Two Great Shows in Chelsea

05/22/2009 4:00 AM |

Gallery audiences never know what kind of art experience New York will serve up. This week’s foray into north Chelsea, for example, produced only two exhibitions worth discussing of the fifteen I visited: Jessica Stockholder at Michell-Innes & Nash and Nam June Paik at James Cohan Gallery. Both shows make it clear why so many artists take their cues from these vastly influential sculptors.

A predecessor to the fragmented form of contemporaries such as Rachel Harrison, Michael Mahalchick and Tony Feher, fifty-year-old Jessica Stockholder brings together manipulated and raw materials in her latest exhibition SailCloth Tears. Eight sculptures, all but one using the wall for support, sparsely populate the gallery. Those more familiar with her well-known large-scale installations of the 80s and 90s may see her new work’s more compact form as a departure, though in truth she’s been making these smaller pieces for a few years. The essential sensibility – a rainbow palette, disparate objects, and heavy investment in textural surface — remains the same.

Specific to SailCloth Tears, many of the works exhibit a subtle humor. Choosing to paint a shape vaguely resembling a face on the most absurd surface imaginable – a free standing yellow fluffy roll on a stick — doesn’t make any sense. This is why it works — the surprise pleases. Another piece hangs a small wall-mounted antique frame with brilliant yellow paint on the corner, suggesting that the conditions of display inform what’s inside the picture plane. It also boxes an untouched piece of black plastic with a fake alligator pattern — the pre-made texture glorified as art.

The strongest works in the show reflect less on the craft itself, and have a more straightforward engagement with material. In the exhibition’s centerpiece, Stockholder embroiders a circular pattern in blue and green, resembling a small nipple or the center of a flower. A bunch of lights hang from a fisherman’s sack above without any apparent reason. None of these objects should have any relationship to each other let alone visual appeal. The virtuosity of this work, then, lies in the sense that somehow they do.

Just across the street, Nam June Paik’s Live Feed at James Cohan Gallery brings together functioning TVs to make larger sculptural objects. Often referred to as the father of video art, the title of Paik’s best known technology-based work first coined the term “Electronic Super Highway”. Like the eleven works threaded through three rooms, the functioning screens speak to Paik’s interest in engaging the medium of video itself. In opposing corners of the front gallery, piled antique TVs form two robot figures completed in 1990, one titled Beuys Voice, the other Gertrude Stein. Both heroes of the artist, a video for Stein’s belly and a lit screen projecting a drawn happy face humorously complete the sculpture. Their higher tech assemblage Watchdog II stands nearby, cleverly using a surveillance camera at the end of its tail and loud speakers for its ears.

With only a few exceptions, the arranged TVs in this show tend to mimic known forms and figures, the screens either re-enforcing that or adding a symbolic element. On a purely visceral level, Living Egg Grows, a horizontal series of successively larger oval-shaped screens featuring a crouched woman, delivers the most punch. A small piece titled Enlightenment Compressed, 1994 in the front room marks the strongest work exhibited though. Here, a small Buddha gazes into a TV as it reflects his own image and that of the viewer back to him. The piece not only suggests that the passive surveillance technology often encourages transformations of the mind and body but acts as a meditation on the experience of art looking. For the contemporary art viewer in Chelsea, typically equipped with an array of digital technologies, the piece speaks with an unexpected yet singular poignancy.