The Gallery as Relic

John Haber
in New York City

Gonzalo Fonseca and Fossil Tales

Is fine art a relic of a less cynical age, and what about Modernism—or the gallery? Gonzalo Fonseca builds on Isamu Noguchi, even as he appears to excavate lost civilizations. Closer to the action downtown and perhaps a premature victim of it as well, "Fossil Tales" refuses to see artist books as extinct.

Sculpture as site

Gonzalo Fonseca treats sculpture not as an object only, but as a site also. Vertical slabs break for windows, niches, and doors like houses, churches, or public buildings. Tabletops display the ruins of entire cities, if not entire civilizations. Mary Frank's Monkey (Central Booking, n.d.)Works on paper sometimes read as maps. One can hope to piece out their components, in towers and arenas. One can hope, too, to imagine what remains hidden and what has been lost.

Of course, they also have a site, at the Noguchi Museum, and Fonseca could count on Isamu Noguchi as a mentor and a friend. Born in 1922, in Uruguay, he was more than thirteen years the younger of the two, but the show brings them closer together than ever. Both lived and worked in New York while traveling overseas—in Fonseca's case to Italy, where he died in 1997. There he sought the marble for his largest work. A few examples, in an entrance hall, frame a visit to both artists. A retrospective continues upstairs, and one could mistake much of it for Noguchi's own.

They share their materials, in marble and stone—whether finely polished or coarse, fragmented, and raw. They share Modernism's formal language with something more allusive. They share, too, the duality of horizontal surfaces and rising verticals, with the pedestal a more than equal partner in the work. When I spoke of a tabletop, I should have said a table. Fonseca still creates objects after all. He is also, as Noguchi is not, obsessed with representation.

He could well be in search of a site—and only partly because his points of reference lie in ruins. They lay bare staircases and entryways, as points on the way to somewhere else. The windows could stand for windows onto the soul. Other imagery includes ladders and eggs, presumably unhatched. Horizontal planes and bulky supports also run to the deck and hulls of ships, with destination unknown. The sense of time already past lies over everything, often as not as madness. One head, to judge by the title, belongs to the emperor Nero.

Fonseca's reputation, too, needs some excavation. Modernism, not least that of Noguchi, just does not have much time for the trappings of profundity. Still, maybe neither at heart does Fonseca. Ancient Rome for him had its theaters, but only as show. Imagery runs to fingers in a box and to enlarged feet, but at least partly as farce. They could be less serious than they appear.

His roots lie in painting, which may explain the maroon that occasionally competes with the white marble and battered gray of limestone. And painting here means Surrealism. A pendulum, one of his favorite devices, may suggest a site's transience, ticking off the moments, but also a full moon. The repeated cavities also suggest an empty house. Ink often adds a finishing touch, to spell out the supposed subject matter. Remember, though, that fingers might create and feet might support a sculpture.

Back from extinction

Are art galleries no more than relics of a bygone age, of lower rents and freer access? If you are among the many who fear so, Central Booking has the show for you. "Fossil Tales" treats the gallery as a space for sediments and relics, each with a real or imagined history. They might be actual fossils, like the dinosaur bones that Frank Ippolito has measured or the dinosaur eggs that Nina Kuo and Lorin Roser have modeled in clay. They might be the inspiration for drawings, paintings, and hangings or stand-ins for the artist. Yoon Cho in a photograph walks beside a layered cliff with images of skulls overhead, while Roser tapes Kuo as either a living fossil, a human embryo, or just fighting her way out of a plastic bag.

The gallery still devotes its front space to artist books, and at least three contributors to "Fossil Tales" adhere closely to the form as well. Patricia Olynyk's prehistory unfolds in an accordion book, Deborah and Glenn Doering offer the origins of the world in a primitive sign language, and Maddy Rosenberg translates the very idea of the fossil record into physical layers. Her photographs of a fossil in melting ice can slide in or out of a small wood box with a sliding cover. Barbara Rosenthal uses an illustration from a scientific study to lend her spread the feel of a textbook. Others work in a diversity of media—including colored pencil for Lynn Sures, gouache and watercolor for Desirée Alvarez, black and white for Steven Gawoski, stained cloth for Kathy Strauss, prints for Marilyn R. Rosenberg, paint for Sue Karnet, and encaustic for Elizabeth Hubler-Torrey. Her wax technique hints at preservation all by itself.

Gawoski's rich detail points to his source in microscopy. Others seek less the scientific method than a human presence. Sures sketches what could be flint tools, and the dinosaur eggs look much like skulls. Others, too, find that presence in the physical space of the gallery—with crumpled paper for Doug Beube, collage for C. Bangs, embossed paper for Gerhild Ebel, a weathered chain for Alan Rosner, and a simulated bed of sand in salt and coffee grounds for Ursula Clark. It appears to bear a fossil imprint, but be careful where you step. Sarah Karnet passes her images through an old film editor, as if both early life and dated technology are ready for a second take.

Whenever art meets science, it risks reducing science to a metaphor. In this case, it is not a bad metaphor at that—quite apart from Karnet's pun, as the gallery puts it, on the ancient and antique. Central Booking is now a relic, too. This is its last show on the Lower East Side, joining a growing list of vanished galleries. It will attempt the hybrid model of art fairs and a smaller space for private dealing. That pretty much leaves just one public space for artist books, the Center for Book Arts, itself primarily a workspace.

It also leaves one less space devoted to the meeting of art and science. It has been cycling through one discipline after another, with Maddy as curator—including genetics, microbiology, math, data sets, and natural histories. (Disclaimer: I have supported the space, and it bears my name.) The image here shows, shall we say, a past specimen. I have trouble decrying the losses, given the obscene size of the art scene compared to the relic that I remember, but they are troubling all the same.

Second-guessing is easy. The front space may have discouraged critical attention, by making the gallery seem more like a gift shop. Then, too, group shows are a dime a dozen, and exhibitions have drawn on many of the same artists over time. On the other hand, the front space does well by its artists, and two more back spaces have allowed solo shows and well-attended events. The only certainty is that art still depends for its vitality on midlevel galleries like this one, rather than artist collectives on the one hand or the posh dealers that suck up established artists on the other. My thanks go out to the many that survive.

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Gonzalo Fonseca ran at the Noguchi Museum through March 11, 2018, "Fossil Tales" at Central Booking through March 25.


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