If it takes a gallery-goer several days of contemplation to figure out the meaning of an artwork, does that mean it’s flawed? Both old master paintings and contemporary art pieces often unfold over the course of many years, but because so much new art makes durational demands of a viewer without looking like much, it’s hard to know what’s worth the time. As I finished walking through Chelsea the other day, Spencer Finch at Postmasters and William Cordova at Sikkema Jenkins had me wondering how much substantive value was gained through esoteric references.
Spencer Finch’s backroom installation Paper Moon, (Studio Wall at Night) at Postmasters was what set me off, though even the gallery describes its recreation of studio shadows as “very boring and clearly not for everyone.” The piece is little more than a room divider with a poorly cut out window and rickety train set running on one side of the wall. Initially, I dismissed it without much thought—the remnants of light aren’t actually that interesting to experience no matter whose studio it falls in—but after further contemplation, I began to doubt that first impression. Instead, I began to interpret its pathetic craft as a humorously self-deprecating statement on the skills needed to make art by the artist. It’s probable both takes are correct, which leaves one weighting the value of each.
Given the context of the show, I’m inclined to think the added interpretation doesn’t amount to much. After all, prior to making it to the back gallery, viewers are subjected to a giant kumbaya circle of colored candles and the grating exhibition title, The Brain—Is Wider Than The Sky. The quote comes from an Emily Dickinson poem and relates to the mostly melted candle piece, which is a memorial to the poet. As the press release informs the viewer, 366 candles burn, one per day, in homage to Dickinson’s massive 1862 production of the same number of poems. Each colored candle corresponds to a color mentioned in her poem, except when no color is mentioned (in which case natural wax is used). It’s an A+B=intellect-takes-you-to-heaven kind of piece, which made me hope I would never be damned to the dreary pretension of afterlife.
Elsewhere in Chelsea, mid-career artist William Cordova at Sikkema Jenkins similarly finds inspiration in literature. The show picks up on a number of enduring themes throughout his work, music, race, and community among them. Drawing upon Octavio Paz and Jorge Luis Borges in his exhibition laberintos, the first work a viewer sees when entering the gallery is a labyrinth of record sleeves, each by black performers, titled Laberintos (after Octavio Paz). A giant sheet of gold-leaf paper picturing a tagged subway train hangs behind the maze, simultaneously evoking a sense of old-timey altar paintings and trending hipster interests. Here, Cordova draws upon Paz’s essays exploring Mexican identity and demonstrating the profound feeling of solitude evoked by existential labyrinth. It’s not too difficult to apply those thoughts to Cordova’s music community maze, though there’s a small part of me that wonders whether the artist’s careful calculation undermines the desired rousing of isolation. And I like art that makes me feel as much as it makes me think, and this work falls a little too heavy on the latter.
Nearby, the back of a giant wooden crate-cabinet obscures the view of the show’s only TV monitor and video. Viewers can hear a vaguely distorted and static-y voice emanating from behind the cabinet—perhaps, a more literal interpretation of the contradicting feelings of solitude experienced by public personalities as well as those within the black community they reach. But the piece, this one’s 4U, a mixing of the audio element from documentary Tupac Amaru, and film Tupac: Thug Angel, also speaks to a larger theme within the show—the ever popular weaving together of histories through the use of collage. Cordova is a little more thoughtful than most artists, but after a while you start to wonder if the years he’s spent attaching different referenced titles to video projects and the same drawings of piled records and car collages with bits of tape are simply retelling the same story.