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THE MINUTE
by Abraham Orden
 
In New York, the fever for building is at a heightened pitch, and seems to be infecting activity in the art world as well. For his first U.S. solo show, for example, Hamburg-based artist Stefan Kern (b. 1966) has set aside the minimalist-inflected, hyper-fine furniture for which he is known and filled Andrew Kreps Gallery with gleaming approximations of construction-site detritus.

Collectively titled "Missed the Turn," the four works in the installation (priced between $18,000 and $24,000) add up to a messy but spare arrangement of dented sidewalk barricades, billowing blue tarps, and bright orange barrier tape -- fabricated, machismo matter made decadent by the feminine finish the artist applies ubiquitously.

This is punch-line art, to be sure, but like a good punch line it resonates for days. At first these things promise to be available for recognition, like regular old objects, but under examination they recede from reality into a plane of pure Platonic ideals. The work is impossibly bright, hard and seductive; the closer you look, the weirder it looks.

At David Zwirner Gallery on West 19th, shades of the city’s architectural past are being raised in seminal pieces by Rirkrit Tiravanija (b. 1961) and Gordon Matta-Clark (1943-78). The James Dean of the construction esthetic, Matta-Clark took the dilapidated New York City of the 1970s by storm, spinning beauty out of decrepitude like gold from straw. His historical importance is currently proclaimed by a retrospective at the Whitney Museum.

At Zwirner, Matta-Clark is represented by a suite of small and misleadingly precious photographs as well as a 1972 film and a rebuilt version of the sculpture it chronicles, both titled Open House. The sculpture is a makeshift shelter built into a standard steel dumpster, whose space is divided by salvaged walls and doors into three or four interconnected chambers, each big enough to house a single sleeping body. The trash bin as homeless shelter -- too appropriate to the times.

The film, a loose and easy document of the sculpture in its original context -- on the street in front of 89 Greene Street in SoHo -- is projected large against the gallery’s back wall. In its current manifestation, the Open House sculpture is covered with adolescent spray-painted graffiti, and the 1972 film suggests that the work was always something of a rhetorical gesture. It’s not a movie showing dejected homeless people taking sanctuary in a gift from liberal bourgeois heaven, but rather one recording SoHo bohemians drinking beer while their children chase each other through the dumpster’s chambers and hang like monkeys from the rafters.

For the re-presentation of Rirkrit Tiravanija’s now-classic Untitled 1992 (Free), the artist and his gaggle of assistants were banging away during gallery hours, constructing what the Zwirner people are calling a "ghost" of the old 303 Gallery -- which was also at 89 Greene Street -- where Tiravanija was once an art handler, and where this work was originally produced.

A life-sized plywood replica of former 303 space, the structure thankfully preserves the large vertical windows of the original and easily fits inside the sprawling Zwirner compound on West 19th Street. The ghost is presented in collaboration with Gavin Brown, Tiravanija’s other dealer; both were mum on its sale price.

On opening night on Mar. 21, 2007, with only the two-by-four framing of the walls up, team Tiravanija halted construction to feed the several hundred gallery-goers on hand. The kitchen crew is more than deft at turning out the vegetarian curry and rice -- pots and pans are part of the piece, after all -- and Chelsea visitors can pop in at any time for a rest and a bit of free lunch, though be warned, it’s very spicy.

Untitled 1992 (Free) is a construction site, but it’s also a breezy café, and that atmosphere feels in tune with the bliss permeating New York, at least during the lamblike spring days that come now and then.  

But it was in those first lionly weeks of the month that I took up the Chelsea beat in earnest. Fighting against the blustery wind to make my way around that hard-surfaced neighborhood took some stamina, like crisscrossing the deck of a huge, weather-embattled and mostly abandoned ship.

So in the solitude of an early weekday, it was a surprise to find artist Mary Lucier (b. 1944) on hand at Lennon Weinberg on West 25th Street, happy to discuss her five-channel video work, The Plains of Sweet Regret (2004). Made as a commission for the North Dakota Museum of Art -- where there is nothing if not space -- the work fills the gallery, sports-bar style, in a tight arrangement of projections and monitors.

A loose 18-minute-long narrative addresses the depopulation of the Dakotas in a series of crisply evocative if familiar images. Sweeping footage of the plains and roads rolling off to the horizon proceed, shot by shot, into a montage of abandoned remnants of human settlement, peeling old advertisements, waterlogged and abandoned books, and a lost trophy. It’s a digital American Gothic, kin to films by Terrence Mallick and videos by artist Doug Aitken. Lucier, who has been making video art since the early ‘70s, has been on the scene longer than either of them.

Loss and emptiness are only half of the story in Plains. "I wanted to depict something a little more hopeful," Lucier says, "albeit ambiguously." Midway into the work, she turns her gaze at a rodeo, and changes the soundtrack to a crooning George Straight tune repeated in rolling waves of sound.

Here, Lucier’s understanding of her medium is sublime, as her single, economical gesture of mirroring and then overlaying these cowboy images produces a Rorschach-like doubling that harnesses all of the passionate, competitive energy of the rodeo and transforms it into pure ornament, a beautiful pattern wherein motion is always balanced perfectly against itself. Lucier has produced this portion of the work as a single-channel video, titled Arabesque, and available as a DVD for $2,500 in an edition of 25.

On another day, just down the street, I found Sam Gordon at Feature, Inc., where his third solo show at the gallery was presented under the rubric of "Three Ways: Painting, Drawing, Video." Gordon is an artist’s artist, a respected denizen of the New York scene whose long presence is demonstrated by a video titled The Lost Kinetic World, Volumes 1-4.

Gordon said the work is "a magazine disguised as a movie, featuring excerpts from art and music performances, films, lectures and street happenings." In reality it is a vast and consuming database, a no-frills archive of the moving artworks that the artist -- who seems to go to every event -- has encountered over the past three years, filmed with a point-and-shoot digital camera. The work includes just about every artistically important name from the last half century, and runs eight hours in its four-volume entirety (it can be purchased for $25 per volume, in an unlimited edition). "It’s so easy," he says of the filming. "It’s as casual as sketching or doodling."

The painting and drawing part of the installation consisted of grids of Gordon’s sketchbook pages, done as a series of large vinyl panels, with seven new mid-sized (24 x 24 in.) paintings hung on top of them. The sketchbook pages ($4,000 each, editions of three) suggest a notion of a fecund imagination that overwhelms esthetic judgment.

The paintings are more studied, mandala-like designs on a variety of surfaces, including mirrored glass, and comprised of a variety of materials, including sweepings from the studio floor (they’re $6,500 each). The emphasis is on a range of mark-making and subtle paint effects, though the paintings do have an underlying imagery that is curiously gnomic, such as concentric rings of chains. "I want to make paintings that can hang there and look good like a wallflower at a party," Gordon said. "But if you want to come up and talk, they have some tweaked stuff to say."

"Tweaked" is an apt term as well for the four impressively weird sculptures by Johannes VanDerBeek on view at Zach Feuer Gallery on West 24th Street. The exhibition’s title, "Bed Bush Ruins," is misleadingly allusive, as it turns out to be a literal description of the show’s contents -- sculptures of a bed, a bush and two ruins, one a largish wall and the second a sarcophagus of sorts. The exhibition is the first for the 24-year-old artist, a co-founder of Guild & Greyshkul gallery in SoHo.

The ruins are made of smallish, drab panels that turn out to be magazines, with their pages glued together and then worked over with a heavy-duty hand-sander, resulting in a surface that we read at first as built up, like papier-mâché, only to discover that it is in fact carved away. The technique shows a sculptor’s affection for structure and texture, but also poses a more "theoretical" question of what sort of ruins will be left by the information age, and what their significance might be.

The bush sculpture is about eight feet tall, covered in leaves made of wax and speckled and splashed with paint so as to suggest tiny images of distant cosmos, as if an earthbound model of the Big Bang. A homemade idea, the sculpture is beautiful all the same, and suggests that VanDerBeek is carving out a language all his own. The works are priced between $16,000 and $25,000.

Also eminently tweaked are the French duo of Petra Mrzyk & Jean-Francois Moriceau, who showed three drawings in the back room of Cohan and Leslie gallery as part of the group exhibition "Fade away and Radiate." A married couple living on the outskirts of Paris, the pair collaborates on black ink drawings on paper, passing the drawing back and forth, imbuing it with stranger and stranger humor in each turn, until we get an image of a penguin holding up a gun, standing on a kind of altered Rolling Stones mouth, out of which intestines spiral down into the eyes of an upturned, bearded face, which is intersected by a hand with eyes on each fingertip, also looking skyward. In this drawing, all the characters look up, save for a lone Gumby, whose back is turned while he concentrates on playing a guitar. This work and the other two on view are priced at $6,000 each.

Last but not least is the 34-year-old Polish painter Wilhelm Sasnal, whose simple "new image" paintings can be seen at Anton Kern Gallery for a few more days. It’s easy to imagine that Sasnal’s status as one of the most sought-after market darlings -- his auction record is $212,000 for a five-foot-square painting of a UFO -- has only fueled his ambition to tweak the wealthy West’s standards for good painting.

More than any of the other young painters who have exploded out of the Eastern Bloc in the past five or ten years -- most of them just kids when the Berlin Wall fell -- Sasnal has embraced a style, palette and choice of content that is peculiarly pared down, even slight. Images in his new paintings range from a scene of wheat stalks silhouetted against a yellow sun to a portrait of a singing boy with a circular black "hole" where his mouth should be. Other paintings present an abstract geometric design that is supposed to be the space under the floor.

Both simple and cryptic, Sasnal’s paintings embrace an exotic and politically enticing system of representation, a post-Richter, post-Tuymans approach wherein emptiness is full of meaning, and no image could ever be as rich as the way in which it is handled. He now finds himself increasingly in dialogue with the art world’s canon of painting.

Early on in his career, Sasnal was never much of a colorist, nor did he display much interest in abstraction. In his new works, he cultivates both modes at once. It’s worth it to get down to Kern just to see the green Sasnal has put to use in a work like Under the Floor (2007) -- a horror-movie title for a creepy, Bacon-esque image. And abstractions like Photophobia (2007) and Under the Canvas (2006) -- a painted x-ray view through the surface to the stretcher bars behind, and a mysterious painted motif -- look about as "now" as it gets in painting, leaning on art history without reducing to clichés, and maintaining the artist’s distinctly dispassionate, clinical approach to the medium.


ABRAHAM ORDEN is a New York art critic.