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#33 (detail), 1996

#33, 1996

#31 (detail), 1996

#30, 1996

michael ashkin 
at bronwyn keenan 

by John Mendelsohn

Installations have become like full-sized 

maps of the world, with the terra incognito 

of the artist's subjectivity represented by 

stylized deformations of reality. This now-

familiar gambit is reversed in Michael 

Ashkin's "Number 33," his installation at 

the Bronwyn Keenan Gallery, on view May 3-

June 8, 1996. Here a tabletop diorama 

miniaturizes the world at 13 feet to the 

inch. Measuring 4 by 21 feet, it fills the 

gallery space with a scale model of two-

thirds of a mile of industrial landscape. 

With Precisionist rigor it depicts a two-

lane blacktop causeway, complete with tiny 

poles carrying thread-like power lines, a 

run of gray piping and a lone tanker truck. 

The causeway runs across a ghastly lake 

(cast in resin), polluted with oil and 

milky effluvia.

Set waist-high on a series of saw horses, 

the scene has the homemade verisimilitude 

of a model train layout, with its display 

of capitalism's infrastructure under the 

loving hand of the hobbyist. It affords us 

the omniscient perspective of the 

architectural client or the police chase 

helicopter. The scope is paradoxically 

cinematic, with its small scale turning 

into the illusion of great distance. The 

doll house effect, which seduces us into 

the reality of someone else's obsessions, 

draws us in with a kind of regressive 

fascination. There is a filmic glamour to 

the whole enterprise with its mixture of 

environmental degradation, testosterone and 

highway narcosis.

Ashkin's piece has the mythic feel of an 

American version of Brancusi's Endless 

Column, with its spiritual aspirations 

flattened all the way down to horizontal. 

The road in this country's imagination, 

from Twain to Hopper to Thelma and Louise--

has been a recurring index of freedom and 

no exit. Ashkin's piece continues this 

dialogue as a downsized `90s docudrama, 

with its appeal to sentiments of loneliness 

and moral outrage always present, and 

always under permanent lockdown. The sense 

of apocalyptic anticipation and post-

industrial pessimism link Ashkin to other 

contemporary American catastrophists, such 

as Chris Burden and John Miller.

But the presiding ancestor of the work 

clearly seems to be Robert Smithson, the 

influential sculptor and Earthworks artist 

of the 1960s and early `70s. Present in 

literalized form are the range of 

Smithson's ideas: industrial structure as 

monument, entropy as a constituent part of 

any human process, the landscape as a 

social and allegorical construct, and its 

transposition from natural site to gallery 

non-site. If the literary critic Harold 

Bloom was right in saying that every strong 

reading is a creative misreading, then we 

can look to where Ashkin's mapping of the 

domain which Smithson describes diverges 

most distinctively. Smithson's "zero 

panorama" still contains structures which 

"rise into ruins," but Ashkin succeeds in 

turning the site of conceptual awareness 

into the non-site of an exquisitely present 

spectacle, a screen for the most personal, 

emotional projections. 

Michael Ashkin at Bronwyn Keenan Gallery

May 3 - June 8, 1996

John Mendelsohn is a New York artist who 

occasionally writes on art.