Urban Sprawl

John Haber
in New York City

Sprawl, In Practice, and Keith Sonnier

Think the art scene is exploding all over New York? Just wait till you see the art—assuming, of course, you can find it.

Some shows in the winter of 2004 make that surprisingly hard. In rising neighborhoods, on the fringes of the past decade's art scene, they look deceptively hard to pin down. "Sprawl" literally sprawls over 10,000 square feet of commercial space. "In Practice" tunnels deep within an old repair shop in Queens to uncover imaginary cities. Keith Sonnier revisits his career as an empty landscape with one foot in urban reality and another in science fiction. Karyn Olivier's Ridgewood Line (BQT Ghost) (SculptureCenter, 2004)

Breaking down the walls

By now, art has transformed every square foot of the far west side, by the Chelsea Piers. Without it, one would not even dream of calling those blocks Chelsea. Hungry stragglers would have no trendy alternatives to the Empire Diner. Preservationists would not be looking up from the dark shadows of the abandoned, decaying rail tracks overhead and calling for a park. Art fans would not be faithfully tracking established galleries, thinking—or hoping—that they have seen it all.

Dealers have packed between the warehouses, auto body shops, and rising coops like the proverbial sardines in a can—in what one critic compares to a horizontal tower of Babel, but to me suggests more a club scene for true insiders. No wonder they sometimes feel as oily and uniform as sardines, too. One jumps all too quickly from gallery to gallery. It tempts one to stop only for art that quickly catches the eye. It lets one fall back all too easily on prior expectations. It fools one into thinking one knows what art is and where to find it.

Some New Yorkers, no doubt, like being in the know. They and some hot dealers have rebelled against the uniformity. Galleries, even big galleries, have opened on the Lower East Side and elsewhere, beyond the reaches of even a Gallery Guide. In my last review, I tried to make sense of the pace of change. Had a new scene really taken hold, and is it even new? What models of commerce and celebrity might drive it and, perhaps, constrain it?

Now I want to continue the story, with some shows that exploit these spaces to the fullest—or, rather, emptiest. They bank on the viewer's attention span: one has, after all, made all that effort to track down a relatively isolated exhibition. They actively reflect on the two sides of the gallery explosion. I mean both fragile definitions of the art world and the processes of decay and renewal in New York itself. But come back to the Lower East Side in three more years or even the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and that, too, will have changed.

American art has done "the urban scene" before. Think back to early Modernism, before abstraction and, later, a postmodern obsession with advertising. American art has sprawled all over the place before, too, back when Robert Adams photographed the edge of suburban communities or Minimalism made entropy a critical buzz word. Except for Richard Serra, with walls like Serra's Switch or Prop, and Sonnier himself, however, their heart lay in a more open landscape. They took the materials and tools of blue-collar America to settings like the Texas plains and the Great Salt Lake, and they associated nature with a world above and beyond urban planning. This winter's shows benefit from all that history, but they avoid the earnest tones of realism or irony, and they definitely belong in and to New York.

They are not alone. Last fall, Exit Art opened a new space by asking artists to run with the theme of "Reconstruction" and to install their work after the show opened. Another artist turned a Tribeca alley into a movie set. Still another won critical praise for knocking down a Chelsea gallery and exhibiting the resulting dead end. By those standards, maybe the dealers should get equal praise for erecting so many walls in the first place. Still, by comparison to this winter's new shows, last year's artists and dealers look like control freaks.

Urban anthropology

Hudson Clearing may have its spookiest urban allegory right now, with a For Rent sign in its already vacant interior. Only weeks before, however, in that very same space, "Sprawl" came close. The cavernous room alone stopped me in my tracks. There was nothing to say where each work begins and ends, what ancient urinal or radiator belongs to the art and what to the building's past. None of the nine works had a label, and I never did find them all. Even when I did manage match objects and artists, I cannot say for sure what I found—but it ight have been neither city, suburb, nor the American dream.

I know I found a loose mound of sickly green Styrofoam by Chris Hanson and Hendrika Sonnenberg. From the gallery handout, I know that it represents a hockey scoreboard crashing to the floor, its cables torn, its formal rectangle destroyed. It could just as well, though, have spread upward and out, like mold—or like the art market. In the pair's Chelsea show this month, the same object looks clearer. So do the Styrofoam microphone stands, packed as if for a major press conference. These objects imply a public space—a space of competition and pleasure, noise and communication—rendered mute, dysfunctional, and empty of humanity. At Hudson Clearing, however, they arose from the floor, as if with a life of their own.

I do not know if architecture can enter the gallery, to become environmental art or the art of war, but I know I found a long loop of film, which weaves through four rather old-fashioned projectors stacked twenty feet high. Eve Sussman (far from her future meditations on art history and transcontinental art) staggers successive moments in a child's game of catch across a city street. The conflict of nostalgia and disruption hypnotized me. When the system naturally broke every few minutes, and the artist had to climb the scaffolding to reset it, she added to the disruption. Was that part of the work or its perpetual failure? I do not know.

I know I found Oscar Tuazon's jet-black tent of recycled newspapers, claiming to stand for a geodesic dome. Buckminster Fuller could only stare hopelessly at the decay of his urban utopia, and it is not even anywhere near Phoebe Washburn's urban fantasies. I know I found Jimbo Blachly's miniature cardboard highway, which twists madly in all directions before breaking off abruptly at the edges. It makes the approaches to the actual Holland Tunnel, just up the block, seem downright comforting. And after that, I do not know.

I do not know what I found on the way in. I do not know if I was really supposed to open those sealed packets, from an artist collective named spurse. The signs read "Take Me," and each packet held an unexplained object or two, along with cryptic directions for further exploring the city. Blending into Liam Everett's patchwork collection of leftovers, they turned gallery going into an impossible urban anthropology.

I do not even know whom I saw. I have to assume that the limber, attractive woman was the artist, since few dealers could pull off her acrobatic feat, and none would take on its risk. No one else suggestive of gallery staff appeared. In contrast, Exit Art's exhibition area co-exists with an open office for a dozen employees. "Reconstruction," in effect, gave each artist due attention while asserting the curator's remarkable imagination. With "Sprawl," as in a later show of "Sprawl" in Jersey City or with Martin Adolfsson, a viewer has responsibility for reconstructing art and the city.

Practice makes perfect?

Blachly won the 2002 SculptureCenter prize, so it only makes sense that the Center picks up many of the same themes in its concurrent group show, "In Practice." One could imagine that "Sprawl" has simply sprawled over into Long Island City. However, if the strength of "Sprawl" is in subordinating the artists to the display, the strength of "In Practice" is to let the artists get a word in edgewise. Each offers an installation as desperate for order as the Manhattan grid—and just as happily overflowing its bounds. Here, practice definitely does not make perfect.

A confrontation with urban realities suits the tripartite architecture by Maya Lin, like a mini-encyclopedia of art and urban spaces today. Her icily inorganic "sculpture garden"—of slate, steel, and white pebbles—has the air of an upscale museum or, for that matter, too many public memorials inspired by her own Minimalist model. Her main hall's tidy rectangle fills in for a typical residence, office, or art gallery. Best of all comes downstairs, where old brick divides the basement into long, narrow tunnels. The ragged walls leave holes where plumbing and wiring once ran. With its traces of past lives and its half-hidden, windowless existence below, it could represent gentrification's dark unconscious.

"In Practice" actually starts far above. Across from the front desk and on the rooftop, Stephanie Diamond's photographs document Men Who Hit on Me on the Street. Just in case the message is not plain enough, she uses the side of the billboard facing the highway, where most Center visitors will have trouble finding it. (Hint: walk a block along the main avenue toward Courthouse Square, then uphill, in the direction of MoMA QNS.) They would think she is boasting anyway. Through her bland style and subject manner, she means to assert a woman's vulnerability—in advertising and in the city—but the repetition of "me" has the opposite effect.

Also on the ground floor, Nicolás Dumit Estévez entertains those needing the bathroom with a sound work. The voice, with a tone familiar from airports, helps one with proper hygiene. My personal thanks. More playfully, Isidro Blasco constructs a wildly unbalanced Manhattan apartment. If one kneels at just the right place, it all comes into perspective. Otherwise, in this city logic definitely goes out the window.

Fittingly, the show really comes to life downstairs. Karin Waisman cuts lovely patterns into white paper chairs, letting the cuttings fall to the floor like confetti. Juliane Stiegel's Skyline collapses as steadily as Estévez's, but with a funnier, more inexorable logic. In her video, paper buildings rest on the back of forty-two snails. Well, this is the sophisticated New York art world, so make that escargots.

Other, more cluttered installations never quite allude to anything. And nothing can have the evocative absence of the Center's other show upstairs, The Empty Museum, by Ilya and Emily Kabakov—echoed in photographs of an actual empty museum by Wijnanda Deroo. However, "In Practice" definitely carries to Long Island City the themes and practice of a dispersing art scene. Karyn Olivier may say it best, with basement trolley tracks that swerve and vanish into nowhere. The actual trolleys once repaired in this very building have long gone, and the viewer's own vista has run into a brick wall, too.

Taking a powder

Keith Sonnier has lived in New York for nearly forty years, but I never do associate him with the city's changing fortunes or art's perceptual instability. Of his generation, Serra or Bruce Nauman makes aggressively challenging environments, if not environmental art or art as ecosystem. Carl Andre or many another Dia Center stalwart makes invitingly open ones—if only at times as open as an old graveyard. Sonnier, I tend to think, makes art objects. Dan Flavin with his fluorescent tubes and the viewer come together to fill a space with light. Sonnier's neon tubes look a lot like doodling.

In its final show down on Hudson Street, Ace may have changed my mind. It has room for a full-scale retrospective, and it makes the case for an art open to the play of sound, color, and experience. A year before, David Hammons set visitors free in all those rooms, armed only with a tiny blue light hardly able to pierce the darkness. With this show, too, darkness and uncharted interiors dominate, and it helps free Sonnier from the burden of sculpture. He becomes a kind of Minimalist after all, but a Minimalist suited to the stress and strain of today's downtown.

The main corridor already draws one into the work. Small speakers flood the air with a babble of low voices, from cell phones to police radios. One strains unsuccessfully to find the words and to breach their privacy. Perhaps they, in turn, are listening, too. One ends up as an accomplice in a crime one failed to commit and a work of art that one can never complete.

Two of the side rooms improve my opinion of the colored lights. Sonnier and Ace set a large number of such works in the same room, with mirrors separating the fixtures from the walls. The objects tumble together and multiply before one's eyes.

My favorite room, however, brings me back to the perplexities of sprawl, decay, and resurgence. Its industrial-scale foam blocks could serve as a parody of Donald Judd's boxes, modular furniture, or the maze of lower Manhattan. Sonnier covers them with green or orange fluorescent powder and illuminates them with black light. Alone in that Fluorescent Room, I might have entered the glow of another Manhattan, after a disaster, but I was in no hurry to flee. When I did leave, I took some of the chaos with me. Some loose powder had stuck to my clothes.

Now Ace and Hudson Clearing really are deserted landscapes. Chelsea really is growing and straining, MoMA reopens soon in Manhattan, and the New Museum is headed for the Bowery. Brooklyn is offering an "Open House" for borough artists, while Long Island City and the Lower East Side are pushing the edges of art and urbanization. Maybe one day I shall even find the art.

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"Sprawl" ran at Hudson Clearing through February 8, 2004, Chris Hanson and Hendrika Sonnenberg at Cohan and Leslie through March 27, "In Practice" at the SculptureCenter through February 21, and Keith Sonnier at Ace, in its now defunct Hudson Street quarters, through December 2003. And this article ran right after an introduction to the sprawling art scene, beyond Chelsea. "In Practice" returned in 2007.


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