In an art environment and market where noisy spectacles prevail over well crafted, self-conscious and clever formal exercises (witness the spectacular shouting match of the New Museum's Generational triennial), artists who evince traces of modesty through self-deprecating dark comedy show some refreshing humility. After all, everything has been done before — often by these artists themselves — so the pursuit of bigger, brighter (and hopefully better) art should be cut with a healthy dose of modesty. Four examples of restraint in the pursuit of grandeur are currently on display in Lower East Side galleries.
At Simon Preston, Brooklyn-based sculptor and installation artist Michelle Lopez jammed a tree (donated by the city's parks department) through the gallery wall and reveled in the destruction of one of her public artworks she considered a failure. The Violent Bear it Away, which includes these two pieces along with a self-portrait that consists of a hair sculpture placed on the gallery floor, exemplifies an increasingly prevalent willingness for artists to revise, update, edit and scrap their own work. Between the dramatic violence of the tree — its one sculpted branch barely touching the floor like a new, artificial root — and the sad silhouette cut by her bombed-out car, Lopez engages various artistic and political debates. The economics of art galleries seem the subject of her tree assault, though this might also be a premonition of environmental disaster. The trashed car sculpture evokes terrorism, a critique of consumerism on par with John Chamberlain's crushed vehicles and a productively self-critical art practice.
Productive self-examination appears to have been both the genesis and result of Luke Murphy's video installations at Canada. Combining high-tech and familiar means, his projections evolve randomly, set in motion by the digital artist's interests in surrealism, Dadaism and millennia-long geological processes. At the gallery entrance, Murphy engages our critical and voyeuristic eyes with a giant projection of an eye that melts down the wall in a continuously looping cycle — the effect is like seeing Oz's wizard unmasked over and over again. The centerpiece of the Certainty Shelter — an exhibition title that knowingly underlines our tendency towards the comforts of familiarity — is an installation of three projections organized around a tacky false wood cabinet where a glowing green vase made of uranium glass and three Geiger counters generate the projected patterns. Suddenly the artistic impulse of ceding control to some agent of randomness becomes invested with a kind of mythic gravity, but also a disquieting danger. Left to chance, Murphy's art is fascinating, funny and a little ominous.