New York Times

June 1st, 2010
Creative Debate Among Sculptors, Not Too Loud


Artistically speaking, West Chelsea — land of several hundred art galleries — is a tower of Babel spread on the horizontal. On any given day, scores of different visual languages are being spoken at once, often in raised voices. Arguments made by one show for one aesthetic position are immediately, sometimes violently, countered by the show next door. The effect can be cacophonous and confusing, although the other extreme is probably more disconcerting: when too many shows are talking alike.

Perhaps most interesting are those instances when a few shows speak enough, but not too much, of the same language to have an engaging debate. That’s happening this week among exhibitions of three younger artists working primarily in three dimensions — shows that focus on sculpture and its ostentation in terms of means of production, use of materials and methods of display.

Their efforts offer pointed commentary on the medium, particularly in its most cash-dependent forms: large-scale public sculpture and pricey portable objects that involve complex techniques, skilled artisans, expensive materials and demanding maintenance regimens. Each artist here takes a do-it-yourself, low-budget approach involving found, inexpensive materials and objects, which they simply but deliberately — and at times ingeniously — work, rework or combine. Wit is a common denominator, and in all cases works on paper amplify the cross talk. Otherwise, these artists go their separate ways.

In his second solo show in New York (and at the Zach Feuer Gallery), Johannes VanDerBeek embraces traditional sculptural subjects in nontraditional ways and in cheap materials, displaying a facility and historical awareness that have never been quite as overt, whimsical or physically inventive. The exhibition, titled “Another Time Man,” has about six distinct bodies of work — it’s actually a series of capsule shows — that range across the ages. This is implied by the first large work you’ll see, a partition titled “The Big Stone Flatscreen With Static.” It is cobbled together from pieces of cut-out cardboard, painted fuzzy black and white on one side and smeared on the other with a gray material called Celluclay. It’s television versus cave painting.

One group of works, displayed within a shimmering but flimsy curved wall painted silver, are fashioned from tin cans that have been sliced open, bent, stacked in various ways, welded together and tinted with spray paint; they flit effortlessly among Cubism, Futurism, Modern architecture, totemic figures, tramp art, Calder and toys. Life-size sculptures made of wire mesh offer ghostly depictions of an American Indian, a frontier woman and a hippie as vanished characters, implying some kind of historical continuum. Darkly colored slabs of textured metal could be remnants of an ancient culture or just Rust Belt castoffs, signs of more recent obsolescence; either way, they are aluminum foil colored with ink and pastel and incised with a ballpoint pen.

Eeriest of all are several found aluminum display boxes on pedestals whose interiors, looped with dead neon tubing, have been gingerly spray-painted and outfitted with arresting masks collaged from magazine images — talking heads, Roman portraits or ancient spirits conjured up around the campfire. Mr. VanDerBeek’s vision is darker than you think.

In his physically slightest work, he distracts us with grids of paper towels, stained and splashed with paint: sweet, sophisticated nothings of considerable pictorial power. His next target may be abstract painting.

More exclusively focused on — and dismayed by — the present, Josephine Meckseper continues her meditation on American consumerism in her second solo show at the Elizabeth Dee Gallery. This time she offers a kind of chrome monochrome environment in which the references ricochet among Modernist sculpture, the automobile as the No. 1 object of American male desire and various references to the fairer sex, which might be described as desire No. 2.

Ms. Meckseper’s dazzling surfeit of reflective surfaces takes the animal fascination with shiny and runs with it. “Americanmuscle” updates Duchamp’s bicycle wheel with a chrome car wheel on a mirrored pedestal. Other ready-mades, hanging from chrome display stands and racks, include a tail light, chains of different sizes, fox tails and rabbits’ feet. Gender differences are acknowledged in the display of a nylon stocking and crude approximations of designer handbags made from metal mesh and chain, sometimes with a car logo attached, using a bit of tar- or crude-oil-like substance. “Brillo” consists of a chrome treelike counter display stand, each of whose nine small platforms holds a metal pot-scouring pad, as if it were a precious object, perhaps a feminist hood ornament.

Repeated uses of enlarged watch faces from Cartier ads in wall pieces and papier-mâché forms may be a comment on the work of the key appropriation artist Richard Prince and his extensive use of car culture. Elsewhere, a small photograph of the burning Deepwater Horizon rather heavy-handedly suggests the self-destructive implications of consumerism, as does a small and erratic video of cracked glass — a car windshield or store window.

Haim Steinbach’s Neo-Geo sculptures of the mid-1980s, and the more dour, redneck tack taken by Cady Noland in the late 1980s are influences here. But Ms. Meckseper is no stranger to the store display case; here she creates an environmental one in which we are both pliable consumers and available commodities.

If a kind of Americana prevails in those two shows, Siobhan Liddell turns more decisively toward Europe in “Ordinary Magic,” her outstanding fourth show at the CRG Gallery. Ms. Liddell has always been interested in making the most of fragile, ephemeral materials, with colored string and thread, wire and especially paper high on the list. Miró would seem to be the dominant influence here, although Richard Tuttle and Alan Shields, the 1970s master of tie-dye and the sewing machine, can’t be ruled out.

This show is dominated by a series of exquisitely modest structures, most involving jewel-colored paper, often hand-painted. All rest on tables cobbled together from mismatched pieces of wood that contribute to the works’ charm. There is a sexual undertone to the title of “Pierced Pink Pyraminds in the Round on the Square,” while the honeycombed structure suggests a kind of architectural model on holiday, masquerading as a Mardi Gras float. “Blue and Gold Fold” is simply a small square of shiny gold foil, slightly peaked to reveal the paper’s blue underside; it might refer to similar, larger floor pieces by Roni Horn and Felix Gonzalez-Torres. The tabletop piece “Ordinary Magic” presents a handmade disco ball about to be inundated or perhaps seduced by a multicolored wave in glazed ceramic that exudes a freer sense of abandon.

Ms. Liddell works with many of these same materials in collages on linen, with elegant Dada results. But the outstanding work on the wall here is a large, untitled piece where expanses of small cut-out paper — white on one side and green on the other — create a raised surface that evokes leaves, fur and scales while resolving itself into a large plant form. O.K., it’s not sculpture, but it is consistent with the conviction, palpable in all three shows here, that art is far more a matter of imagination and ingenuity than of materials and money.

Johannes VanDerBeek’s “Another Time Man” runs through June 12 at Zach Feuer Gallery, 530 West 24th Street, Chelsea; Josephine Meckseper runs through June 26 at Elizabeth Dee, 545 West 20th Street, Chelsea; Siobhan Liddell’s “Ordinary Magic” runs through Saturday at CRG Gallery, 535 West 22nd Street, Chelsea;