Constructing Memory:
Art's Machine Shop

John Haber
in New York City

Gallery-Going: Soho in Spring 1999

Even after mass gallery emigration to Chelsea, Soho has more than enough life left. It may hold more than ever, in fact, now that the grander institutions have left. But if the blue chips have gone, have they therefore left behind the experimental—or rather an art too backward to move? Perhaps, I discovered, both at once.

At the critically acclaimed Soho galleries, women have a conspicuous absence. Rauschenberg's Anagrams (PaceWildenstein, 1996)Like a stereotypically male experiment, machine parts lie across gallery floors. Other artists look longingly and directly to the past—painting's and, of course, their own. So start with the dear frivolity of abstraction and shadow. It will lead me step by step to the machine age and then to constructions that leave both to distant memories.

Neo without irony

Stephen Westfall's canvases look suspiciously like the Neo-Geo of Peter Halley. The bright but slightly tarnished colors could represent the primaries dictated by formalism after a run through the washing machine. His slightly funky grids have an air of parody, too, with the typical Neo-Geo puns on abstraction. The grids that never quite reach to the edges make me think of a chest of drawers. The grids that do have the sprightly warp, woof, and wiggle of fabric patterns.

Westfall is not joking, however. Irony? Please, he seems to say. Been there; done that. In the resurgent abstraction of the 1980s and 1990s, he instead sees resources for the imagination. The style allows him to run subtle changes in color or design.

Think of a brave assistant for Sol Lewitt who decides one day to disregard instructions. Westfall's grid crossings make not right angles, but a point of departure for lines to shift slightly and to start anew. What I took for drawers becomes a healthy refusal to derive the grid logically from the edge. The canvas vibrates slightly in the shallow space of an actual fabric, and one remembers the vibration. I am left longest with simply the lush purple behind one of those ... well, definitely not a chest of drawers.

A critic has observed that Modernism drove painting into sculpture. One could point to a now-old tradition of abstraction, with Frank Stella in cut metal or Robert Ryman's stretchers visibly bolted to the wall. I might call the impulse instead a dissolution of painting or sculpture—of any traditional art object—into the theater of a viewer's environment. Either way, Westfall finds in Neo-Geo a way back to painting. I find it settling and lovely to return along with him.

Not every echo of the past relocates it so perfectly in the present. Speaking of theater, men are at it again. Douglas Gordon has won praise for projecting Robert de Niro (and the toilet) onto two screens. It makes one long for a woman with a gun.

Gordon's video, from Taxi Driver, moves in and out of synch and then slowly back again. No, make that tediously. It thus inflates Travis Bickle's threats to an epic duel. Naturally the results have just enough postmodern irony to allow posturing its negative connotations. To me, though, the smug trendiness merely adds to Gordon's air of male superiority. Its redundant layers of knowing also ruin a really good flick.

The irrelevance of perception

Another, and far greater, defense of the frivolity of perception comes at Witkin. For its thirtieth anniversary the gallery, dedicated to photography alone, rediscovers Wendell McRae. With his eye for urban detail in black and white, McRae can easily stand alongside Martin Scorcese, not to mention others of his time. The shining circles of machine gears remind one of Paul Strand. The slant views of the then-rising Manhattan skyline could come out of Alfred Stieglitz or Berenice Abbott. Only they are filled with the grace and patterns of light.

The Flatiron Building fades behind trees, just another accessory to the sunlight pouring through an unseen Madison Square. The Woolworth building, shot through a windowed alcove, makes me think of Pieter de Hooch's well-tiered spaces—or the depth, pillars, and obvious lack of false piety in a Dutch church interior. A row of wrenches fall into their elegant shadows. They might be icons of the industrial age, but the title, Strike, reminds one that their purpose has been thrust defiantly aside. In his politics as in his sense of beauty, McRae chose not to glorify the power of the new century at the expense of freedom.

Figures appear rarely, but surely not to elevate things in their place. Rather, in this way McRae refuses to accord industrial objects the dignity of the human—or people the indignity of objects. He titled a particularly intricate pattern of light Bridge Irrelevancy. As Strike too suggests, he hoped for those precious moments when some perilous things no longer matter.

The machine age has returned to Soho in force, however, as prototypical postmodern debris. Marcus Raetz creates deceptive Doubles—of hot plates, paintings, chairs, and welded iron. Somehow sculpted letters read "TO DO" from one side, "NADA" from the other.

Two other artists assemble disparate works—each, of course, separately for sale—into installations on the theme of water. John Kalymnios offers what look like blue, wavy, gently rocking Don Judds. I could not decide if they were too elegant for the occasion, too mechanical, or too easygoing. Steven Brower has a more politicized take on water-resource issues, but the devices and photos never add up to much of a commitment to anything. On the other hand, the centerpiece, an actual water cooler, works. I gratefully returned to it often.

More remarkable constructions, however, take over Soho's most capacious gallery. Ace, a few blocks west of the neighborhood proper, had enough room for Robert Rauschenberg and his Quarter-Mile Piece during the artist's museum retrospective, and it can defeat even the most well-intentioned of Minimalists. Tim Hawkinson makes the entire gallery an extension of his own body—and the everyday flotsam and jetsam that his body casts away.

Beyond obsession

At the near end of the long, central corridor, Hawkinson mounts what looks like a white sculpture by Louise Nevelson. He infuses it with all her dubious boasts of pre-industrial craft and African totems, only he has built it of sweat socks. The clever deception earns a quick laugh, but it only hints at the slower understandings to come.

The first big room loosened me up right away. One first picks up an insistent, off-beat rhythm. Half a dozen or so wooden figures are pounding it out, using synchronized small tabs just above chest height, like a ritual for art-world weekends. They appear connected to a tree, which fills the gallery. Hawkinson has built it all on the same principle, out of small, parallel wooden strips, like primitive tools. Only the branches end with something like wooden vacuum tubes.

The figures, each taking an appropriately awkward pose, hold the tubes to mouths, eyes, and ears. They could be trying to breathe or to probe the strange object sense by sense. The artist turns out to have modeled all of them on himself—or rather, on an image of himself leaving a hot tub.

As this work suggests, Hawkinson has a persistent fascination with himself, perception, the primitive, and their varied modern accessories. The primitive is, after all, a very post-industrial concept, increasingly an American effect, like the old toothpaste tubes he uses to build a working clock. Accuracy and time both accord quite well with a fixation on the primitive. In Hawkinson's hands the whole idea of art as self-expression becomes a strangely primitive obsession.

Clearly his fascination and craftsmanship have much in common with neurotic compulsion. In still another room, small glass containers, like a Victorian museum that Michel Foucault might have described, contain what pass for tiny feathers and fossils. Hawkinson has fashioned them from hair, fingernails, and super glue. Another work resembles those painstaking model sailboats, but a half-dozen TV aerials supply the masts, which rotate overhead in no particular shape or order.

The "primitive," like a psychic compulsion, suggests a drive to something within oneself, something beyond mere civilization. Hawkinson makes me think of a man who never leaves his room (or his hot tub). Commercial debris, even the entire gallery, could have emanated from one man's body. Hawkinson's trick, however, is to employ humor, the public nature of a gallery, the puns on art, and the recognizable brand-name materials to watch the primitive unravel. Art hovers between something too dark for appearances—and much too ordinary to take seriously.

Appropriation, deadening, and theft

If the same gallery recently held Rauschenberg, Hawkinson clearly derives from the older artist's habit of recycling his life on canvas. But Rauschenberg's influence spreads all over Soho. Tom Slaughter's silk screens could be bringing Rauschenberg back to human scale and to the optimism of Stuart Davis. The images, set against a strong white background as with David, mostly come from around Soho and Little Italy. They try for funkiness and immediate recognition, and I think they fail.

Without Davis's wit and wordplay and with the all-too-proper guardedness of silk screen, Slaughter's hopes come off just plain phony. Not that downtown has lost its fun entirely now that the tourists crowd the sidewalks. No, not that Zito's bakery has gone downhill. I can smell the bread in my imagination right now. Only I know an act of self-conscious preservation when I see one.

To digress for a moment, Slaughter's gallery-mate traps himself in the same preciousness. John Beerman offers fake Hudson River School landscapes. The absence of people gains not transcendence, but the manicure of real-estate ads, and the air goes out of them entirely when one gets up close. For landscape I much prefer the minor marvels of Dan Torup's photos elsewhere. Torup's narrow depth of field makes one mistake them at first for collage. A sharp-focus bird has the marvel of something pasted in from another vision.

But back to silk screens. Rauschenberg himself makes an appearance, covering a gallery's walls with his Anagrams. He demands that I end, though, with my favorite show of all in Soho, Donald Baechler.

For years I had refused to enter Baechler's gallery, slipping past to the old-fashioned realists upstairs. Tony Shafrazi broke into art quite literally, by an act of vandalism. He spray-painted Guernica. If for artists vandalism counts as hip appropriation from time to time, here the cynicism plain disgusts me. Shafrazi counted on an art world quite ready to assimilate any rebellion. If that resembles capitalism at its worst, he wanted to be a player, too, the dealer as art star. And in the long run he won.

I guess I have softened, because I did enter the gallery (and not for the first time). Maybe a critic learns to engage the hard way in a dialectic of critique and assimilation. I have tried a few times, at least, to pick on museum empires, their expansion, and their display. Baechler, however, genuinely blows away dreams of empire, and he blew me away as well.

Keeping memory in the past

Baechler's big works sure owe plenty to Robert Rauschenberg and to Kurt Schwitters eight decades ago. Rather than sheer stretched linen, one faces mixed surfaces stitched together from canvas and old burlap sacks. Images look pulled out of mass media, like an often-repeated small boy. He has the sad, helpless smile of those photos pasted desperately to walls or lampposts after a kidnapping. The single painted object in each work comes straight out of Pop Art, a giant ice-cream cone, ice-cream sandwich, or globe. Baechler's Butalco (Tony Shafrazi Gallery, 1998)

The paintings also owe a lot to memory. The burlap points to a time before commerce turned into the global cyberspace—when labor, like art, took a firm human hand. An ice-cream cone is full of childhood sensations. A globe hovers between a child's toy and the artist's dream of assemblage rich enough to encompass the world. And the boy is Baechler himself.

The artist asserts his care through the painted surface as well. It varies from the physical heft of the burlap's weave to splotches of paint that soak well in. Only the main object, such as that ice cream, rests palpably on the surface. It lends a very tentative focus and unity.

One wants to assemble the images into some kind of story, to justify that unity. Before one knows better, one half believes a narrative of one's own making. Perhaps the old sacks stand for some vacant warehouse in which the kidnappers hid. Maybe they lured the child away from his parents with ice cream. Of course, my narratives—any narratives one can impose—break down, like the uniformity one expects from a canvas surface. In the confusion the past remains past, just as one cannot idealize a boy's smile.

Anagrams too beg for a story. A proper anagram surely makes sense if only one can unscramble it. Rauschenberg thus implies a rebus of sorts, if not actual letters, but he asks one to accept that things will in fact never add up so easily. And yet he has a sentimental side, too. The images, from New York City streets to the pyramids, happily sit there in silk screen, equally at his disposal. Absence of order acts as a rebus of itself, with the solution an artist's unchallenged access to anything through his work.

Ah, another victory for great men. Rauschenberg's retrospective showed that he used to know better. I preferred to leave Soho thinking of Baechler's inability, even in his head, to recapture his childhood.

BACK to John's arts home page

jhaber@haberarts.com

Stephen Westfall at Lennon, Weinberg, Donald Gordon at Gagosian, Wendell McRae at Witkin, Marcus Raetz at Brooke Alexander, John Kalymnios at Caren Golden, Steven Brower at Lombard/Fried, Tim Hawkinson at Ace, Tom Slaughter and John Beerman at David Beitzel, Dan Torup at Marianne Boesky, Robert Rauschenberg at PaceWildenstein, and Donald Baechler at Tony Shafrazi all ran in late March and early April 1999.

 

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