The Horror! The Horror!

John Haber
in New York City

Cornelia Parker and Summer Sculpture 2016

Could that structure on the Met's roof be the set of a horror movie—or the psychodrama of American art? The horror! The horror!

It is also the usual wonder of summer sculpture in New York, and this year's tour continues from Cornelia Parker at the Met to Socrates Sculpture Park and beyond, including Martin Puryear in Madison Square. A related article continues up to Storm King. Cornelia Parker's Transitional Object (PsychoBarn) (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016)

The horror and the hope

If the house perched uneasily on the Met looks familiar, its outlines entered popular imagination more than fifty years ago, with Psycho—and with a mainstay of New York museums thirty-five years before that. Its timbers have been around for years as well, on an icon of rural America, the classic red barn. To believe Cornelia Parker, it has deeper claims still, going back to the first years of life. Only now it is part of the New York skyline, too. Is it still scary or endearing? More the latter, but it turns out to be harder than one might think to untangle its sources of horror and hope.

Had you forgotten that Alfred Hitchcock based the Bates Motel on a painting by Edward Hopper? Transitional Object (PsychoBarn) is all about remembrance and reconstruction. Parker first thought of miming an actual barn, but then the roof has only so much space. The connection between the movie and the painting proved decisive, not least because Hopper painted his share of red barns, too, under evocative skies. His House by the Railroad, from 1925, rises vertically, conveniently enough as well. Parker needed to scale the building down for a house by the Great Lawn, but almost invisibly. In Hopper's painting, its porch and gables also rise from behind a wall, as if floating above something much like the Met.

If Hopper's Dutch colonial mansion seems to float, inaccessible to the viewer's space, it also resembles a ghost. He painted it in white, with some of his juiciest brushwork. Could it seem fearsome only now, in retrospect, after Parker's blood red and Hitchcock's black and white? Hopper always pictures that strange place between familiarity and loneliness, the real and surreal, architectural precision and raking light, just as in the underbelly of New York. Psycho, in turn, plays on fantasies of a mother's love, with the son there to mop up the blood.

Parker's title, too, alludes to a child's incomplete separation from a mother's nurturing, as once again a matter of freedom and fear. D. W. Winnicott coined the term transitional object for such things as teddy bears, although visitors to the Met's rooftop bar might be more in mind of a drink. Winnicott, the author of Playing and Reality, was among the warmest of post-Freudians himself. He was also, like Parker, a Brit. She, though, has had a greater love-hate relationship with America. Previous work has floated above ground, including the charred remains of a model African American church.

Her latest foray into the American mind began in Upper New York State, a little west of Albany, where a barn offered her its timber and tin roof. Firms specialize in such demolitions, it turns out, but Showman Fabricators in Long Island City also has experience creating stage sets. Plainly Parker shoots for both architecture and theater. Like most stage sets, including that in the movie, this building offers only a façade, its two sides hiding steel scaffolding and black water tanks for ballast, to keep it from blowing away any minute now. From the front, though, it might have sat there a long time, long enough for the paint and lime to have peeled. There, too, it looks as comforting as old shoes.

Make that a little too comforting, although Parker is still the artist who has drawn with fire or a bullet. She is also not the first on the roof to traffic in architecture, like Dan Graham with his garden pavilion, or, like Imran Qureshi, in blood. She does, though, find a way to compete for drama with better summer commissions, like Roxy Paine and Mike and Doug Starn with their wild forests bare of leaves, while leaving much of the space to the bar crowd, like Pierre Huyghe last year. At worst, her piling on of quotations makes a perfectly fine excuse to contemplate art's place between mass entertainment and the unconscious over a drink. Besides, she gives the Met a whole new wing without once extending its footprint deeper into Central Park, with (I promise) the scariest period rooms that no one will ever, ever see.

Feel the berm

It is about time, but Socrates Sculpture Park has become a landmark. Maybe not legally, but then public parks do not need landmark status to protect them from developers. Maybe, too, not the kind of park one visits to marvel at the landscaping or even the view. After thirty years, though, one can call it a destination, for both neighbors out for an afternoon of sunshine or an evening film—and for someone who cares about art. It owes its existence, after all, not to landscape architects but to artists, and sculpture by Mark di Suvero and Tim Rollins still rests there, Mark di Suvero's She (photo by John Haber, Storm King Art Center, 1977–1978)looking very much like work in progress to this day. It also cannot resist the self-congratulation of calling its anniversary show "Landmark," in full caps at that and complete with the hashtag #SocratesTurns30.

Nothing in the overcrowded show deserves landmark status, but almost everything seems eager to claim it as more than just a neighborhood park. Indeed, it now has enough chairs of painted wood for a dozen pocket parks, thanks to Jonathan Odom. They look uncomfortable, anything but site specific, and decidedly like overkill, although they might spark a conversation, because each looks meant for two. The park may not approach the luxury of the woods or a nature preserve, but Casey Tang has planted a few trees, as a forlorn Urban Forest Lab, and Jessica Segall installs a bee colony in a piano's innards, as Fugue in Bb. Its chords recall when Steinway pianos played on Astoria's Steinway Street, although it looks anything but grand, and you may not feel the buzz. Abigail DeVille alludes to the park's history as landfill and ferry slip, at the risk of making it all the more an eyesore.

Cary Liebowitz extends both the industrial theme and the associations with a greater national park as playground for masculinity, with a Bobcat covered with bumper stickers. "Honk," they insist, "if U love Socrates Sculpture Park." Brendan Fernandes, too, seems caught between a greater promise and a construction site with caution tape, seemingly abandoned by the water's edge and doctored to read Until We Fearless. (He appears to carry the message into braille, in tribute to a park's accessibility, but not in raised letters, so anyone who relies on them is out of luck.) So does ARTPORT, with videos somewhere between educational and blistering on the sorry effects of climate change, housed inside a standard issue shipping container. I mistook it for a real need, portable toilets.

Hank Willis Thomas promises more facilities, too, on the Broadway billboard, with an image of a football player kneeling for the next play. Only he can tell you why he is staring down cotton balls or bunnies. Meg Webster, though, has a real garden and a genuine earthwork. Unlike the pyramid last year by Agnes Denes, it is not about nature's monumentality or wildness. Its dish looks like a circular wall of soil, until one reaches the entrance facing the waterfront and encounters cultivation, much of it one day edible. Feel the berm.

One May art fair takes a similar route, not just out of midtown, but out of doors without a café in site. Flux ventured onto the scene in 2015 thanks to a Harlem landmark, the Corn Exchange, but now it had to rethink its future. In the process, it all but ditched the idea of a fair. Rather than booths and galleries, it has some forty artists, few with close ties to the African American community, each siting a small work in the hills of Marcus Garvey Park through that month. That is a lot to ask of any visitor, however well intentioned, and I failed my first time at the treasure hunt, even with a map. I had to return and in nicer weather, as a foretaste of another New York institution, sculpture in the parks.

It was worth it just to get to know the park as a strange refuge from authority, whether for art or the homeless. Some artists take to surrounding pocket gardens or streets, but the bulk is hidden among low ball fields, high hills, and ordinary things. It runs to such materials as rope, wire, tarp, bicycle lamps, broom handles, boom boxes, and pea pods. What it does not run to is imagery or even much in the way of shape, unless one counts a Liberian flag, a map of New York State, or sound for download as image and shape rather than materials. Much of it seems to be crumbling before one's eyes. I hesitate to single out anyone in so overcrowded and uncomposed a vision, but then I hesitated, too, to leave many of them behind.

The wanderers

New Yorkers do not often head for the High Line with wanderlust. It is the ultimate in uniformity, an all but single-file march its more than mile in length—amid tourists at that. Yet the High Line takes that word as its theme, and it will take some determined wandering to locate half of its art. Brass slivers slipped here and there between its concrete, from Giorgio Andreotta Calò, or debris from other sites nearby, from Mike Nelson? The chime of a bell, from Valentin Carron, or the sound of a tear, from Susan Philipsz? Indeed, but this is set amid the sites and sounds of construction.

Actually, the recorded tear sounds more like a cattle call, and you are free to toll the bell. The polished slivers commemorate cross-country walkers, although they do not extend far—and have to compete with rude concrete watermelons from Paulo Nazareth as tokens of corrupt labor in Brasilia. Much else, though, is obvious indeed, like billboards from Barbara Kruger (Blind Idealism Is Reactionary Scary Deadly) and Kathryn Andrews (Beyond This Point You May Encounter Nude Sunbathers). You wish. Neither is strictly part of "Wanderlust," and neither is a Smart car from Nari Ward covered in tire treads and mounted on cinder blocks, with a tree piercing its roof. It is either the smartest or dumbest car ever. Denise Treizman's Spartan Follies (photo by John Haber, Flow.16 Randall's Island, 2009)

A little modesty goes a long way, like a swans curve from a former High Line rail by Matt Johnson, or steel rings like a bike rack by Rayyane Tabet in memory of the Trans-Arabian Pipeline. Marie Lorenz nestles three small boats beneath the High Line and swears to take guests with reservations to the Hudson now and then. They look all the more massive and fragile as mere wooden hulls overhead. A copper cylinder from Iman Issa is sleeker, but also more like ordnance. More obvious still, Tony Matelli fashions a man of painted bronze in his underwear and in a daze. He may be the only one on the High Line allowed to be "lost and adrift."

Claudia Comte brings her Italian Bunnies in white marble to City Hall Park as part of "The Language of Things," while Isa Genzken erects two white orchids, one taller than the other, at the entrance to Central Park. Lest you think they have something to do with royal privilege or summer pleasure, the artist deems the tropical flower the ultimate in mass produced household goods. Along Park Avenue, Tom Friedman is looking up, or rather his thin splotchy figure and its tiny head are Looking Up. They and their presumed pea brains are also towering more than thirty feet above midtown traffic—and the perpetual good cheer of Jean Dubuffet in the plaza of the Seagram Building across the street. The echoes of early Modernism and Expressionism rest uneasily alongside the striving for monumentality, but all three contribute to the optimism and the dreaminess. Allow them this once to tilt their heads sharply back.

With Frieze and the art fairs departed, Randall's Island can once again revert to its quiet existence as a vast home for sports fields, infrastructure, and art. The most minimal contribution, three large wood frames by Tracy Hervie, still has to frame maximal views beneath the city's bridges and highways. Another of four works scattered under the heading "Flow," calls itself Monument to a Missing Island, as if something more than forgetfulness had washed its memory away. Tim Clifford's monument begins as a wall before fragmenting into surrounding rubble and, on its face, white pillars closer to a model skyline. Hell Gate Cairns by Samantha Holmes softens up close, too, thanks to a surface inlaid with a mosaic of metal and glass. Denise Treizman's Spartan Follies disperses most exuberantly of all, its PVC tubes like firecrackers—with the spray-painted tires nearby the explosion.

Anyone hoping to take in the entirety of summer sculpture, in the diversity of New York parks, is in for a long ride, with "inHarlem" in for more parks still to come. With Martin Puryear in Madison Square Park, make that a roller-coaster ride, but also a well-earned thrill. From its shape, one might take Big Bling for an enormous bird—while from its open lattice, pierced by an opening in the shape of a classic backyard swimming pool, it would look right at home in an amusement park. For all that, the title hints that Puryear has in mind something else again, to do with the more everyday challenge of African American experience. He speaks of the lattice as a chain-link fence, and he refers to the gilded loop that lends the creature a beak or a handle as a shackle. Still, it looks as grand as a monument, forty feet in height, with the promise of an easy ride up and a welcome plummet back to earth.

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Cornelia Parker ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through October 31, 2016, "Landmark" in Socrates Sculpture Park through August 28, Flux in Marcus Garvey Park through May 31, "The Language of Things" in City Hall Park through September 29, Isa Genzken off Grand Army Plaza through August 21, and "Flow" on Randall's Island through November 30. "Wanderlust" continues on the High Line through March 2017 and Martin Puryear in Madison Square Park through January 8. The review of Parker appears in a slightly different form that I cannot fully endorse in Artillery magazine. I continue to follow summer sculpture as in past years going back to summer 2003 and this year to Rockaway Beach, plus summer 2017.


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