The far west of Chelsea stands as such a success that one can easily overlook something. It took the collision between an arctic storm and a hurricane to see it as fragile. It took the weeks that followed, between the darkness of the holidays and the insane rush of January openings, to see it for what it is—as less the fabric of the city than a destination. Some artists are trying their best to change that, but do not expect to feel entirely at home.
People love to complain about Chelsea. They have in mind overpriced art and overblown displays, rather than photography, sculpture, and painting. One can forget how a great installation takes root in its surroundings—while obliging one to realize their strangeness. One can forget, too, how often an installation has as its heart older media. Marianne Moore defined poetry as an imaginary garden with real toads in it. Sabine Hornig, Joshua Neustein, and Diana Cooper offer imagined views of real art and real places.
Hornig starts with photographs of a place very much like the street outside, Neustein with painting and sculpture very much like his own, and Cooper with photographs of strange passages and distant skies. One could easily walk right past Neustein's largest new work, actually on the Lower East Side, in search of the art. Or one might linger, a little guiltily, for nothing else in a spare but challenging show looks so obviously like art. Each artist leaves one stranded between the gallery and distant places. Each, though, deals with the art world head on, with what Robert Smithson might have called a nonsite. Those distant views may turn out closer than they appear.
Sabine Hornig fills a gallery with shop windows and sidewalks, very much like Chelsea. One navigates them like an adept New Yorker, cutting between parked cars, sleek façades, and sleeker lobbies. When Paula Cooper first opened south of Houston, people warned that no one would ever come. Hornig could be picturing the overpriced retail district that Cooper and others fled Soho in the 1990s to escape. (Little did they know.) Her work nearest the entrance could easily mirror Cooper's gallery right across the street.
But no, Hornig's Perspex covers a large photograph of distant places, like others on the walls. More photographs, nearly life-size, tint freestanding glass partitions. Most form pairs at right angles, one with a metal sheet cantilevered off the top. At last, the neighborhood has a bus shelter for those long evenings after a beer in the rain. One will, however, have to wait a while getting home. This is still a gallery, and the photographer lives and works in Berlin.
She calls the exhibition "Transparent Things," after a novel by Vladimir Nabakov about madness and memory. One could describe Hornig, too, as an unreliable narrator on a trip abroad, part of the trend toward grandiose photographs of planet earth. Of course, no one here is likely to be murdered. More important, the lighting and printing permit only varying degrees of transparency, and actual reflections mix in with those in photographs. These are real places, in the present, if difficult to discern. One cannot easily know indoors from out.
This is photography as architecture, of architecture, and as views onto preexisting architecture. Its subjects present further obstacles, as buildings and curbside trees do. They also invite one to look inside, where one may spot more art, in corporate lobbies and homes. Does this leave doors and windows less as passages than as masks? One shop window contains some rather hideous ones, and I could swear that a largely empty interior contains a human skull. I was window-shopping, guiltily, all the same.
Upstairs, Dirk Stewen has his own urban scenes, superposed on decorative broken symmetries. His photos run to a handful of meaningless obsessions—sailors in Berlin, a subway rider's naked arm, a baboon. Still, both artists are working between architecture and two dimensions, much like Caitlin Masley and Cordy Ryman. Elsewhere Erik Wysocan has still more right-angled partitions and mirroring. The silvering continues in coins and their dark photographs, obscured under UV light. They have something do with counterfeiting, in art or life.
Stewen's obsessions do not tempt me, any more than I want to walk on his royal carpet of white paper unrolled on the floor. Wysocan throws in a video clip of the Marx brothers, the mirror sequence from Duck Soup, and it upstage everything. Still, one can see a genuine response to overpriced installations or to Chelsea itself. Although just a block past brownstones, luxury apartments, and public housing alike, the neighborhood still functions as a remote destination—for car washes, club goers, luxury condo purchasers, and weekend tourist traffic on the High Line. Count yourself lucky that art and architecture can still, now and again, disorient anyone.
Joshua Neustein opens with a huge canvas that touches the floor, perhaps for support. One cannot be sure, given the plastic wrapping, but an active geometry seems to play against the soft texture of sprayed or brushed acrylic. Touches of red temper the blackness, with the calm of a broad field of white at its center. To its right, a metal ladder extends almost to the painting's height, ready for use. Never mind that the ladder leans the other way, into the gallery—where another ladder leans against the back wall, like Tatlin's Monument to the Third International for beginners. Are they casual about visitors here, even during installation, or have they started to hang the next show before this one comes down?
After three weeks and three visits, I should know better, but I still feel guilty for lingering just inside the door. Maybe I should have taken more care from the first to look down. The same wrinkled plastic covers a good portion of the floor, held in place by what might pass for fragments of stone. Look closer, and they are paintings, with the same range of colors as for the big boy beneath its tarp. A broken and not at all high highchair faces them. Both, in fact, belong to Little Canvas Academy, which sounds like a charter school for baby artists—with the small paintings its textbooks or blocks.
Students here will have a lot to learn. Oh, and canvases do hang on the walls, except when they do not. One stretcher seems to have migrated in front of its canvas, half hidden by an additional white sheet, perhaps because it is way too small to have done its job. Another stretcher seems to have broken apart, to contribute its blond lines to a composition or two, while yet another serves some paintings as a shelf. Another lies intact on the floor, surrounding the base of two paintings that lean against a chair. Their white implies a mere ground awaiting a paint job, but their rectangles unfold in space like plain timbers for Carl Andre.
The chair allows one to see them from the back, where proper stretchers are in their proper places. Is it manifesting a white painting as object, as Modernism once instructed, or does it show how, for Neustein, anything can play any role? Either way, nothing is clear but nothing is hidden. Anything can be art, but you knew that. Anything can or cannot be a separate work, and there you will need some help. A quiet installation has become a busy one.
The artist takes that activity personally. He calls the canvases on a chair For Monogram, no doubt his own, and the ones on a shelf, first exhibited in 1978, Shear Stress. Born in 1940, Neustein claims to have based the entire show on 1973 photographs of his physical encounters with cardboard boxes. (Note again how rectilinear geometry becomes a space for destruction and for the human body.) After all these years, his encounters with Minimalism have become strikingly contemporary. But is he still painting or refusing to paint, and does it matter?
The press release reminds one not to take anything as purely formal ("a gross misunderstanding," to be sure)—and no one would, but the need for a reminder is revealing nonetheless. The large painting on the way in, I could almost swear, shows a sure hand. Just as important, one wants it to, so long as one will never know for sure. I mistook the stippling of some canvases for Formica, as with Richard Artschwager, but there, too, Neustein is painting while burying his traces. For him, each physical act of destruction and each mental act of deconstruction opens new spaces. Did you notice that both ladders, as in Joan Miró, reach at once for the walls and the sky?
Any sane person gave up trying to define art long ago, but how about this? It is an out-of-body experience filled with sensation. It is an excess of familiar signs in unfamiliar places. It is overwhelming but empty except for light and space, blatantly flat but extending to infinity. It leaves one with time on one's hands but stuck in lines, afraid of never reaching one's destination. And then there is all the personal baggage that one should have left behind in the first place.
Oh, wait, was I just describing an airport? Diana Cooper has one lingering, lost, and looking in unexpected directions—with images that indeed include a houseplant in an airline terminal. She also empties the gallery's proverbial white box almost to the point of a concourse or temporary storage unit. Her title, "My Eye Travels," in fact comes from a work of hers set aside and lost to Hurricane Sandy. Empty chairs turn up again and again—stackable, folding, tiered, or actually within an airplane. Should one ever take off, one will at least have an uncomfortable place to sit.
Not that Cooper lacks for travel miles. Her photo collages spill over onto the floors and ceilings. They run to bright colors, conflicting geometries, and all sorts of materials. A mess of red cylinders, as Constellation Vanity, could pass for plumbing or for lipstick holders out of James Rosenquist, while their mirrored ends give the eye still another way to go. Red plastic mesh straight out of the hardware store ducks in and out of another piece, as if undecided whether to serve as fences or connectors. Striated cuts and assemblage look much like circuit boards, with greater realism than for Peter Halley and fewer constraints.
The works have at least two points of reference, in Pop Art and the gallery. As the first, they appear separate, chaotic, and disposable. As the second, they appear as a single installation that defers to the infrastructure. One may focus equally on the white space between the art and the gallery's actual metal vents, parallel to Cooper's striations. Only later may one look up to discover that she has also redoubled the skylight and then doubled it again, on exactly the same scale. Shutters of cut paper open onto tiny mysteries.
Here blue sky has the opposite effect of release, with actual egress reduced to barriers and illusion. Even the exhibition title may read as a harsh denial of its promise, if it means that only the eye can travel. Yet the title also puts the artist in the viewer's place, looking, and the viewer in her place as well. Look close, and one joins in the process of obsessive creation. Look up, and the gallery looms large again. Sometimes airlines do get one where one wants to go.
Cooper may also hint at another kind of virtual travel, the kind attached to a computer. In the same gallery just before, Jennifer and Kevin McCoy made entire landscapes out of toys and electronics, presided over by an image of the founder of Intel. The models, most on small shelves sticking out from the gallery walls, also looked suspiciously like toxic waste dumps. All those semiconductors have to end up somewhere. So what if most consumers would envy their tiny and very live monitors? As John Barth ended his first novel, "Terminal."
Sabine Hornig and Dirk Stewen ran at Tanya Bonakdar through February 23, 2013, Erik Wysocan at Laurel Gitlen through February 17. Joshua Neustein ran at Untitled through December 16, 2012. Diana Cooper ran at Postmasters through February 9, 2013, Jennifer and Kevin McCoy through December 15, 2012.