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UNDONE AT ALTRIA
by Leah Modigliani
 
"Undone: Tom Holmes, Tony Matelli, Eileen Quinlan and Heather Rowe," Sept. 20-Dec. 31, 2007, at the Whitney Museum of American Art at Altria, 120 Park Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017

The corporation gives, and the corporation takes away. After several decades as the Whitney Museum’s corporate arts patron of first resort, the Phillip Morris cigarette company, known since 2003 as Altria, has announced plans to beat it out of New York City for good, taking its arts funding with it. One victim of this boardroom juggling act is the Whitney Museum at Altria, a branch gallery in the lobby of the building at 42nd Street and Park Avenue (which is now for sale).

The facility has been open an incredible 25 years, and the tobacco company has reportedly spent $12.5 million running the space. But "branch museums are a thing of the past," Whitney Museum director Adam Weinberg told the New York Times. The museum is now focusing its efforts on a new building in Manhattan’s Meat Packing District, slated to begin construction in 2009.

All this context informs the current and possibly final exhibition at the Whitney’s Altria space. Titled "Undone" and organized by museum curators Howie Chen and Shamin M. Momin, the show of four, specially commissioned works is ostensibly designed to reflect "fragmented, unfinished or unraveling" states of form, space and identity.

This bit of typical curatorial boilerplate turns out to be more than relevant to the end of the museum’s branch programming, as the works in the show all suggest a certain kind of architectural wreckage and desolation, featuring materials like chain-link fencing and unfinished lumber, and images like cloudy mirrors and weeds growing from cracks in the floor. Such an inventory better describes a random parking lot than the contents of an art gallery (though these days everything passes as art, of course).   

"Undone" sites one of its artists in the small, enclosed gallery space, puts two large sculptures among the chairs and benches in the lobby proper, and installs its fourth work almost unnoticeably in a large, high "window" that looks onto a corridor in front of a row of elevators on the building mezzanine level.

Appropriately, the gallery proper has the most pronounced air of abandonment, since it is emptied of any of its usual fixtures in favor of a selection of hyper-realist sculptures of weeds by Tony Matelli. Titled Abandon (2006-07), the plants -- what look like dandelion and Bermuda grass -- sprout from between floor tiles and from the base of the walls, just as they might on a slab of warehouse-district sidewalk. Impeccably crafted from bronze and painted with life-like accuracy (including bug holes and browning), the sculptures represent, in this context, the impotency of bohemian esthetics in the face of agribusiness.

Immediately outside the doors to the gallery space is a sculptural installation by Tom Holmes, a UCLA grad now living in Brooklyn. Titled The Most American Problem or Something about Reducing One to Zero, the work consists of two freestanding lengths of chain-link fence, measuring 21 feet long and eight feet high, angled to make a narrowing corridor not unlike some of Bruce Nauman’s installations from the early 1970s.

Attached to the fence by plastic ties are several printed cardboard advertisements for canned drinks -- Tab, Pepsi, Arizona Green Tea, Red Bull -- altered so that the cans appear to be crushed, like trash. The lower length of one fence is turned into a kind of abstract banner with plastic inserts, colored black, red, yellow and green, the colors of Reggae, a once critical and now socially co-opted cultural movement of the ‘70s.

Chain-link and cans are materials associated with Cady Noland, that avatar of 1980s punk sculpture who now shuns the art world, and this work carries on the older artist’s interest in themes of power, social control and failed revolution. One might hazard that the titular "most American problem" is the insatiable desire to consume everything in sight and stay thin while not spending too much money.

Installed at the south end of the lobby space, Heather Rowe’s Screen (for the rooms behind) is a large wooden construction, part folding screen and part shelving unit (but in fact neither), made with ten-inch wooden planks, composition board, linoleum, mirrors, wood and metal studs. Referencing the carpentry of Donald Judd as well as the stylish lines of mid-20th-century furniture design, the sculpture is nonetheless both raw -- suggesting an unfinished project -- and overdetermined, intricate with details like gray linoleum thresholds and thin translucent mirrors mounted at angles within the wooden lattice. The work deflects attention to its compromised surroundings, one end resting on a pitiful built-in planter and the mirrors reflecting an obnoxious black ATM machine nearby.

The final work in the exhibition is Eileen Quinlan’s Smoke and Mirrors #223, a large photograph printed on perforated vinyl (so that it is semi-transparent) and installed in the window to the mezzanine. Measuring almost ten feet square, the largely abstract image shows the edges of five flat mirrors, butted together to divide the space into five irregular wedges. The surfaces are colored a dark red and blue and reflect wisps of smoke.

A graduate of Columbia’s MFA program, Quinlan has previously exhibited her photos of this kind of neo-Cubist construction in several group shows. Already confounding, this particular example upsets the viewer’s vision in several additional ways. Reflections from the lobby and street overlay the work, which is also transparent enough so that viewers can see the changing scene in the corridor beyond. Finally, and most importantly in the midtown context, the image resembles the kind of glossy abstract prop one might find behind shoes, dresses and purses in the windows on Fifth Avenue. 

The notion of "smoke and mirrors" calls to mind the sleight of hand one expects from magic shows, and is a metaphor for contemporary consumer culture. It also alludes specifically to the dishonesty that has attended the selling of cigarettes, and everyone knows all about that. Quinlan’s work is also currently on view at the artist’s first New York solo show at Miguel Abreu Gallery in the Lower East Side.


LEAH MODIGLIANI is an artist and critic based in New York.



 



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