If the idea of the monument has gone the way of the grand narrative and unified subject, fragmented by postmodernism and inverted into anti-monuments like Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial or dematerialized into ethereal, hybrid, unmonumental assemblages, what does monumental sculpture look like today, and to what is it a monument? Artist and curator Ben Godward offers possible answers in New Monuments, a group show at Lesley Heller Workspace (through May 15). The pieces on view, by five artists, play with natural forms, juxtaposing delicate and industrial man-made materials. The most consistent feature in their works is an assertion of materiality over image, a preponderance of messy textures, rough edges, holes and intriguing surfaces that undermine and delay viewers' attempts to read figuration into the pieces.
All these tensions are most visible in Liz Atzberger's "Escape To/From Star Mountain" (2011), a series of superimposed pyramid-shaped clear plastic boards with starry grids cut into them, partially painted, in places covered in plastic wrap, and fastened together with colorful zip ties that seem to grow out of the quasi-landscape and down to the floor. Any sense of stability or direction is lost in the endless play of reflective surfaces, overlapping painted planes, subtracted stars and plant-like plastic straps, and yet the piece has surprising wholeness. Right alongside it, Letha Wilson's "Sunset Airplane Wilderness Ranch" (2010) is the show's simplest object, and no less effective for it: a photograph of a golden-turquoise sunset over a mountain pleated as if it had been turned into a paper airplane and then unfolded. Her three other works on view also force human shapes and materials onto landscapes, though not quite so playfully.
Audrey Hasen Russell reverses that relationship by turning found objects and materials into vaguely futuristic, ramshackle incubator-like sculptures. In "Souvenirs (Thinkin' on You)" (2009), two totemic stacks of glass ojects sit atop white-painted bricks—like DIY Paula Hayes. Inside the crystal bulbs are what appear to be tiny blades of grass belonging to some frail seedling, but it's actually green plastic. Already in that work nature is no longer the point of reference or thing of value, and pieces by Godward and Jesse Bercowetz complete the show's shift to the more familiar subjects of monuments: human beings.
But their monuments to humanity are decidedly mournful. Bercowetz's "Gallows" (2008) features a tiny, jester-like figure in a miniature hanging rig, the gold paint on its head and bright red of its body suggesting both a king and a fool, in either case drastically diminished to a table-top monument to buffoonish tyranny. Godward's large centerpiece, "Double Fantasy" (2011), completes the show's death-march. The ten-feet-tall coffin-like pocket of neon-hued urethane and paint inside a metal frame is both void and voluminous, empty and emphatically full of aggressive tones and seductive textures—a masculine Lynda Benglis. The new monuments of the show's title, then, edify absence rather than achievement, material over narrative, but also possibility and transformation.
(images courtesy the artists, Lesley Heller Workspace)