and sit down. Art & Architecture I think to myself. You can’t see the work without looking at the red and orange walls in this stairwell. It’s submersed in the space, and when I squint it’s totally edgeless.

Back down in the lobby I notice three more silver paintings nonchalantly leaning here and there. It is amongst the most casual displays I’ve ever seen, so casual in fact that it almost renders the works invisible. I anthropomorphize them and imagine they left the gallery on a cigarette break.  It makes me smile. I ask the attendant how many people loiter in this passageway admiring the artwork. Hardly any, he responds, most people don’t notice it.

photo-23b&WGazing down at my boots as I make my way north along 10th street I see something that gives me another angle on Kassay’s oddly shaped canvases. They resemble certain sections of sidewalk that deviate from the standard square. Futhermore, Kassay’s decision to leave his canvases unprimed and raw puts their textures and general monotones in step with these sidewalk deviations. I wonder then, might they be considered as examples of realism?

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NAC in Chelsea

Seth Price @ Petzel

From about ten paces back

From about ten paces back

It’s got snaps, zippers, a buckle, and straps. The material looks soft, even if beige is among the world’s dullest shades. The interior lining looks like some kind of poly-blend, but what do we think about the pattern printed on it? Tropical flowers and the logo of a finance company. Hmmm. Well, given the cut of this would be garment; I’d say it’s well suited for humans who are shaped like dollar bills. The zipper pull is an eye grabber.photo-68 I reach down and feel its weight in my palm, a fishing lure, a few wooden soccer balls, and a Christmas ornament. They jingle nicely.

I pirouette and approach three encaustic looking rectangular numbers hung in a neat line about head high. They’re all fundamentally the same, like a serial edition that could have been six or six thousand depending on consumer demands. A tangle of rope in a sloppy knot lies beneath the foggy surface of the works, which also employ the logos financial institutions—Capital One and the FDIC—as design elements. They remind me of some non-aquatic thing being forcefully held underwater until its body goes slack. These things give me the chills.

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            I pass by a rack of white clothes that are to be handled with white gloves and imagine how they would look splashed with red wine. Violated, yes, but perhaps enlivened a bit too. In the next room I come upon more of the rope pieces and pause to take them in. The surface of these works looks like something that’s been vacuum-sealed. Little ripples and tight folds allude to a moment in the history of this object when all its air was sucked out. They exude the nervous energy of a quite claustrophobic passing through a narrow corridor.

           photo-65 I’m grateful for the skylights in third section of space, not for the illumination but for the feeling of openness. More of these drab garments for dollar bills lie like stacked husks on knee high platforms. On the wall there is something new: images of envelopes printed on cheap paper and adhered to wood boards that have been jig sawed into different shapes. Like the garments, the inside of the envelopes are decorated with corporate logos in repeating patterns.

I see now that these garments are the same shape as the envelopes and that for the most part the envelopes appear torn asunder. The idea of enclosure, or of something inside something else seems to run through all these objects. But there are ruptures too. Not just the torn open envelopes, but the rope in some pieces escapes the seal of the rectangle and droops towards the floor. I consider this as I pause briefly on the threshold of the gallery before making my exit.

NAC in Chelsea

Duane Linklater @ Family Biz

From the curb

From the curb

A dozen raspberry bushes have been transplanted into a mound of dark soil in the center of this small gallery in which I sit, as straight as I can, on a brown pillow contemplating the little fruit’s spiritual side. I eat the reddest one I can find and try to make sense out of the gibberish on the chalk board. Nothing. It’s chaos to me. I lie down. Try to smell the plants. photo-70I touch their leaves, pour water from my bottle onto their bases. I ask myself, “how is this installation operating within the context of the white cube?” I repeat the question out loud. The cube-minder, who thinks he’s being addressed, says, “I’m not really sure what you mean.” I tell him not to worry and he quickly turns his attention back to his laptop as I give my attention to the plants’ stems and branches. They’re fragile and require support to stay upright. That doesn’t strike me as natural. In fact it starts to bother me.

The little sticks now register as phallic totems and the fact they’re driven into the mound of soil seems a kind of symbolic sexual violation. Suddenly the whole installation begins to swarm with ideas of man’s dominance over nature, of establishing the order of right angles in a world of curves. Everything but the plants themselves obey this law of right angles: the gallery architecture, the rectangular plot for the plants, the chalkboard, the pillows, even the piece of paper tacked to the wall. I pluck another berry and eat it slowly.

NAC on the UES

Serra @ Starr

The weight of my body causes the floorboards to creek as I cautiously approach one of Richard Serra’s drawings. From a distance the form of Serra’s line struck me as the dominant feature. Images of skid marks in parking lots, of the coiled snake that does not want to be treaded upon, of a determined child fisting a crayon, grinding the waxy point down to a dull stub—these associations melt away now that I am within arm’s reach of the object.

Up close I can see that these drawings were done on transparencies, not paper. The thick black material Serra drew with looks like creosote that’s been in the sun; its physical properties are exactly opposite those of the clean-cut, clear plastic sheet. Holes, presumably where Serra pinned the transparency to whatever backing he used to draw upon, are visible in the corners. The surface is not only punctured, it buckles and bulges—heaving almost, and summoning up images of slate grey waves beneath an anvil sky. Nothing placid here.

             I stand at an angle, oblique to the surface of the work and see now that this crusty dark material has been applied to both sides of the transparency. This is why the work does not sit flat in its mount. I am looking through the drawing as much as I’m looking at it, realizing as I do that the backside of the drawing is visible to a degree on the front. The effect is something like seeing one’s reflection in the window through which one looks out and views a landscape.

There is a superimposition that occurs, a layering that seems crucial to the work, though it may be less conceptual than intrinsic to the artist’s process. Maybe the double-sidedness was not a preconceived notion, but the natural result of a Serra’s methodology; as if the artist ran out of transparencies while he was drawing and simply began using the backsides. It is not unthinkable, but then, why would Serra have used transparencies if he didn’t intend to take advantage of their principle quality?

The repeating motif in many of these drawings is a sort of corkscrew spiral. I count the number of turns in one piece—six—and proceed to spin myself around that many times. The works blur by in a smudge of a line that approximates the marks of Serra’s drawings. I imagine them sharing a room with studies by Joseph Albers, perhaps the orange and red ones he made in Mexico.

NAC on the UES

BHQF @ Lever House

I veer off a bustling Park Ave sidewalk and into the Lever House plaza where office workers cluster in small groups eating sandwiches and sipping canned drinks. Others smoke and watch the screens on their phones. It’s mid afternoon and none seem aware of the big bronze rat perched on its haunches, claws extended as if poised to enter the south entrance of the Lever House. This twelve-foot sculpture is a 1:1 replica of the inflatable rat that pissed off union workers erect outside the buildings of employers they’re protesting. As I pick up a scrap of what looks like shredded tire from the work’s base, I can’t help wondering if the artists employed nonunion labor to do the fabrication and if that wouldn’t be like commissioning an atheist to paint the Last Supper.

Two men in blue suits carrying briefcases enter the revolving door ahead of me and all three of us take a moment to look at the two silver screen prints of the flag raising at Iwo Jima. It’s cool in the lobby, well air-conditioned. One suit says to the other, “you know this was a staged photo, right?” “Yeah,” replies the other, “but it doesn’t really matter how it was made does it? Isn’t what’s important the message of teamwork and victory and patriotism that the image conveys?” Suit one pivots to face his colleague, “you know,” he says, “you should have been in advertising.”

As they go clopping off across the linoleum floor toward the elevator bank I lean against the  lobby’s glass wall and wonder why I care about who made what? Outsourcing labor is standard protocol in the art world; nobody flinches at the practice anymore. But in the context of labor unions—organizations that indeed care deeply about who does what job—is the act of outsourcing production more significant? Can an artist borrow the symbolism of a group while simultaneously disregarding the principles that the group stands for? And wouldn’t such an act essentially deplete the inherent meaning of the symbol? Well, perhaps. But I don’t think that’s the issue here. The bronze rat is no more about protest than the screen prints of the flag raising are about patriotism. They’re simulacrums of symbols that refer as much to Warhol’s legacy as to the maxims of soldiers or union workers.

All the while I’ve been in here I’ve been distracted by the sound of numbers being shouted in a kind of call and response pattern that reminds me of Occupy Wall Street’s human microphone. The cacophony is coming from speakers installed in pieces of office and janitorial equipment scattered throughout the lobby in a lingering way that makes them look left behind. These aren’t representations of the things but the things themselves: a ladder, a mop bucket, an electric floor polisher, to name only a few. Their wiring is exposed, running to outlets in the floor and arcing like power lines across the ceiling to a central point that happens to be an industrial vacuum cleaner. I follow the black cords and quickly learn that the numbers, which are counting upwards, correspond to the video on the flat screen. Standing beside the vacuum I can also hear that the video has its own soundtrack humming faintly from a dustpan.

I watch clips of Che Guevera, Dylan, Koons, Angela Davis, and marching Occupy protestors while straining to hear what’s being said or sang. Much I can’t make out though I know I hear a snippet of Dylan’s “With God on our Side,” and I laugh out loud at number 95: a clip of Martin Luther nailing his theses to the church door while Jay-Z’s hit single, “99 Problems,” quietly thumps along. I don’t think a bitch was one of Luther’s problems either.

Of the twelve objects there is one with an added feature; the filing cabinet is equipped with a glowing red light. It’s set on its side with one drawer open exposing the bulb and seeming to spill documents. I crouch down, and with Luther on my mind I get to thinking about the twelve objects in relation to Christ’s apostles. Does the spill signify an information leak? Is the file cabinet Judas? The documents are all the same. They list 95 quotes that relate to the video. I shout to the guard across the lobby, asking if I can take one. He doesn’t know.

As I pass back through the revolving doors I have to admit that the artwork appeals to the puzzle-solver part of my personality, the bit of me that relishes the cleverness in what often seems to others as vapid exercises in socio-cultural cross-referencing. Being clever alone isn’t enough though because once the puzzle is solved it ceases to be relevant or interesting or even slightly enticing. On my way past the bronze rat I step onto its base and give it a stroke.  “You know rat,” I say running a hand along the underside of its metal paw, “everything in this exhibition seems to be about sincerity and urgency without anything being sincere or urgent itself.” The rat doesn’t respond, of course, but the guard does in incredibly lively manner.

NAC in Williamsburg

Jessie Stead @ Soloway

By the time my eyes adjust to the strobe light chopping through the blacked out gallery, I’ve found an inflatable plastic couch whose cup holders are stuffed with yellow highlighters. The couch is filmy and in a moment I realize why; a bubble machine set up beside one of the strobes is blowing gumball size soap orbs up from behind the couch so that they fall and pop pretty much squarely on the head of anyone seated where I’m sitting, which seems to be the only place to park one’s rear end.

This installation is like a sensory deprivation tank that’s been retooled to overwhelm. It has the ambience of an onslaught: lights flash and comingle, projections spread across the walls at canted angles, bubbles rise up and plastic bottles hang from the ceiling. Meanwhile the sounds of night, and possibly of escape, pump through a speaker, engulfing without completely drowning out the strobe’s steady flicker and the whizzing hum of projectors. I’m glad for a couch to sit on, even if it’s soapy.

partial view from the couch

Both projectors are perched up on high shelves and propped such that their rectangles of light fall on the walls in opposing slants. From my spot on the couch I watch the video starring a young woman, the artist perhaps, in novelty sunglasses eating a marshmallow. The footage is coarse, which makes chewing look especially labored. Hard to say if she’s enjoying that marshmallow at all, though given that the video appears to be on a loop it seems fair to say that this scene of consumption, like Sisyphus rolling his boulder, could go on without end. She may never finish eating that marshmallow.

Up from the couch, I attend to a mound of marshmallows piled on a transparent platform that’s maybe four inches above the ground. A green strobe pulses beneath it. I hunker down on my belly and notice the platform is mounted on wheels, the shape of which is like a slim cousin of the plump, spongy, gelatinous confections above. I don’t think marshmallows ever go bad and in that sense they possess a kind of quasi immortality, an ongoing forever-ness that corresponds to the looped video and serves as a counterpoint to the ephemerality of the bubbles popping on the couch. These marshmallows have a slightly sweet smell, but I have no desire to tear at one with my teeth.

The other projector emits the blue background of a start-up screen, as if a video is waiting to begin. A crystal as big as half dollar hangs like a tear beside the whirring machine’s one bright eye, diffracting a bit of the blue and giving the impression that the rectangle of light is maybe shedding or breaking up like an iceberg in warm waters. One and two liter bottles hang from the ceiling on thin strings between the projector and the wall upon which its beam primarily falls, casting shaggy shadows. From certain angles the bottles look like they’re just floating, immune to gravity.  A slight breeze blowing above my head gives them an almost imperceptible sway. It’s the subtlest of movements, but every detail seems like a reward in this space, which altogether blunts one’s perception with a deluge of audio-visual information.

The record player sits atop a tall black plinth, chest-high, and spins a square that’s clear and flat. It’s mesmerizing to gaze upon, and I begin to zone out tracking one corner of the square on its quick revolutions. The soundtrack is a customized cacophony: an air horn in the distance resounds amidst footfall through something crunchy; the song of cicadas is punctuated by a hooting owl. It’s not soothing. Quite the opposite actually, it’s making me anxious.

I see now that what’s blocking the windows and covering the ceiling lights are emergency blankets, thin and reflective as a foil. I feel suddenly very alone and more than mildly uneasy. My stomach turns. I imagine convicts on the lam and cosmonauts moving across terrain they’ve only previously dreamed about, a sense of freedom yoked to incredible vulnerability. I return to the couch.

This room is starting to take hold of me. Across all the walls the word “ambient” is stamped in shades of green, blue, and red. Broken ceiling panels are stamped, the marshmallows are stamped, I feel stamped. The repetition of the action seems analogous to the strobe’s pattern as well as to the video of the marshmallow eater endlessly putting sweet treat to mouth. The stamps are as uncountable as the bubbles drifting onto the plastic couch. I put my attention on another mostly empty 2-liter bottle with a finger size flashlight inserted in the vessel’s mouth. Its steadiness is settling. I get underneath it, supine at the couch’s base, and stare up at the light until it occupies my entire visual field. It’s my moon.

There are three canvases on the walls. One is stamped, one is blank, and one bares a smattering of faded yellow marks. The highlighters! I pull one out and scribble mercilessly. The marks fade in slow gradual increments, like the tension in my warm arm.

Up on the wall kitty-corner to my disappearing handiwork: a 35 mm negative of somebody in a pirate costume baring sword and hook with a tremendous grin. It’s been there the whole time, though there are maybe a dozen other slides sitting on  a light box looking ready to be loaded. Other projections could have been a rolling paper with the “ambient” stamp, or similarly stamped rolls of toilet paper. I like the pirate; it could be the installation’s mascot if the marshmallow eater is to be its icon. The joyful marauder’s pose is playfully aggressive and essentially antithetical to the deadpan motions of the affectless masticator. In fact, sitting here beside the light box, the pirate seems to function as a tonic to this otherwise agitating installation.

Settled, I step back out into the street and the daylight is blinding. For a good two blocks I can hardly see and with my vision so impaired I feel extra attentive to sounds of cars and pedestrians, to the sun’s warmth on my face and the smell of cooked meat. In other words, with my primary sense debilitated I actually seem to be more aware of the same street I walked down earlier, more alive and freshly receptive to the immediate ambience of the neighborhood. When a siren passes I pause to listen and as it fades into the distance my vision begins to emerge out of the adumbrating blear like a plane from a cloud bank. I’d begun to think of my temporary blindness as a vestige of my experience, but there is no way to hold on to such traces, though I did consider gazing up at the sun.