The Artist As Chess Piece

05/20/2010 12:06 PM |

In the unlikely event PS1’s Greater New York show later this month doesn’t tell us what New York art looks like, their neighbors over at Sculpture Center intend to fill that gap. Titled Knight’s Move, the Sculpture Center’s curator Fionn Meade hones the various themes of pluralism explored in their January-May show Leopards in the Temple.

This isn’t a bad idea. Leopards in the Temple did little but make it clear that contemporary art looks like just about anything, and that’s obvious. Knight’s Move attempts to take this thesis further by using the chess piece as a metaphor for the artist; like the fixed move of a knight, artistic practice either positions itself forward or backward (on the art-historical timeline), and explores laterally from there. Such horizontal movement was once described by a friend as “Aboutism”; the practice of finding some small niche and exploring the hell out of it. Virtually every artist does it.

To properly examine Aboutism though, many works by the same artist would need to be included in the group show, or at the very least wall text contextualizing the artist’s art. There’s neither, though a catalogue is promised for late June.

Knight’s Move is sprawling, dominated by art made from pre-existing stuff. It often takes the form of assemblage, and is surprisingly good given its organizational issues. Ohad Meromi‘s “Alone You are Weak and Forsaken” dominates the main space of the gallery, a towering set of double bullhorns placed on top a life-sized bracketed mirror with tondo ornamentation, a flocked figurative stool sculpture and curtains. The mirror and bullhorn suggest there’s empowerment in the act of looking at oneself provided it’s also a broadcast of self-expression. Community rules.

The piece reminds me of Joel Sternfeld’s 2005 suite of depressing failed utopia photographs, its abstraction leaning more toward incompleteness than progress. Interestingly this stands in opposition to Daniel Lefcourt‘s “Active Surplus,” which makes the most spartan materials look substantial. An aluminum cleat on an overhead projector casts a beautiful shadow along the wall, topped by a long thin rod made of MDF and aluminum. If ever there were an artist exemplifying Aboutism he’d be it; the new work recalls Frank Stella’s 1967 minimalist black paintings a little less than the older stuff, though still clearly makes a lateral space relative to the time period from which it draws. The contrast between light, reflection, and materiality is striking.

Sara Vanderbeek works similarly, engaging a minimal aesthetic in her series of five digital c-prints, “All Goes Onward and Outward.” The photographs re-imagine other objects: she incorporates images from magazines, art history books, and newspapers into sculptures made only for her photographs. Four of these photographs picture geometric forms, the fifth, a picture of a staircase and pillar serving as an abstract corollary.

Downstairs hosts the famed encyclopedic lecturer Alexandre Singh‘s “Assembly Instructions (Tangential Magick).” The piece is a series of 16 framed Xerox collages illustrating multiple paths of thought. For example, a sheet with only the words “casual magic” leads to another sheet with “abracadabra” that leads to images illustrating the disappearance of the Statue of Liberty, the appearance of white rabbit in a top hat and the correct naming of a hidden playing card. From there it gets more abstract. Unfortunately, none of this amounts to much more than “magic is about drawing unexpected connections” for a viewer who hasn’t seen a show of the artist’s work before or heard his lectures. Granted, Singh will perform on June 28th but that’s a little late. This is a perfect example of where the show would have benefited from less artists, more work, and more focus.

In this sense, undoubtedly the greatest curatorial success here is the inclusion of multiple Tom Thayer videos and sculptures. A windy blue mountain landscape with a cardboard bird sits under an archway, a flock of those same birds is located in an adjacent corner and two videos and turtle sculptures line the halls. The best of these works, “Old Smelly Haircut,” is a hand-animated music video. “Mom’s tiny skeleton,” Says a strange child while drawing, “long smelly candy… lonely smelly skeleton.” It’s unclear exactly what this means, but you begin to think there’s a dark story. When we see what’s inside the child’s mind, a curly haired fellow gives a record to a DJ and makes his way into a dilapidated house. While he makes a sad face out of some chipped drywall, back in the real world, the child quashes this action, by crushing his drawing.

Thayer’s work shares affinities with Zach Feuer’s macabre video artist Nathalie Djurberg, though he’s been at it a lot longer and uses cut drawings on photographs as opposed to claymation. There’s a long tradition of this kind of art making, and Thayer’s strong narrative threads make the work exceptional within the genre.

As far as a characterizing attribute for a show, this kind of positioning isn’t a bad one and with only a few exceptions the work is well selected. Still, at the risk of reducing my criticism to “write a better press release and add some wall text,” it’s almost impossible to understand the exhibition on anything other than an aesthetic level without a huge amount of research and background knowledge on the artists. Given the conceit of the show, this places far too much of a burden on the viewer, and does a great disservice to the participating artists.