I walked into the Jasper Johns exhibition at Matthew Marks last week with Ashley Bickerton, and Ashley immediately began to touch and feel the heavy metal sculptures, Johns’ classic number sequences, done by the artist in wax and cast in copper, silver and aluminum. At one point, Ashley even rubbed his cheek against one like a cat.
Poised between our visit to Ashley’s own show at Lehmann Maupin, which Bickerton described to me thusly, "I love the ocean and neon is like the ocean, the waves just roll over you," and our dropping in on Ashley’s friend Kara Walker’s show at Sikkema Jenkins, which are simply some of richest and most visually and gesturally complex drawings ever done by anyone, the Johns sculptures appeared to be solid cemetery markers and nothing more.
Five of the sculptures are perched on some very unfortunate wooden plinths (not part of the work, the attendant confirmed), which turn them into graveyard pissoirs, but close eyeballing and forbidden touching reveal these heavy metals to be among the most sensual and visually exciting pieces that Johns has imagined.
Johns has sunk keys, newspaper clippings, sly references to Robert Gober and Afrika, sign language which he stole from Martin Wong, the phone book and zillions of other things into his wax productions and his fabricators metallized them with stunning attention to detail and surface variation. There should be a sign on the wall of Marks, saying "Please Touch" (and, come to think of it, there should be a sign on Jasper saying "Please Touch"!), these pieces are so sexy.
Ashley and I found ourselves longing for a magnifying glass to scope out the tiny print of many a Jasper pressing. The looking process is potentially never-ending, and that’s the point. Within his famous numerals Johns has created a thread that mimics eternity almost rabbinically on what are essentially tombstones, whose metal weight is as final as the pharoahs and all their vanities.
Johnuments they are and they are damn great.
"Ashley Bickerton: Nocturnes," May 6-June 25, 2011, at Lehmann Maupin, 540 West 26th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001
Kara Walker, "Dust Jackets for the Niggerati-and Supporting Dissertations, Drawings submitted ruefully by Dr. Kara E. Walker," Apr. 21-June 4, 2011, at Sikkema Jenkins & Co., 530 West 22nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10011
Jasper Johns, "New Sculpture and Works on Paper," May 7-July 1, 2011, at Matthew Marks Gallery, 522 West 22nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10011
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).