New York's Empty Spaces

John Haber
in New York City

Allyson Vieira, David Brooks, and John von Bergen

Trends have a way of growing tired, fast, in art as in fashion. Last year's breakthrough can look like this year's bad memories. The fact fueled the impatience with the past that one calls the avant-garde. It also fueled the impatience with the avant-garde called Postmodernism.

Allyson Vieira, David Brooks, and John von Bergen all have patience. They revisit the recent past several times over, as Minimalism, as installation, and as New York's history. Brooks in fact appears in a group show curated by Mark Dion, who spoke of a past installation Rescue Archaeology—and all three artists could say much the same. John von Bergen's Whiplash (Smack Mellon, 2010)

Patience, patience

Modernism and Postmodernism shared a certain impatience, with good reason. And artists who wish that postmodern theories would go away should take notice. They may hope for a return to older styles and older media. Yet they and their target share much the same disdain for Modernism and the latest thing. They are also attacking a straw man. At the very least, they are attacking a giant male nude made of found materials and elephant turds.

Check out the private collection at the New Museum, for example. Try to convince yourself that macho gestures and bloated installations still rule. Tell yourself that you really are looking at something only five years old, rather than tie-dyed shirts and bell-bottom blues. A little critical theory could come in handy. So could a decent installation. High-end markets are one thing, but the day-to-day work of dealers and curators is quite another.

At least Postmodernism had the sense to take fashion seriously. Critics saw a disturbing similarity between the "originality of the avant-garde" and consumer culture. Of course, that theory has a blind spot, too. It overlooks the joy, energy, and critical spirit in a dizzying run of modern art movements. It also has to cope with the sense of stagnation right now, as pretty much every alternative looks just fine. And pretty much each one looks like anything but a breakthrough.

I write the day after catching installations by Greg Smith and Brent Green. Both turn galleries into claustrophobic chambers, where one can imagine a very strange person living and working. One seems to take pleasure in the usual litter of an artist's studio, embellished to the point of insanity. The other tells the story of a man who turned his house into an imagined vessel for physical and spiritual healing. (The man's wife died anyway.) And both look like retreads of other installations, perhaps by Mike Nelson or by Justin Lowe and Jonah Freeman—but without the intensity, despair, and obligation to make their myths one's own.

Can their moment have passed so soon? With all the backlash against big, empty, and trashy installations in dark, crowded rooms, one can easily forget something. In fact, one can forget quite a few things. They are a trend, but not the only trend. Even Chelsea is a dizzying array. It hypes outsider art, painting touched by cartoons and digital gaming, intricate networks, hybrids of conceptual arts and abstraction, photography and new media, raw sculpture, feminism, collaboration, political art, reflections on the art world, and so much more.

The big shots are here to stay for a while, no doubt, given posh galleries with wide-open spaces and weekend crowds. But they are not always what one expects from bad boys. Not every artist trashes a gallery to show off, and not every near-empty installation is devoid of meaning. Women artists, too, can play, and an empty gallery can take on deep resonance in the changing neighborhoods of New York City. Vieira, Brooks, and von Bergen all reshape a room using construction materials. All do so, too, to evoke at once Minimalism, visceral sensation, gentrification, urban history, and a deeper past.


An empty space can mean modesty, while scars can attest to a human history. Destruction can also be very much handmade—in the case of Allyson Vieira, by a woman's hand. Like Dwyer Kilcollin or Karl Haendel, Vieira belongs to a kind of Neo-Minimalism or rebuilding Minimalism, embracing geometry and industrial materials, but also rough edges and representation. Just a few blocks from her show, Marco Rios even claims that his glass and steel tubes on the Lower East Side derive from The Fly. Those who loved the movie are going to miss it, and those who did not are probably looking for the exit. Vieira prefers classical allusions, as well as a more classic form of Minimalism.

In a small group show, she erected the Parthenon. Not the original, mind you, although it might not be a bad idea. England and Greece could easily resolve their dispute over the Elgin Marbles that way. Return them to the Parthenon, then ship them both to New York. That way, I could see something built at Ground Zero in my lifetime. It would even include a cultural center.

But no, her Parthenon already belongs to New York. The slice of a column between mirrors on the floor both emphasized its fragmentation and extended it to infinity. And an imitation marble relief rested on a table nearby. They enacted deconstruction and construction, assemblage and dispersal. They also reenacted the shapes, materials, and vocabulary of someone like Robert Smithson forty years before. They did so, however, firmly in the present.

Now Vieira finishes the job—or at least as much of it as the storefront gallery can hold. This time, however, she makes the state of ruin more palpable and its heritage still more ancient. Instead of a smooth pillar on its side, she sets out rectangular columns in rows. They look like Sheetrock smeared with plaster, but the drywall actually frames what remains of a larger body of poured concrete. Again the object both reflects and hides the process of its making. The play on enclosure also turns space and object inside-out.

The sculpture picks up the geometry and materials of Minimalism, while giving them a beating. The rows stand at an angle to the gallery's white cube, as another kind of disruption. The columns have more or less human proportions, a relationship between design and the body shared by Minimalism and Classical architecture. I did not dare pass through them to the still smaller back room, which allegedly has more relief panels and a live octopus. It could challenge Damien Hirst and his shark—or half the restaurants in Chinatown nearby. Classical allusions aside, this work relates to the urban fabric after all.

It all looks familiar, true enough, despite the furious labor that Vieira set herself. A friend joked that she had crossed Rachel Whiteread with Carl Andre. But post and neo are part of the game, the past is present, and there is no going back. The title, Ozymandias, says so directly, naming a pharaoh whom Shelley made an emblem of overreaching pride. "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" Jeff Koons must have said the same thing when he placed his giant poodle in Rockefeller Center.

A concrete magic carpet

For a boy in the city, the sidewalk was my magic carpet. Suburban kids wait for years for the car keys, but I was already on my own and flying.

David Brooks's Naturae vulgaris (Museum 52, 2009)David Brooks is from the Midwest, but his New York City still takes flight. It starts tamely enough, insofar as one can call a thick slab of gravel and Portland cement tame. Naturae vulgaris looks like anything but nature at first—or vulgar. Regulation width and clean of dog poop, his sidewalk runs along the entrance wall and the length of the gallery. One can imagine the horizontal expansion joints as an exercise in linear perspective. A street-corner indentation by the door even makes the installation wheelchair accessible, at least once if makes it up the front stoop.

Then it takes off, crashing through a brick wall and up into the gallery skylight, where it falls to pieces. And it carries a tree as alive as for Ellen Altfest or Mary Hrbacek, shorn of roots, with it, perhaps about to blossom at "Greater New York" or "Knight's Move" in Long Island City. With its hoist and pulleys, it speaks of a human footprint on nature—right down to the Latin title, like genus and species. Concrete production, Brooks points out, contributes substantially to carbon emissions and global climate change. All the same, he delights in geometry, fantasy, vulgarity, and the space of the gallery quite as much as a Carl Andre floor piece or a pit by Urs Fischer. Besides, what could be more environmentally friendly than urban renewal, even after the objections in "The Real Estate Show"?

Brooks has a more modest construction project at the center of "Strange Travelers." As curator, Marc Dion looks for collisions of nature and culture, just as with his "department of tropical research," and each retains a sense of wonder alongside a traveler's estrangement and dislocation. James Prosek's stuffed "tool birds" accompany his image of a flying fox. Laurent Tixador and Abraham Poincheval, who immured themselves for nights, document their adventures underground with picks and shovels. Till Krause does much the same with wallpaper text, which combines cryptic directions and platitudes. Sanna Kannisto achieves the creepiest image of all on video, with insects drawn to sugar.

Dion has a fascination with natural histories. His Rescue Archaeology charted MoMA's 2004 expansion. Here he adds a smaller room of his own, devoted to William Bartram, an explorer of America. The baby alligators and other artifacts look trivial, but the fine wooden cabinets of a nineteenth-century naturalist have a pristine beauty of their own. They suggest a meeting ground between art and science in representation, craft, and obsession.

No object in the group show stands out, and on opening day the gallery had not yet labeled any of them. One could mistake them all for Dion's. Ironically, a curator of contemporary art had given the illusion of a single work, like Marcel Broodthaers, while taking as his subject an imaginary museum. Downstairs Jeffrey Vallance curated an even more single-minded collection, devoted all to himself. Relics from his past, like a Nixon button and coral in the shape of Connie Chung, occupy small but elaborate reliquaries. As unnatural histories go, science starts to look more and more appealing by comparison—and, like an installation that spans centuries, more a part of the city.

A tree blows in Brooklyn

Whip Lash sounds violent, twice over, but the installation is mostly white and very still. It is also very much a part of New York. A huge brown beam tilts out from a long wall of Smack Mellon. A tree might have grown there naturally, or unnaturally, or it might have blown in from Brooklyn Bridge Park just across the street. The white clump at its base, stabilizing the end furthest out from the wall, looks a bit like roots.

It would take quite a storm to rip it out of the ground and right through the wall. Then again, events did not shatter windows, and John von Bergen leaves the rest of main gallery clean and empty. Up close, the beam bears bolts and the texture of rusted metal. I thought of another remnant of the East River waterfront, an anchor. That, too, could stand for great violence or extra stability. Whiplash itself means either a snapping motion or what that leaves behind.

In reality, the beam did not have to blow all that far. von Bergen molded it after the gallery's pillars, and its white base identifies it further with the walls. Like the art, the pillars sustain a large space, while barring the eye from taking it all in at once. Divide and conquer. Still, I am not apologizing for thinking first of the environment and environmental art. One cannot approach Dumbo apart from the cobblestone streets and the neighborhood's history.

So what if the view across the street is a spiffy modern playground? The whole neighborhood is a layering of human and natural histories. So is summer sculpture under the bridge, and so is Whip Lash. It turns the bare bones of Minimalism into a report on the gallery—so solid that one can forget how the pillar has lost touch with the floor. It also turns Minimalism's theater into a documentary about New York. It has an austere drama all the same.

von Bergen may not have meant to combine industrial and natural landscapes. In the smaller back room, Michelle Weinstein definitely does. Where von Bergen's structure turns on weight, clarity, and simplicity, the drawings in "Shine, Perishing Republic" aim for intricacy. Where he lets the environment populate itself, she gives it some help. Her fantasies weave trees and their inhabitants into floating islands. In one series they form arks and in another cities.

If they seem escapist, they depict a literal escape from disaster, like the original ark. They are also a bit quaint for my taste, although I enjoyed them anyway. The title comes from Robinson Jeffers, who "sadly smiling" remembers the promise of "mortal splendour" while "this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire." It could be about the country after 9/11, but von Bergen offers a more concrete reality. Perhaps a tree really does grow in Brooklyn, and perhaps an anchor really does hold it down. It just takes flight as it becomes part of rusted iron architecture.

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Greg Smith ran at Susan Inglett through May 29, 2010, Brent Green at Andrew Edlin through June 12, Allyson Vieira at Small A Projects, through May 9, Marco Rios at Simon Preston through April 25, David Brooks at Museum 52 through January 16, "Strange Travelers" and Jeffrey Vallance at Tanya Bonakdar through February 6, and John von Bergen and Michelle Weinstein at Smack Mellon through February 21.


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