Growing Pains

John Haber
in New York City

Art as Architecture

The Building Show and Burgeoning Geometries

Photography, film, and design have all entered the museum. All have changed the practices of art as well. It seems only natural for architecture to take its turn. For at least a few months, it has.

"The Building Show" describes architecture as a flight of artistic fancy, while John Kirchner, June Bum Park, and Pascual Sisto turn the camera on real buildings in real spaces. Others allow a city to take shape and grow within the very confines of a museum. "Burgeoning Geometries" in fact gives urban sprawl new meaning. A shame that it closed just before another kind of burgeoning, the first day of spring. Phoebe Washburn's Minor In-House Brain Storm (interior view) (Whitney Museum of American Art, 2006)

Rather than building for the future, they are questioning the imagined futures of others, from exurbia to cities, from highway barriers to A-frames, and from planned communities to decaying monuments. Some related reviews have looked at Rirkrit Tiravanija, urban sprawl, museum archaeology, the High Line, Exit Art's "The Reconstruction," skyscrapers at MoMA, and model building for Zaha Hadid. (You might continue reading beyond these dreams of building by turning to shows this same spring about unbuilding—or about Gordon Matta-Clark.)

Take the A-frame

Of course, architecture entered the museum some time ago. The Museum of Modern Art has long had its architecture department, Bauhaus recently returned to the Whitney and Gaudí's Barcelona to the Met, and Zaha Hadid had her turn at the Guggenheim. In the galleries, Max Protech long ago exhibited architecture along with painters as traditional as David Reed. Artists everywhere have borrowed architectural elements or mimed imaginary cities, with Andrea Zittel only one example. Both Smack Mellon and Exit Art celebrated their new spaces with shows about urban design and "The Reconstruction" of a gallery itself. Like the High Line or political art, architecture could stand for art's ability to navigate between public spaces and private aspirations.

Now Exit Art is at it again. Yet "The Building Show" only underscores how hard it is to squeeze architecture through the gallery door. Unlike a painting, a photograph, or even a helicopter, a building survives more as a plan, a model, or a setting for art. It refuses to give up its former life for the purity of the white cube. Where design and photography promised to debunk the originality of the avant-garde, a building almost insists on its original presence—even in something as faceless as prefabricated homes or a housing project. No wonder Robert Smithson had to bury it, Gordon Matta-Clark to burst it apart, and Sarah Sze to diagram the remains.

This time Exit Art's reconstruction is hardly at stake, and "The Building Show" looks elsewhere for inspiration—to other buildings and distant cities. Caridad Sola and Mary Mihelic litter an enclosed chamber to evoke the Windy City. Chuck Sehman gives himself a cardboard Self-Storage, and Noah Loesberg uses cardboard and wood to lend the nonprofit space an oddly funky row of Cornice Blocks. Others, however, do not even try to compete with architecture on its own terms. Tim Spelios treats it as sculpture with his Leaning Tower of Bass Drums, all the funnier for its simplicity. Peter Eudenbach does much the same by assembling models of the Eiffel Tower into a Ferris wheel, with the goal of pointing toward a historical conjunction at the roots of modernity.

Most, however, adhere closely to the gallery walls, with monitors for video and new media the only hint of three dimensions. If that sounds like unintended irony for a building show, it should. These artists find in architecture more a jumping-off point for visual fantasies. They could have dark fantasies, like Quintin Rivera's performer within an empty military facility or Patty Harris's animation of waters within a modernist home built below the flood plain. Glen Walls's toy monkey supports a model of Villa Savoye, by Le Corbusier, as if modern art still had a monkey on its back. Others feel a sense of release in confined spaces, like Scott Andersen's cotton models for a Kansas speedway or John Enxuto's video of the race up the Empire State Building's stairwell. Heidi Nelson's idea a Long Island City Sundial, in the Citicorp center and its enormous shadow, owes something to both darkness and sunlight.

Only rarely, however, does architecture peek through as physical or, especially, social structure. They may nearly appear in an artist's comic fantasies. If that risks too many a one-liner, it also cuts tall buildings down to size. Kenneth Grady Barker gets a pun on coitus out of San Francisco's Coit Tower. Emily Katrencik improves on the Lollipop Building with actual lollipops—each with a marble fragment from the vanishing Columbus Circle façade.

Sometimes stories seem about to begin, as with Seth Weiner's stand-in for the Unabomber's shed or Peter Hildebrand's association between the Pentagon and a fabled wilderness. Nuno Cera discovers a holiday camp for the Nazi leadership, and Elaine Gan juxtaposes Las Vegas with what it copies. Barbara Gallucci, however, finds a more interesting story well underway, with a photographic series of A-Frame Houses. So basic and replicable an element can span private homes and a fast-food nation. Architecture has developed from some telling one-liners itself.

More stately McMansions

If "The Building Show" leaves architecture largely to the imagination, others get more concrete—and without so much as stone or cement. Each, too, sees architecture as the imposition of control over landscape and community. They do not even have to fashion their own imagined studio of wood, like David Ersser.

Only who is in control, and to what ends? The answers vary, but this time architects do not get much of a say. Think of tract houses. Although the term designates houses of uniform design within a real-estate development, it may derive not from the tract of land but from the contractor. Assembly required, it announces, but no architect. Besides, tract and contractor have their etymological roots in drawing, and in these shows all sorts of hands are drawing the line.

John Kirchner's Redux VI (Kim Foster, 2007)Kirchner describes architecture as a work in progress, like the surreal communities of Benjamin Fink and Alex Prager. His photographs show ten homes at various stages of construction, although always with the frame fully in place. Indeed, one can see them as charting a different kind of progress as well: their shared design basis in the humble A-frame has developed into a client's image of grander estates. These homes may not represent an architect's aspirations, but they do stand for each owner's American dream. Each building stands alone, with ample land but no neighbors in sight.

McMansions like these come at a cost, including the exurban loss of community and of open spaces. They depend on ready quotations from past styles and present-day formulas, while doing their best to put an end to history. The flatness of earth and surreal blues in the sky further emphasize their isolation. Kirchner calls the series Redux, to stress their spooky repetition, and deconstruction teaches that repetition has a way of disrupting even the most grandiose dreams of a fixed and final meaning. I had to ask whether he had isolated them and saturated the colors digitally. Apparently life imitates art.

June Bum Park allows a bit more disorder, but again only in the process of imposing form on public spaces. He helps it out electronically as well. In one digital work, the Korean artist's hand appears to place the people crossing a busy intersection. Another video orchestrates the movement of seated people holding blue rectangles, as if a board game played itself. In the third, he assembles a suburban house and yard, as flat as a postcard, like a jigsaw puzzle. When the for-sale sign goes up, I advise against speculating.

Sisto sees order emerging by itself, without the help of an architect, the community, or even the artist. All it takes is the laws of quantum mechanics, the stifling uniformity of the real world, and a really good computer. The simplest videos multiply automobile traffic onto the road, walls, and ceiling of a virtual tunnel. Elsewhere, uncounted bouncing tennis balls come into synchrony, again with only indirect evidence of human inhabitants. The Spanish artist's work can look almost abstract, especially the tunnel. It can also look alternately frightening and very, very attractive.

Rites of spring

"Burgeoning Geometries"—it sounds like Minimalism come to life. One pictures mathematical forms springing up on their own, multiplying in real time, taking on the complexity of life itself. Well, not this time. A group exhibition offers neither rigor nor cyborgs and only a few patches of greenery. "Burgeoning Geometries" is a mess, and it asks one to see the choices people make, as artists or consumers, as messy, too. (The Whitney will bring the same sensibility to the 2008 Biennial.)

Of course, some messes go down more easily than others. I prefer them in corporate lobbies like the Whitney at Altria and not, say, in my kitchen. The show also taps a burgeoning segment of art, as in photographs by Lauren Greenfield—the repurposing of consumer culture as esthetic overkill. Installations like these shun the painterly surfaces and pop-culture allusions of James Rosenquist or Robert Rauschenberg in his combine paintings. Paradoxically, debris can instead reflect a longing for order. Maybe most purchases at Home Depot do, too.

Jason Rogenes and Charles Goldman both juxtapose found geometries with created ones, and both happily sacrifice visual coherence along the way. Rogenes wraps Styrofoam packing materials around a pillar of fluorescent light. If Dan Flavin has his Monuments to V. Tatlin, Rogenes has his monument to Best Buy. He presents twin notions of packaging, as found objects and as physical support, and of appliances, as the ones that once nestled in boxes with the Styrofoam and as the light fixture—and he cannot throw away even the box. While the light itself, unlike Flavin's, does little to restructure the surrounding space, Rogenes also throws in tall triangles of folded cardboard, like a more democratic version of Donald Judd. Goldman piles cylindrical assemblages of wood scraps onto buckets or steel drums, for still more pillars, and they, too, look lost.

Jane South does better by reversing the formula, with traditional media that mimic industrial parts before burgeoning into geometry. She draws fine lines on paper, painted in metallic colors, then cut and folded into grilles. These light rectangles further assemble into a large circle, but with small circle flying up and off to one side. Diana Cooper hints at the same ideas with her title, Emerger, and she, too, sticks closely to the wall. The pink and gray foam-core could be mapping a digital network or a painting by Frank Stella. I preferred South's refusal to celebrate either her clumsiness or the breadth of her universe.

Phoebe Washburn has had the patent on recycling, at least since a gallery installation made every trace of its construction into the components of a small city. There one entered through the underside of scaffolding, making its coming into being that much more part of the work, and here, too, one first sees a huge, rough sphere plywood sheets and timbers. At first her Minor In-House Brain Storm looks like parodies of flying buttresses—or perhaps the beams visible on the exterior of the Seagram Building. Once one spots the windows, however, sculpture and its environment turn inside out. The portals allow a view onto pools of water, grass, and colored pebbles. Leftover pebbles, stowed in the exterior, look downright organic.

One last artist does believe in geometries and their expansion, and I might call the results tailor-made. As with her rolling hills of plastic cups a few months before, Tara Donovan transforms her materials to the point that one has to keep insisting on what one sees. Here she presses ordinary, one-inch straight pins into a glimmering forty-inch cube, another monument to form, sensuality, and trash. I wondered if I could take it home if I guessed how many pins it holds. Light reflects as it will off the cube's imperfect surface as pins escape onto the floor. I picked one up and put it in my pocket as a souvenir, but then I could not resist hoping to restore order, and I placed it back on top.

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"The Building Show" ran at Exit Art through March 30, 2007, John Kirchner ran at Kim Foster through April 28, June Bum Park and Pascual Sisto at Bitforms through April 7, and "Burgeoning Geometries" at The Whitney Museum of American Art at Altria through March 11. Some related reviews have looked at urban sprawl, museum archaeology, the High Line in photographs by Joel Sternfeld, Exit Art's "The Reconstruction," "Undone" at Altria, skyscrapers at MoMA, and model building for Zaha Hadid. A later note says farewell to Jeanette Ingberman of Exit Art.


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