Paul Pfeiffer, "The Pure Products Go Crazy," Oct. 15-Nov. 21, 1998, at the Project, 421 W. 126th Street, New York, N.Y. 10027.
This fall Christian Haye, who had been known primarily for his art writing in the British magazine Frieze, opened a new gallery up on West 126th Street in Harlem. Called the Project, Haye's enterprise fills a sorely needed gap in the New York scene. The raw quality of the space is in distinct contrast to more traditional venues, and its uptown location promises a certain sort of energy not found anywhere else.
The current exhibition by Paul Pfeiffer, titled "The Pure Products Go Crazy," features several large color photographs and a hand-built diorama set into the wall. A grad of both the San Francisco Art Institute and Hunter College in New York, Pfeiffer has been in several group exhibitions during the '90s, including "21 Filipino Artists" at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and "In a Different Light" at the U.C. Berkeley Museum.
As it happens, Pfeiffer's products don't exactly go crazy, though they certainly are odd. His earlier work featured sculptures with the heads of NBA basketball stars attached to the bodies of flies. The photographs in "Pure Products" are based on extreme close-ups of the heads of Mattel dolls -- sometimes with hair, sometimes without -- with the hair or hair follicles arranged into geometric patterns.
The images in one recent series titled "Temple of Solomon (After Villapando)" are divided into three subgroups -- Ebony,Brunette and Blonde -- based on hair and skin color. The patterns of follicles are arranged into patterns that look like archeological floor plans, as is suggested by the title. The distinctions based on characteristics of race, then, are so ancient that only traces of their origin remain.
Another photograph shows a bright pink surface embossed with the Mattel name and a stock number that seems cryptic and mystical. It's a truism that toys play a significant role in children's constructions of racial identity. But Pfeiffer's reference includes both a corporate presence and an ideological notion of mysterious, microscopic forces.
In Leviathan, a digital c-print from 1998, Pfeiffer arranges a mat of blonde doll hair into a kind of flat field, marked with a strip of plastic in a cross shape reminiscent of a cathedral floorplan. A leviathan is a Biblical symbol of evil and of course the title of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes' 1651 treatise on human nature (bad) and the authoritative state (good).
The showstopper is a diorama titled Quod Nemen Mihi Est? (What is My Name?) (1998). Placed 18 inches deep into the wall and viewed through a colonial-style window, this work is a miniature recreation of Linda Blair's bedroom in The Exorcist. It's outfitted with a completely padded four-poster bed, a tiny bible on the beside table and an aqueous-looking stain on the bedspread. Pfeifer updates an intense film experience with new humor, an ironically Gothic horror and a more intimate approach. Depicted in excruciating detail, this is the kind of work that proves the artist's ability as a storyteller.
That said, don't miss the current show at the Project of work by William Pope L. and Rolo Castillo, on view Dec. 6, 1998-Jan. 23, 1999.
FRANKLIN SIRMANS is a freelance curator and writer.