By most accounts the artist Peter Nagy was one of the few intellectuals of the notoriously anti-intellectual East Village scene of the mid-1980s. He cofounded Nature Morte (with Canadian artist Alan Belcher), which along with Meyer Vaisman's International With Monument was one of the few galleries there that specialized in conceptualist, Post-Modernist work. His own art -- graphic museum floor plans marked with corporate logos -- perfectly articulated the period's awareness of the corporate capture of culture. Then, after a few shows in SoHo (which were notable for applying a kind of black-and-white Ben-Day "cancer" to Pop imagery), Nagy grew his hair long and moved to India.
So it was with some interest last summer, after a five-year absence, that Nagy reappeared in New York via a fairly quiet though ambitious exhibition at Nicole Klagsbrun's last public space (since closed) on Mercer Street in SoHo. Entitled "So Much Deathless, a Curated Installation," the show mixed both high and low -- deathless referring to spiritual transcendence and so much being a colloquialism employed by English-speaking Indians to convey the superlative. The show featured a number of altar-like groupings of various objects, including Nagy's own works in combination with Eastern religious antiquities, modern western furniture and works by other contemporary artists.
With these multidimensional assemblages, Nagy quixotically seeks the goal of philosophers, mystics and alchemists from time immemorial -- a reconciliation of opposites. There are moments when he comes close. In The Three Jewels, a trinity composed of three miniature versions of Brancusi's Endless Column (as channeled by Richard Pettibone) is set before a photograph by Lynn Davis of the Buddha Sukhotai and rests on an anonymous French deco console with wrought iron legs. The console is stylish and airily insubstantial, yet serves unaccountably well as a pedestal for Brancusi, well known for the pains he took with his own bases. The Buddha himself benefits mysteriously from the grouping, though he figuratively turns his back on the whole business -- Davis has photographed him from behind.
Sukhmani is a multi-layered low relief that begins with a wall painting that consists of a vivid field of light red cadmium patterned with outlines of a hand, simple charms of human presence that are reminiscent of cave art. On this field Nagy places three stretched canvases, stacked one atop another, each smaller than the other, painted in Nagy's trademark allover patterning, a kind of multi-colored camouflage design. Atop this low-relief ziggurat of paintings is a small votive figure, made of plaster and sporting a turban. This must be Sukhmani. Encircling this figure is a corona of almost 20 works by another artist, Sandra Hirshkowitz, who makes stretched paper disks that resemble the heads of drums (Hirshkowitz's shallow drums are reminiscent of the Sufi dombak: a flat, resonant, trance inducing drum). Each disk is embroidered with gold thread in a geometric pattern. From their centers hang a hank of golden hair growing in a long tress, Mongol style. Like The Three Jewels, Sukhmani may be favorably compared to the best of free verse, the sum being greater than its parts.
Nagy's larger, more sprawling assemblages, such as Abstract Schematic and Malkouns, refuse to congeal into unitary works. They remain big loose puddings embedded with tempting eye/mind/heart candy. Among the various elements are Stephen Mueller's painting Envoy, a 28-by-28-inch innerspace odyssey inspired by tantric Buddhism; a nicked schist Shiva lingam borrowed from Helen Marden; a Gilbert Rhode mahogany and puffily upholstered chest of drawers; and Nagy's own disarmingly clunky raku stupa and his 44-square-inch, deliriously psychedelic Mudra. The abundance is so.....deathless. As Andre Malraux says of God, "a great creator of form, although he has no style."
Orientalism is defined not as a style per se but as a fascination with certain subjects. As a Postmodernist, Nagy focuses on mappings of cultural identity. In this omnivorous project, his topics are multivalenced symbolic pattern and design, the ornamentation of rococo and baroque, of architectural detail, corporate signage, microscopy, Islamic geometry and Buddhist and Hindu iconography. In his earlier work, Nagy took a smorgasbord of images and collapsed their unruly dimensionality into a mercilessly flat, photomechanically reproduced black-and-white. Nagy is too intelligent an artist to have been unaware of the drained, embalmed quality of these paintings.
Nagy deserves credit for this fearless attempt, with this new body of work, to present life as it is -- paradoxical, disorderly and infinitely perverse. To paraphrase Witold Gombrowitz; "Take reality apart into elements, build illogical new worlds of it and in this arbitrariness is hidden a law, that the madness that destroys our external sense leads us into our internal meaning."
ROGER BOYCE is an artist who lives in New York.