Out of the Box

John Haber
in New York City

Alyson Shotz, Serge Alain Nitegeka, and Laura Letinsky

Alyson Shotz starts off with a dull thud. And then things really get going.

Shot alters sculpture by the force of nature, in the very process of its making. And then it morphs into two dimensions, with help from computer graphics. Some of the same interplay between objects and space take a darker but also more open form for an African artist, Serge Alain Nitegeka. In their hands, do painting and sculpture reenact the same impulses that unsettled modern art, thanks to Cubism? Maybe not exactly, in the computer age—and not when urban architecture is breaking out of the box, too. Maybe not, but photos by Laura Letinsky could make one wonder whether Cubism already holds everything but the kitchen sink. Alyson Shotz's Standing Wave (detail) (Derek Eller, 2010)

To computers and back

When Alyson Shotz drops something, the shape and sound of its hitting the ground ricochet off into art and space. Shotz called a shimmering curtain of the same plastic as in a thin lens, in 2004, The Shape of Space. Not everyone can reshape the Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda, but the curtain wall at the Guggenheim barred passage while opening possibilities for circulation and vision. Her 2007 show, "Infinite Space," used more fragile materials to aspire to infinity. Her latest insists on its finitude from the very start, with sculpture that may well have landed with a thud.

Shotz dropped ceramics, which collapsed rather than shattered. The soft white retains the elegance of porcelain for Arlene Shechet and memories of clay, but also the feel of latex and the act of its recreation. The work is at once malleable and, for a time, out of her hands. She further inserts the dimension of time by arranging the sculpture in series, like stages in its own collapse. The work never definitively folds inward or outward. It just unfolds of its own accord in the experience of art.

She also casts the series in bronze, as Laws of Motion (#1, 2, 3, 4), adding another stage while almost removing it from time. The bronzes resemble the steel "implosions" of Ewerdt Hilgemann or Marco Fusinato's Mass Black Implosion, but on a more modest scale that suggests a desire to slow time rather than to shock. (Hilgemann himself looks explosive on the relatively human scale of models for his summer sculpture on Park Avenue, along with striking photos of the outdoor installation by Clara von Aich. Perhaps he gains in power from not having to deflate the very idea of the monumental.) If a slow unfolding of the laws of motion make you think of stop-action photography, Shotz also sees a connection to Eadweard Muybridge. And if motion studies make you think of computers, the show's central room involves them as well.

The two versions of Time Lapse again translate concepts into processes, processes into palpable materials, and materials into narratives. One entire wall could pass for an artist's rendering of the sculpture, in dozens of white threads pinned to a frame. Here, too, Shotz has predecessors. For Group Zero, the European art movement of around 1960, Dieter Roth strung twine across a circular frame, while Günther Uecker penetrated space with arrows and nails. Threads and fabric as art are also enjoying a revival, both literally for such artists as Sheila Hicks or Ann Shostrom and as a painted illusion for Helene Appel and Sam Moyer. The second version of Time Lapse, on the facing wall, looks like folded fabric, but again out of threads and space.

Shotz constructs both versions from a computer animation, into which she fed the variables of an object and its surroundings, such as mass, wind speed, and resistance. She again starts with a concept, translates it into materials, returns it to nature, and then recasts it as art. Her 2011 show (pictured here) also worked at the intersection of art and mathematics or art and equations, using optically active strips to evoke standing waves. Here the materials are more traditional, and the shallow space is both more literal and more of an illusion. The objects in their deep frames exist somewhere between two and three dimensions.

A still larger work pushes more fully into three dimensions, while returning in form to computer graphics. What goes around comes around. Invariant Interval #4 takes up an entire room a few doors down for the bulky curves of computer-assisted design. One can imagine her testing an experimental jet in a simulated wind tunnel and taking pleasure in pushing its shape well beyond efficiency. Its wires, enhanced by tiny glass beads, approach a silvery blackness in the relatively low light. The illusion is gone, but not the lightness or space.

Black inside and out

Serge Alain Nitegeka calls his latest "Morphings in BLACK," but you may not see them as black. You may not even see them as morphing. They look like structures that fell into place not so very long ago and are likely to change again, but for now they look solid, quiet, and open to the air. The very changes are likely to leave them intact, as foundations for the future, like a construction site after hours. The broad areas of white could arise from late-afternoon sunlight raking across them. The only blackness is then their shadow.

The medium alone asserts its stability. Nitegeka paints on solid wood, leaving areas untouched except for a finish that brings out the grain. Black bars cross against geometric fields of black, white, wood, and the occasional red. The language of formalism underscores their stability. They also have to do with space, and space here is both clear and indeterminate. The structures could be real or imaginary, inside or out.

Some look like the skeleton for a high rise at its base, others like glimpses of rooftops and water towers—or perhaps the High Line darting past the white box of the gallery's Chelsea branch. One structure seems to occupy a courtyard or broad interior, and titles refer to the artist's studio. Their space lies somewhere between inside and out. The surfaces, too, play off that enigma in the unpainted panel and almost rubbery monochrome, ambiguously layered on and peeled away. This could be space for its own sake, the space of Cubism or computer graphics—and indeed morphing is a computer term as well, its root meaning form or structure. It could also be the space of a gallery, with the white as walls.

And in a sense it is, for much the same structures turn up as abstract sculpture in past installations, at least once of breathtaking density. One occupied a booth in the 2014 Armory Show. Nitegeka considers them site specific and the paintings a documentary record. Serge Alain Nitegeka's Barricade I: Studio Study VI (Marianne Boesky gallery, 2014)That can strip them of their ambiguity, and indeed his sculptural style is clean, corporate, and perfectly familiar from Forrest Myers, Joel Shapiro, Mark di Suvero, and any number of others. The wood surfaces in two dimensions correspond to literal wood crates affixed to the crossed beams. Still, they morph and tumble smoothly into black.

One should have no trouble finding abstraction's blackness, from Pierre Soulages to John Divola. One should have no trouble, too, finding structures in relation to the gallery. Sam Durant, who has worked with public spaces and against public memorials, even treats his surroundings as computer models. For his latest he outlines some in black tape on the floor, others in recycled computer parts on the walls. "This type of spatial modeling," his gallery claims, "and its planning of smooth perfect paths materializes into collapsed sinews and abraded arteries." It sounds as if his laptop is suffering from joint and heart disease, along with his art.

At least Nitegeka skips the nonsense, and at least his structures are both imagined and real. He also frames their blackness with a face portrait on the way in. Born in Burundi, he has studied and exhibited in South Africa, and he is determined to make one aware of blackness. Does that conception enter the work? Certainly none too clearly, and his portraits verge on banal, but his abstract paintings and sculptures work together as installations all the same, too. They have him at his most tumbling and elusive—black inside and out.

Everything but the kitchen sink

What if Cubism arose today? It might not open art to a heady future, for Modernism has come and gone and come again, and who knows what lies in store? In fact, it might first and foremost be looking back. It would look back to classic still life, in the space of a breakfast room or a kitchen table. It would evoke not just vision, but the textures, sounds, and scents of the past. It would recall how the mind and the senses reconceive the past and art.

It would give new meaning to T. S. Eliot's "mixing memory and desire." It would make use of collage, as an act not just of making, but also of appropriation, because everyone these days appropriates. It would borrow images from both fine art and popular culture, not to mention newspapers and advertising. It would fragment the reality it describes, to the point that one no longer knows what is an appropriation and what is perception. It would set aside grand narratives in favor of common objects, while never letting one forget that they are art. And then it would watch as objects and perceptions slip away.

It would do all that because Postmodernism and contemporaries cannot get enough of buzz words like appropriation, pop culture, critique, and self-reference—and because Pablo Picasso, George Braque, Juan Gris, and Cubism were there all along. Still, it would look different now, maybe even like a photograph and a bit like Laura Letinsky. Like early Modernism, Letinsky dwells on still life and perception, but with a cooler beauty. Her photographs leave the shredding and pasting to the set-up stage, for added distance and sheen. She calls the show "Yours, More Pretty," because the sources of desire these days are shinier, too. When Surrealism spoke of "compulsive beauty," it had nothing on a model kitchen or bath.

Letinsky evokes sinks and countertops plainly enough, while daring one to know when they are real. Of course, real here means the reality of advertising, interior design catalogs, or the lush color photography of Jan Groover. She has nothing so obviously tactile as Picasso's guitars or even a wine glass. Her quotations include as sleek an appropriator as Gerhard Richter himself along with Henri Matisse. Even the title of her ongoing series, "Ill Form & Void Full," suggests a cramped self-consciousness suited to today. It is a consciousness of beauty all the same.

Letinsky mimes design practice in her craft as well. She adopts the strong lighting of commercial photography and the white background of a professional studio. They create shadows and surfaces to die for. The images add strong accents of color, more scattered across her compositions than pasted together. Go ahead and feel self-conscious or just plain confused. It may keep you from wanting a whole new kitchen.

Once one starts revisioning Cubism and Surrealism, they can turn up anywhere. One might see them in abstract scenes by Zipora Fried, overlaid by tiled triangles in layered color as at once Minimalist geometry and remembered monolith. One can see them, too, in new-media cityscapes by Corey Arcangel and others. They bob and weave like trailers for the next blockbuster, while a clock ticks against an open sea. Modernism did have a little more nerve and a lot more reality, but that was then. Now there is no getting over its compulsive beauty.

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Alyson Shotz ran at Derek Eller through November 8, 2014, Ewerdt Hilgemann at William Holman through November 15, Serge Alain Nitegeka at Boesky East through December 21, Laura Letinsky at Yancey Richardson through October 18, Zipora Fried at On Stellar Rays through October 12, and new-media cityscapes at Pablo's Birthday though October 19. Sam Durant ran at Miguel Abreu through January 11, 2015. The review of Letinsky appeared in a slightly different version in New York Photo Review.


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