If you haven't been to the Project in Harlem, an unusually inviting and relatively new commercial gallery at 421 W. 126th St., then now's the time. Opened last fall by Christian Haye, the Project occupies two floors in a space that formerly did double duty as an auto body shop (there's still a ceiling-mounted winch in the back) and a bar and disco (called, that's right, the Body Shop). This tidy, genially unfinished art space has the overall character of a work in progress, and provides a disarming setting for contemporary art.
The Project began 1999 with an exhibition of works by New York artist Maria Elena González. Using simple materials like ceramic tile, grout and thin sheets of rubber and simple barrel-shaped forms, González constructed a series of small stools brimming with a sense of personal memory and social familiarity. Entitled "Resting Spots," the stools function like a series of minimalist variations on the form and the idea of a stool, bringing together high-minded notions of contemplation and respite with more down-to-earth considerations of the body. This is art that says, "Hey, take a load off."
González encourages her viewers to cop a squat -- one of life's more socially interactive and inviting acts -- and let the art experience take care of itself. She even warms up the crowd with a few jokes. One stool has a cushion shaped like a big butt, supported on a curving, faceted form covered with tile. It's soft, voluptuous and inviting to one's own backside. Another stool is covered with a cool and reassuring symmetrical tile grid. Still another goes zebra with stark black grout.
For the installation, González stretched a broad strip of black rubber at shoulder level around the circumference of the room, a motif she also used in her notable AIDS memorial at El Museo del Barrio (which also featured a bench-like form and similar materials). The black stripe serves as both a decorative formal accent for the stools' presentation and a subtle remembrance of her recently deceased parents, whose names are attached to the rubber sheet in Braille.
In the cheerfully grungy warren of exhibition rooms downstairs is a stool with a removable lid that reveals it to be a lead-coated urn. There was also an inviting set of four oval seats -- just a couple of white stools waiting for a group to sit down and start talking -- whose arrangement reminded us that it's not just about forms, stupid; its also about the social stuff that goes along with function.
Shifting shapes and tile patterns, González impishly confuses all that old business about form and function. She metaphorically tosses one received notion past another, juggling each comforting platitude and transforming an overly familiar duality into a lively sculptural paradox.
The Project usually has two shows at a time, and exhibiting along with González was the Scandinavian team (and gay couple) of Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. Their "Powerless Structures" are mildly absurd constructions that set out to frustrate the various relationships we expect within a gallery space. For instance, they installed a kind of brick-oven structure behind a wall. In order to see this indoor work you've got to climb steps and peer over the wall as if the whole thing were outdoors.
A work in the basement used a projected image of the moon that is also reflected in a pool of water placed just below it, bringing a bit of the moonlit night into the severity and darkness of the subterranean space. In both instances these works seemed to exchange the responsibilities of interior spaces with simulated sensations of the exterior, drawing attention to the space's frustrated and blocked conventions.
Although the rhetoric attached to Elmgreen and Dragset's work can get thick (the catalogue essays go on about "rhizomatic multiplicities" and "separated subjectivities"), in an accompanying interview the artists seem to encourage light-hearted and ironic readings related to gay identity and gay social patterns in the public realm. They even mention "fun." Imagine that.
Opening on Sunday, Apr. 25, 1999 -- once again, a good time to visit -- is a double exhibition by Edgar Arceneaux and Bülent Shangar (to May 30).