As much as a sedentary life is a safer one, it does sometimes pay to go out rather than stay in, and so it was on Saturday for the several dozen art lovers who braved the pouring rain for a brunch at Gering & López Gallery in the Crown Building on Fifth Avenue. The occasion was a show of new works by the British artist Jane Simpson (b. 1965), who is celebrated for sculptures that involve casting antiques in rubber as well as for taking ornamental objects like chandeliers and banisters and connecting them to refrigeration units, so that the items become covered with a dense layer of white frost.
For this effect, the moisture is drawn from the surrounding air. Too many hot-blooded onlookers can overwhelm the mechanism, the artist explained, which makes the otherwise inert objects emotional. A centerpiece at Gering & López is a sculpture consisting of an old Singer sewing machine, whose insides have been replaced by a small refrigeration unit, giving the black machine a cold white coating. A strip of reflective plastic, one side cut with a bit of decorative scrollwork, sits on top of the sewing table, a bobbin hanging from a length of thread at its tip like bait on a fishing pole.
"I think of it as a marriage of two different technologies," Simpson said. "The sewing machine is female." The masculine energy, then, leaves our lady cold? Though it resembles that famous Surrealist trope, "a chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella," Simpson’s sculpture -- titled A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing (and priced at $50,000) -- is in fact inspired by an Arthur Dove collage at the Metropolitan Museum.
Most of the other works in the show feature restrained arrangements of three or four things -- varnished wooden spheres, pitchers covered with latex, a gaily painted Happy Buddha -- presented behind glass in boxes on the wall, like Joseph Cornell updated for the 21st century. The largest piece in the show, The Dresser, is a black-painted cabinet filled with various plates and pitchers, also blackened, as if family heirlooms presented some sullen dark force.
The dresser piece reminded me of an exhibition at Gering & López last fall, a selection of seven elaborate cabinets crafted by John F. Simon Jr. to house and present his custom-designed computer codes -- something utterly abstract -- that manifest as ever-changing, tumbling abstract patterns on LCD screens. Suggesting Mid-Century Moderne, the cabinets are multicolored and inscribed with elaborate, laser-cut decorations. What’s more, each cabinet represents a different chakra, and embodies a specific kind of energy.
As someone who came of age during the Conceptual Art era, my first impulse was that all the additional meanings that Simon had layered onto his "pure" code were extraneous. "Everything is code," the artist explained. "And there are lots and lots of codes." He won me over when he added the one inspiration for his cabinets were the "home entertainment centers" that now house digital content within our analog living rooms and dens.
The high design of Simon’s work is very much in line with the sensibility animating the 2008 Whitney Biennial, which is about décor more than anything else. Everything in the show is shiny or polychromed or naturalistically textured, impeccably laid out and neatly aligned; even the art that resembles construction detritus is arranged like a Zen garden.
At the biennial press preview, the art journalist David d’Arcy called it the "Crate and Barrel Biennial," not in the sense that the exhibition is filled with mass-produced furniture and housewares, but rather that it reflects the kind of "good taste" that is represented by the flourishing of things like the New York Times’ T Magazine and the migration of "luxe" design to low-cost outlets like Target. In Clement Greenberg’s time, this sort of thing was called "kitsch."
The oddball work in the show is a pin-up photograph by Roe Ethridge, whose nicely framed color photos may well have some gnomic significance but that are more easily understood as essays in color, like pictures by William Christenberry or Stephen Shore. This particular photo by Ethridge shows a brunette model wearing a captain’s cap and a heart-patterned bikini, making one of those coy gestures with a strap, as if to unite it. She does seem rather young and rather thin, though.
The 2008 Whitney Biennial is all the more interesting for its through-the-looking-glass similarity to the New Museum’s "Unmonumental," originally a show of "junk sculpture" by two dozen artists that is now complete with collages on the walls and sound pieces by additional participants (it looks much better with all the components combined). The exhibition is a notable exercise in irony, considering the museum’s location on the Bowery, one of lower New York’s trashier neighborhoods. In fact, the new building itself is a veritable monument to irony, comically resembling a supersized metallic version of the irregular stacks of cardboard boxes seen on the curb at trash pickup time.
Inside, museum visitors find themselves complicit in this ridiculous enterprise, as they are invited to bring their esthetic discrimination to bear on artworks that literally look like various kinds of junk. Not only do we get to appreciate anti-art, we are tutored in its various and sundry categories. John Bock’s doodled little sculptures made from cast-off household packaging are relics of an antic social commentary, for instance, while Carol Bove’s restrained arrangements of threadbare thrift-store finds are strangely semiotic. Other congeries of crap are formalist (Anselm Reyle), antiesthetic (Rachel Harrison, Isa Genzken), ur-ethnic (Wangechi Mutu), political (Sam Durant, Martha Rosler), and so on.
The new New Museum, designed by Tokyo-based architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa/SANAA with Gensler, New York, has its own curious parallel with Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum. Notably, both structures are boxy monoliths whose cold shells are broken by dramatic setbacks. The connecting thread between the two buildings is New Museum director Lisa Phillips, a curator at the Whitney for many years before she took her current post.
In any case, "Unmonumental" is certainly edgier and more anti-social than the 2008 Whitney Biennial, but then the biennial went the "punk art" route back in 2006.
Most of the works in "WACK!" are low-tech, as one might expect from that pre-digital time, and sociological, as befits an art that was politically and socially engaged. And since it’s international, the show has a surprising number of important works that aren’t so well known in New York. One example here is the French artist Léa Lublin (1929-99), who moved into the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris with her small son in 1968 to exhibit herself as a mother.
The show is not without its nostalgic touches, as well. Veterans of the 1970s art world should take the time to listen to the extended collection of telephone messages left for the vivacious SoHo artist Hannah Wilke (1940-93). Dating from 1975 and indexed by the names of the callers, the list includes beseechings and audio performances by Claes Oldenburg, Richard Hamilton, Donald Goddard and her other paramours, as well as calls from now-forgotten artists from the 1970s like Eddie Shostak and James Collins.
Best of all is hearing once again the voice of Scott Burton (1939-89), the furniture artist and onetime Art in America editor (who showed me the ropes in this writing and reporting business). A person of considerably energy and charm with a uniquely vivacious way of speaking, Scott would call Hannah up and urge her to join him at one opening or another, because he was sure that they could have some fun. A victim of HIV, he died way too soon.
Kardon lets his viscous, colorful material come to life, such as in What’s Left (2007), an odd still life including a tray, an aperitif, a rose in a pitcher and a strange object that seems to be a cascade of lemon-yellow brushstrokes. My favorite is Painting Contemplates Sculpture (2007), a delicious pairing of a rather strange picture (of a dog?) and a voluptuous glass figurine, which casts the eternal battle between the two disciplines as a watchful draw. The works are priced between $5,000 and $20,000.
The Louis Vuitton shop on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street in Manhattan features a fancy Richard Prince bag with a cartoon of a woman and two men on its side, picked out in orange beads, for $8,250. No caption to the joke was visible through the window. . . . Footnote to "Jasper Johns: Gray" at the Metropolitan Museum, was an intaglio print by the artist for sale in the bookstore for $50,000. It’s smaller than the catalogue, which is $65 clothbound. . . . Also at the Met, how comic is it to see the golden tapestry of metallic bits recently acquired from Nigeria-based artist El Anatsui (b. 1944) installed not in the contemporary galleries but with the tribal "Arts of Africa."
Curator and art dealer Molly Barnes -- she opened her first L.A. gallery in 1967 -- shows her art-collector side in "Love at First Sight: The Molly Barnes Collection," Apr. 10-May 31, 2008, at Pharmaka in downtown L.A. The trove includes works by Chuck Arnoldi, Judy Chicago, Laddie John Dill, Richard Jackson, Willem de Kooning, Ed Ruscha, Nikki de Saint Phalle, many others.
A late note from L.A. -- musician David Byrne gives a detailed report on the gala opening of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum in his blog, including an explanation of the La Brea Tar Pits for those who need one. His date, Cindy Sherman, is identified as "C."
Note from Germany -- Samuel Keller, former Art Basel chief and now director of the Fondation Beyeler, is being floated as a potential candidate for the directorship of the Guggenheim Museum.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.