Heading down the stairs to Miguel Abreu Gallery‘s basement show has the same allure as visiting the East Village’s PDT speakeasy hidden behind a hot dog joint. Just knowing about it is half the charm; the other half is the show’s risqué subject matter. A disclaimer on the basement door indicates that Commodity/Fetish (through April 10) may contain some offensive material. Word has it someone complained about the photographs of naked dolls.
The crux of the exhibition is made clear through the selections of curator and participating artist Nicolás Guagnini—each reveals the complexity within the commodity/fetish relationship. Past those naughty Hans Bellmer images from the mid-30s and 40s, though, there’s hardly any material that would solicit complaints. Guagnini, Sam Lewitt and Richard Prince don’t even picture bodies. Three works made by Robert Heinecken in the early 80s titled “Lessons in Posing Subjects” feature women in lingerie and descriptive text; they aren’t exactly scandalous, but a few critics I met outside the gallery tabled the idea that their execution date made them more courageous. Artists were only starting to embrace such figure-text combinations at that time.
That reading’s lost now, but the history remains relevant. There’s not a lot on view that could shock, but most of the artists included demanded a great deal from their audiences at the time their work was made. And, planned or not, this parallels the exhibition design, which couldn’t make commodity sexier if it tried. The cramped space literally forces a physical relationship with nearly every object in the room. There’s no shortage of work, either, given the four movable eight-sided display units. These walls are literally artworks—Guagnini titles them “Curatorial Machine (Exhibition System 7)”—their primary function to make the viewer more aware of themselves and others.
A straight line of vision up the center of the room leads to a long slim pedestal supporting Sam Lewitt’s open book of silver coins made of a material typically used in casting dies, zinc alloy. The intellectual content of the work suggests either a stopping point or an unrecognizable mutation of reproduction technologies that, paired with formal qualities that evoke reproductive organs, creates a healthy tension.
But the real stars of this show don’t come from the fetishization of reproduction demonstrated by Sam Lewitt or Richard Prince’s 1979 re-photographed cigarette advertisement—although Prince’s recent loss in court over his latest appropriations does cast a newsy hue over the old work.
Bellmer and Heinecken are the stand-outs. These works hang mostly on the movable walls, dominating the room. Bellmer’s photographs of bound dolls will do that—they are simultaneously creepy and erotic—but so do his intricate and sinuous line drawings. On the back wall, for example, a woman with bricks for skin sees parts of her body dissolve as she examines her belly. The detail in the drawing is impressive not just for its confidence, but also sheer its ingenuity.
Heinecken relies less on imagination for his Polaroid shots from fashion magazines. In “Lessons in Posing Subjects/Matching Facial Expressions” he asks the viewer to match the smiles of photos taken of a male and female model with those of the figures together. They line up almost perfectly. But just as Joseph Albers demonstrated that the same color can look completely different when juxtaposed with another, Heinecken shows how the meanings of facial expressions shift when near the opposite sex. Of course, advertising smiles are essentially devoid of any emotional charge; the viewer projects the change in meaning. As with much of the work in this show, what we experience before Heinecken’s work is both the feeling of wanting, and wanting to be wanted—that is, at once fetish and commodity.
(images courtesy Miguel Abreu Gallery)