8.29.17 — Minimalism and Murder

Barry Le Va takes Minimalism close to murder, with a recreation of his Cleaved Wall at David Nolan through this past February 11. Talk about zombie formalism. Allow me, again, an extra post on a quiet end of summer to catch up a bit.

If I were you, I would have been very careful not to get drunk at the opening. I am still weighing the risks, as Le Va intended. He wants one to feel the work viscerally—from the weight of the thirty-four meat cleavers, the kind from a butcher’s shop, to their 9½-inch blades. Installation view of Beneath the Underdog (Gagosian, 2007)He wants one to imagine how they got stuck in the walls. Did he fling them, and from how far away? Did he know where they would land?

Not that I can swear the gallery served alcohol. (There was no sign of it when I passed through half an hour before.) If so, I am sure that the event took due diligence, just as raised wire keeps one at due distance from that corner of the room. Still, the installation demands to be seen in bodily terms, beginning with its origins. Le Va purchased the cleavers in the meat yards of Chicago—the subject of Upton Sinclair’s muckraking in The Jungle, the 1906 novel. The work first went on view in 1970 at the Whitney, where drinks were scarce.

Where have the blades lay since, and how did they get into the wall? One row runs just above the floor, another high on the wall. The first dares one to picture the cost of coming too close. The second defies one to stand under them—or to imagine the artist flinging them like props in an action movie, on a ladder or even (less plausibly) from the floor. Their shifting angles relative to the wall evoke stop-action photography of a single blade. Either he or the fine wood handles could be dancing.

One thinks in human terms, too, because Minimalism and process art demand it, and Barry Le Va had a serious role in both. Minimalism obliges viewers to contemplate themselves and the gallery along with the sculpture, as part of a living theater. Process art insists that the theater unfolds in time. When Le Va produced his “scatter pieces” of torn felt, they made a mess. When Richard Serra flung molten lead, the mess was not so easy to clean up. When Walter de Maria brings earthworks indoors with his New York Earth Room, one can only wonder how long it took to cart the black soil into the gallery—and how much human intervention it takes to keep anything from growing.

Le Va may not match their reputation. The scattered felt can seem too arbitrary and too little visceral. One cannot smell soil or shy away from lead. Still, his materials have included shattered glass (as seen here in 2007), the kind that Chris Burden dragged himself across, and guns. Besides, he cherishes the arbitrary gesture, much like drip painting and gestural abstraction. It may sound odd that he planned the near random arrangement of blades, cuts, and handles, but the show comes with drawings to prove it.

Their interplay of thought and impulse becomes a dance. So does another product of Chicago in the back room, Floret by Julia Fish. It makes no attempt to reproduce the 1998 original, for which Fish expanded on green sections of institutional floor tiling, separated by white. Rather than add complete circles, she had her own arbitrary placement of small hexagons. In works on paper for the occasion, the clusters seem to grow before one’s eyes. They could pass for pixels in motion from video games—or plain old drunk.

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