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by Charlie Finch
Pascal Spengerman just gave me a tour of the gorgeous new Taxter & Spengerman space in the back of Frank Stella’s old studio on East 12th Street. The space is long and narrow, simple cathedral fluorescent lighting from the high ceiling and the heat won’t be on until next week, so Pascal was wearing a light gray hoody.

The sculptor Matt Johnson has one of those intellectually quirky shows up, a bunch of wry visual jokes, beautifully crafted. They include a walnut, carved from walnut, whose dewlaps unwrap like a Russian doll. There’s an ancient piece of amber curling in a wave over a tiny black surfer. Two wood planks conceal a drawer which opens up into an elaborate Oriental children’s game, complete with a mysterious knob.

A light green apple core, like the back of an old Beatles 45, has tiny M.C. Escher staircases carved on its fruit and a classic Thonet chair, carved from a single piece of wood, takes the form of a lounging lady, legs and breasts forming one leisurely flow. The big shot of the show is a life-sized sculpture of Rodin’s Thinker with Gauguin’s face, sliced into pieces like a giant puzzle.

This stuff is cute and it’s smart, what used to be called "conversation pieces," somehow empathetic to the understated whimsy everywhere absent in our profound times. With the departure of 12th Street Books to Atlantic Avenue and the closing of Gallagher’s Magazine store and fashion gallery (now a Valley National Bank!), longtime 12th Streeters (I’ve been there 31 years) could use a dose of joyful abandon, and Taxter & Spengerman provide the answer.

Matt Johnson, "Super System," Jan. 10-Feb. 14, 2009, at Taxter & Spengemann, 123 East 12th Street, New York, N.Y. 10013

CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).