Inside Out and Outside In

John Haber
in New York City

End Station, Lever Labyrinth, and Mike Bouchet

Make It Now: Sculpture in New York

When summer begins, all of New York seems gorgeously exposed to the elements. Between the long sunlit evenings and the relative dearth of natives, I like to feel that I can have it all to myself. I look forward especially to the summer sculpture in so many city parks, as an excuse to explore well beyond Chelsea's artificial lights and new-media darkness.

Of course, if one is impatient for sculpture outdoors, one can always look for installations that bring the outside in. With End Station, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset recreate a subway line that could never have existed—and a decade in New York history that made the gallery scene contentious. With Lever Labyrinth, Peter Wegner continues the art-world's paper trail in Midtown, while The New York Dirty Room, by Mike Bouchet, stinks up a Soho landmark. Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset's End Station (Bohen Foundation, 2005)

Does this mean that urban art has to play dirty? Perhaps it always has, but a summer group show, "Make It Now," lets emerging artists evoke a visceral, socially divided New York City.

Last stop

Ready to hide from the New York sun, to a hidden New York? The Bohen Foundation does just that. The interior, by Lot-Ek (get it?) makes the entirety of the surrounding streets part of its form and function. Its floor gratings, metal tracks, and two-story architecture echo everything from the sidewalks, streets, warehouses, and mysteries below to the remnants of the High Line above before it becomes a park.

For months now the reclusive foundation has appeared at first glance to exhibit nothing at all, the perfect expression of its austerity and short hours. The metal office cubicles have slid across those interior tracks, away from the often-darkened windows, leaving the main floor as bare as possible. Downstairs, however, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, two Berlin-based artists, dig deeper still for a second set of tracks. End Station summons up as many memories as the first set, but with far less function. I guess that means one must call it art. The artists have even called another proposed work their Monument to Short Term Memory.

Descending the stairs, themselves so easy to overlook by the rear wall, one finds oneself on the platform of a subway to nowhere. I could not stop myself from peering down the tunnel for the train that will never come—although at least I might get a seat. I looked cautiously about for faces to relieve the emptiness or to terrorize the sunless enclosure. I wondered if I had the right platform, only to remind myself that both platforms overlook a single track, and no one can ever reach the far side without descending across it. I thought about it, but clambering into the art sounded only marginally more tempting than touching the third rail.

The spooky surroundings recall a time before Chelsea and the Meatpacking District had grown hip, crowded, and so pointedly far from mass transit. Then, too, a nonfunctional model of so utilitarian a design naturally evokes New York's darkest hours. So does a touch of litter and graffiti, if not quite on the level of Barry McGee and SWOON. For one more anchor in time and one last bit of irony, the two male artists include an old Guerilla Girls poster. Once the laughter stops, one may even ask how many women artists the Bohen Foundation has shown. After a look this spring at East Village art and Jean-Michel Basquiat, one might ask, too, whether the 1980s have ever left.

My first encounter with the space really hinged on a collaboration, between Lot-Ek's tracks and last year's temporary exhibition—a wall-to-wall column of paper, laid across the floor by Peter Wegner. As it happens, Wegner has taken his obsessively neat piles of litter further uptown. He sets his 2.4 million sheets upright, making a maze out of the Lever building's lobby.

The stacks of green and blue echo the asymmetry and chilly colors of the landmark glass tower, just as their irregular vertical profile reflects the puzzle of navigating the maze. A paper maze obviously recalls pretty much any day at work. Instead of a paperless office, one has the officeless paper. I cannot promise that Wegner has really brought an enlivening entropy to New York's iciest landmark. I cannot promise one can even find one's way into the lobby, which, after all, is the first step in finding one's way back out. Maybe one should just wait downtown for that still-unseen subway to take one there.

Playing dirty

Long before all these newcomers, Grace Knowlton and Walter de Maria brought the great outdoors indoors. His New York Earth Room still lets earthworks sink into a gallery, even as Jannis Kounellis grows cactus in a gallery, Mierle Laderman Ukeles imports a landfill, and a Whitney retrospective of Robert Smithson shows the fragility of art's monuments before entropy and time. There is no getting around it: thanks to their lasting influence, artists will definitely have to play dirty. However, The Earth Room, maintained by the Dia Center, has the summer off, presumably so as not to shame homeowners sloppy about tending their own lawns on hot days. And still further downtown, Mike Bouchet offers up a pungent alternative.

Bouchet covers 800 square feet to a depth of 30 inches, with 50,000 pounds of topsoil from Home Depot and 25,000 pounds of compost from Riker's Island. Has The New York Earth Room "been on long-term view to the public since 1980"? The New York Dirty Room, says a handout, "has been on view to the public since 2005." Oh, wait, that means this year! And the digs at its distinguished predecessor keep coming.

Like End Station, de Maria's room of black soil purports to recreate a familiar landscape, in all its transience and decay. Yet it, too, presents a compilation or abstraction of memories from elsewhere. Unlike the imagined subway platform, de Maria's 1977 installation looks beyond the grit of New York, to an idealized planet Earth. The New York Dirty Room may supply a still greater sensual overload, but it stands as a thoroughgoing critique of the Dia Center's institutional vision of nature. Take the title alone, shunning the vocabulary of earthworks for "dirty," as if to signal the ordinary disorder of a New York apartment, the filthy mind of postmodern shock art, and the real dirt on art now.

Dia obsessively weeds its 250 cubic yards of earth to remove every casual seeding, in a decades-long battle against entropy. Bouchet flaunts materials closely associated with planting and growth. Dia sustains a monument of Minimalism, just as it does at Dia:Beacon. Bouchet buys right from the store that boasts "you can do it, too." Dia insists on a conception of art removed from associations with the social and political fabric of New York, just as over ten years ago it led the gallery charge away from Soho to the relatively undeveloped streets west of Chelsea. Bouchet insists on the ugly reality of Riker's Island, "the world's largest penal colony," an island of fear just off Manhattan.

That said, one can easily forget the visceral impact of The New York Earth Room—if anything, only deepened in its majesty by the laughter it unintentionally inspires. At four and one-half times the area of its knockoff, it preserves the awkward walls and sight lines of the original structure, while making one aware of one's imperfect grasp of the whole. The artist did not pander to a Soho art scene, then drawing few tourists indeed. In a time that already fully accepted conceptual art, he served up something that one could still mock as a room full of dirt. More postmodern still, he had created something reproducible, starting with a 1968 version in Munich, making the Soho space its third incarnation. Besides, for all one's associations with compost, the rooms actually smell about equally bearable—or not, depending on one's love of gardening and conceptual art.

Ironically, Bouchet returns despite himself to the roots of Minimalism. He presents the site-specific modesty of Carl Andre, the off-the-shelf materials characteristic of early Dan Flavin, and the confrontational aroma of Richard Serra. Where de Maria helped colonize Soho for fine art, Maccarone sticks with an older era's ratty storefront, without a sign, on busy Canal Street. Moreover, Bouchet's parody only brings out his dependence on art-world rules, even if he plays a bit dirty. His gamesmanship, as when upstairs he piles up busts of Tom Cruise, appears glib at best. At least he shows himself a savvy player.

"Make It Now"

Summer means group shows, but this summer, after so many extravaganzas during the regular season, I could understand if you were heading off to the beach instead. Still, "Make It Now" does wonders to rescue the tired formula—in no small part because it, too, helps create a grimy urban scene indoors. Like "Greater New York," just a few blocks away, it sticks to emerging New York artists. Its own constraints, packing a disparate group into its barn of a main hall and its narrow underground tunnels, similarly invite a sheer mess. Yet this once, constraints translate into a sharp focus. If the work often lacks the lasting impact of the artists at P.S. 1, the show itself makes up for that with a more promising vision.

Like "Greater New York," it delights in the visible, to the point that one might well forget that this concerns sculpture. Many artists rely either on two-dimensional surfaces or on material excess. Several contributors show a deliberate taste for bad taste, as with the glitter of Frank Benson, Nicole Cherubini, and Luis Gispert. However, the curators are not just giving the unconscious free reign. One has very little self-contained imagery, and only Vincent Mazeau's creepy chandelier and cinder-block wall, January Sun, really belongs to the Goth fad. One might think of the show instead as a deliberate spilling over, in order to connect a museum and sculpture more directly with the real New York.

For some, the spillover connects sculpture to the entropic city. Not surprisingly, Phoebe Washburn blurs the distinction between the gallery's inside and out. From inside, one can see only the back of a wall, and one can enter a chamber of brightly painted gravel only from a side door on the street. Andrea Cohen's After Snow Landscape of foam peanuts and Popsicle sticks also recycles materials in a tumbledown landscape. Klara Hobza reaches out more directly, using the central skylight to send her Morse code message to the world. I cannot swear that I understand it, especially since she and the museum refuse to decode it for me.

For others, the disturbance of sculptural media further disrupts claims to permanence and the aura of the valued art object. Ester Pargegàs's spells out "the most important things are not things," a neon message nestled comfortably under "reliable," Verizon's promise on the billboard above. She does supply the exhibition's self-proclaimed Monument to the Truth, also in the courtyard, but boxed and bound in tarp, rope, and wood, like the shrouded lovers in a well-known Magritte. You can decide whether the authorities have yet to unwrap it or have already gagged it. On video, Charlie Foos has a still less patriotic Monument with Anthem, a man perpetually riding to someone or other's rescue on a barbershop horse.

Urban realities of race and gender also sneak in effectively, more often than not challenging me to know whether anyone truly intended them. Perhaps I am reading urban culture into Gareth James's twin turntables, topped by shiny cubes, Jean Shin's towers of prescription drug containers, Sol Sax's sinister upside-down figures suspended from the basement ceiling, or Seth Price's dark, hooded men on clear polyester film, encircling a seated figure traced like an interrogation scene. (Price also curates "Grey Flags," the summer group show at Friedrich Petzel, contributing even more enigmatic sheets.) I can reasonably see questions about role models in Robert Melee's plastic fashion show, his near-naked white figures posed against poplar blinds. Nancy Hwang uses both an actual telephone, placed invitingly next to a bed, and the back page of The Village Voice, to set up trysts that will ultimately leave their audio record.

Sometimes the inner city intrudes simply through the representation of torn walls. Lisa Sigal calls her fragmentary transformation of the gallery's own walls a garden, and Gedi Sibony dismantles a Sheetrock wall, leaving only the studs. (Sibony has a still more evanescent trace in "Walls 'n' Things," the summer group show at Nicole Klagsbrun, consisting of the shadows left on the wall from the tearing away of spray-painted cardboard.) Good to the Last Drop, by Navin June Norling, more obviously invokes graffiti and stylistic debts to Basquiat. Sometimes the glitter, fun, and games remain too arbitrary and silly for me, as with Guyton/Walker and their coconut lamps, and sometimes I want to read "make it now" as a disturbingly careerist imperative. However, SculptureCenter really does suggest what a group show can say about New York City, where even modern art cannot "make it new" or dirty enough to be now.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

"End Station," by Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, ran at the Bohen Foundation through July 1, 2005, Peter Wegner's "Lever Labyrinth" at Lever House, 390 Park Avenue, through September 4, Mike Bouchet's "New York Dirty Room" and other work at Maccarone through August 28, "Make It Now: New Sculpture in New York" at SculptureCenter through July 31, "Grey Flags" at Friedrich Petzel through August 12, and "Walls 'n' Things" at Nicole Klagsbrun through August 5. Related reviews look at Urs Fischer and other artists who find a clean or dirty underground New York.

 

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