Lucky DeBellevue, "Khlysty, the Owls and the Others," Jan. 18-Apr. 5, 2002, at the Whitney Museum at Phillip Morris, 120 Park Avenue at 42nd Street, New York, N.. 10017.
For his new public art work, Lucky DeBellevue has webbed the soaring atrium space of the Whitney Museum at Phillip Morris with his trademark pipe cleaners, or "chenille stems," as he identifies his material of choice. Existing somewhere in a mental space bounded by rainforest canopies and lava lamps, the seven pieces in the show droop heavily from the ceiling and spread through the room, forming velvety nets, glittery webs and spiky rainfalls.
The sculpture court itself is reminiscent of many large, corporate spaces. It has imposing facades of gray stone; it has plate glass walls facing out to the street; and it has vaulted ceilings that allow mid-sized plastic trees to be cultivated inside, along with the sleek modern tables and sleek modern chairs. It's an austere space, pretty and fantastically tranquil against the rush of midtown, albeit in an imposing, Temple-of-Ra sort of way.
Against this backdrop, DeBellevue's work serves as a sort of "clunky" counterpoint. This is not to say that the work itself is crude or unsophisticated, but rather that it derives its pleasure from a particular type of Zen of the Small. DeBellevue, an easy-paced New York artist who is originally from New Orleans, says he likes to use "sad" materials -- that is, materials that are not grand or iconic. He tends to favor "repeating forms from industry" -- small manufactured items of dubious or narrow utility, e.g., craft pipe cleaners, plastic chains or small, sticky foam pads. The pieces are assembled in an often very labor-intensive process, as though by giant bowerbirds.
The dominant piece in the room, Khlysty, is a glittering girdle that runs the length of the room. It hangs over the viewer, out of arm's reach, at times condensing as if it were about to dollop onto the floor, other times spreading out into a delicate lattice that reminds one of the constellations on the roof of Grand Central across the street. It acts like a drop ceiling in the tall space, descending on golden pipe cleaner threads from the roof and de-emphasizing the monolithic esthetic of the room.
Another piece, The Underneath, was originally on view at Puck, the café at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and now sits above the sandwich bar at the back of the Philip Morris space. "It's been on a kind of café tour," remarked DeBellevue. The piece is a thick mat of multicolored stems, entwined in DeBellevue's usual manner and suspended in the air by plastic chains. Again, the low-hanging piece gives a dense, forested feel to the space below it, as though taunting the fake fichus that dot the atrium.
Some smaller, subtler pieces can get lost in the all of the glitter. Not to be missed is a small, site-specific spray of foam-rubber circles. "I don't know what they're originally made to do," admitted DeBellevue, but the little gray cylinders appear to be the sort of thing one sticks to the bottoms of appliances to protect countertops. Now they form an ornate, totemic design stuck directly onto the stone gallery wall. Likewise, a flock of crumpled aluminum foil owls sits over the entrance to the gallery. Assembled at their posts, they seem transcendentally serene and vaguely discarded.
And about the moniker "chenille stems"? Lightly brushing aside the suggestion that the term is an affectation -- a way of dressing up common pipe cleaners, giving them a collective makeover into a glamorous garden of hairy "chenilles" (which is French for "caterpillar," natch) -- DeBellevue fished around in a drawer. "I think the material listed should just be what it says on the package," he said, handing over a plastic bag of pipe cleaners with a utilitarian label, "See? 'Chenille Stems'."