The Great Almost Outdoors

John Haber
in New York City

Trace and Quid Pro Quo

Karyn Olivier and Ursula von Rydingsvard

Art, I have heard, should serve as the ultimate adult play. Yet even a playground needs padding and adult supervision. Wooden art sounds stiff, ungainly, and without animation. Yet wood could allow one to climb and to experiment with its fragile beams, while recalling the polished beauty of its craft.

Some recent sculpture in wood brings out the risks of stiffness and play. Karyn Olivier's sculpture places me in a city playground at night, but also trapped in a museum after hours. Better yet, in her hands those settings become eerily alike. Her work features along with other echoes of blackness and New York City in "Trace" and "Quid Pro Quo." Meanwhile, Ursula von Rydingsvard really does flank a playground, but her megaliths are just getting ready to play. Karyn Olvier's Junglegym (Whitney Museum of American Art, 2006)

Traces of New York

Playtime could well describe artists as diverse as Yoko Ono and Pipilotti Rist with their mind games and coy ones, Tim Hawkinson and Cory Arcangel with their gadgets and video arcades. Once again, however, in a context of blackness it gets strikingly surreal.

In both a city at night or a museum after hours, I can know the terror of ever coming upon another and the release of breaking the rules alone. Olivier's rail tracks, swerving into the basement tunnels of SculptureCenter, played off both the museum architecture and Long Island City's fading history. Her unstable seesaw at the Studio Museum not long before belonged to both Minimalism and the playground. Her column in "Greater New York" went more for Minimalism, but it had forms out of a furniture set. They would all have scared me, except that I was too busy admiring their elegance. Anyway I mostly wanted to jump on something and play.

Her latest urban plaything dominates a sculpture court, where people sit around at lunch much as they would near a real playground, but with air conditioning. As part of "Trace," a group show, she erects a kind of adult-size jungle gym. Its polished light wood tempts one to step back and admire its beauty. Its spareness make one feel as if one had entered the frightening Palace at 4 A.M. by Alberto Giacometti. Only a look around at the guard keeps one from climbing up. Instead, I walked under a ladder or two, laughing at my own bad luck.

"Trace" has a curiously generic name for a quintessentially city show. One does not encounter the ambiguous human imprints in blurred portraiture, masks, rayograms, or real-time data processing. Instead, the six artists go just fine with any number of other recent exhibitions of urban planning, reconstruction, or cultivated environments. At most, the postmodern terminology calls attention to the absence of other human beings, and one can enjoy asking what has driven them away. Perhaps they came a few millennia after Jedediah Caeser's thin disks, which press plaster, salt crystals, and dust from his studio into simulations of a geologic record. Perhaps they stand close by, just on the other side of the cinder block wall, in Shannon Ebner's photograph that conforms to the scale of an actual gallery wall.

A few people do appear in Ebner's other photos—or at least their arms. Shot on the Washington mall, they hold translucent protest signs high over their heads. Messages like Is an American Feeling or Is a Red Dawn strain for profundity, but they might work better in a less-focused exhibition. Michael Queenland may also return a bit too glibly to his customary theme of Shaker furniture. In this setting the reference loses its grounding in history or experience. Still, the black sculpture, which mimics a stack of tables, does evoke the mix of starkness and aborted purpose that characterizes the show at its best.

Iván Navarro refers most directly to Minimalism, with a ceiling-high black cube. Oddly enough, I liked that part of the work the least, as its departure from human scale seems not so much to play against Tony Smith's Die as to miss the point. I liked better the challenge to walk inside and to sort out its other references—from a mirror giving the illusion of an endless pit to the garbled recording of "Nowhere Man" and the thick odor of, I am guessing, black tar on wood. That smell takes one back to real construction sites, like my favorite piece after Olivier's. Karlis Rekevics seems to have ripped out or ripped off the cement barriers near highway ramps. They have the mass to carry one outdoors, and a scattering of ordinary light bulbs to bring one back to a makeshift museum interior.

Loan me a quid

Olivier, then, seems everywhere and nowhere. Call it the mark of a properly sanctioned "emerging artist"—or just an appealing way to experience sculpture. Had enough lone standout pieces in shows of relative unknowns? As it happens, her sculpture also enlivens a group show in Harlem. "Quid Pro Quo" exhibits the Studio Museum's 2006 artists in residence.

Even among three artists, Olivier manages a sparer presence than ever. Her Monkey Bars at Whitney Altria pushes a child's summer afternoon and echoes of Surrealist sculpture to the scale of a real jungle. Her version uptown brings them down to the polish of household furniture. Two photographs capture similarly domestic environments, but just over the heads of whoever might inhabit them. These and one other modest sculpture seem so self-effacing that one might well recall just one work: an almost life-size sliding pond coasts down and then right back up again, like a dream of eternal free fall.

Doubleslide has her usual merging of child's play and adult risk, city streets and sculptural ideals. She transforms the steel hues of a playground into a uniform, inky gray. Its symmetry and color bow as well to a suspension bridge that no one will ever cross. The show's context helps carry its sleekness back to the streets. With two shows of emerging black artists or Gary Simmons, the Studio Museum has explored black identity, but without asking art to conform to anyone's image of blackness. Unlike in midtown, I found myself wondering if the "monkey" in Olivier's monkey bars did not itself mock a degrading stereotype.

Rashawn Griffin, too, keeps city life just slightly off stage. My favorite work recycles fabric patches into the covering for shabby walls. One can view the result as collage or living-room architecture. Other works look even more like abstract painting, but the components also retain their domestic origins. One consists of butter cookies, another of jelly beans. Another lays out a disparate collection, along a shelf and nearby wall—including twigs, shattered glass, and a copy of Proust. I thought of an artist coping in hard times, of the black middle class struggling to maintain appearances, and of a still more famous broken windowpane, by Marcel Duchamp.

Clifford Owens comes closer to playing the black male. Video shorts cuss out the audience, although with no special display of raunch or wit. He has still more physical presence on smaller monitors and in photographs, which record performances by the man himself. He invited more established artists and even a critic to visit him in his studio, where he obliged them to put his naked or clothed body through its paces. Joan Jonas drags him across the floor while he draws. Carolee Schneemann helpfully anoints him with skin lotion.

Olivier, for better or worse, will probably get a shot at a big show, the sooner the better. Griffin's associations parallel hers, but with less ability to mine them or to describe a familiar world. Owens replays forty years of performance art, but without quite making any of it his own. He does best when he shares the stage with artists, like Jonas and Schneemann, who themselves could make art a dark personal history and whose famous feminist spaces give the black male a run for his money. In different ways, each seems on the verge of something—but what? The show's title, evoking the exchange of one article for another, still leaves me wondering.

Time's axe

I have a dogged resistance to profundity. When Bill Viola steps through fire and water into eternity, I call the super to fix the smoke alarm and check the plumbing. When Michael Heizer gives access to the Whitney Museum across a bed of oversized arrowheads, I want to picture what Claes Oldenburg could make of the giant bow. Now Ursula von Rydingsvard builds her own prehistoric monuments in Madison Square, and again I start out skeptical. Whoever modeled that thickly swelling plinth, like a featureless head, surely deserves personal censure for the deforestation of Easter Island. Whoever used that mammoth urn, back when giants walked the earth, would finish off the hamburgers before I got to Danny Meyer's Shake Shack across the Square.

It helps, then, to begin instead with her show indoors in Chelsea. Not that von Rydingsvard cuts back on her ambition. The work runs large enough to strain forcefully against a gallery's confines. One sculpture nestles against a wall, viewing bench for the room's more prominent centerpiece. Its flat top could accommodate a Neolithic refugee from the South Pacific, but for the jagged spurs of wood that cross it. I thought of how David Smith modeled late work in Italy after the artist's work table.

Other objects break the monumental outlines in different ways, a bit like similar materials from Martin Puryear. The largest has an open front. It could serve as the mold for a more solid, pretentious work that she has thankfully discarded, and it tempts one to enter, as into a cocoon. While von Rydingsvard calls the show "Silhouettes," Lelong describes it as more attentive to drawing than her earlier sculpture. In reality, one would mistake these blunt masses for Smith's earlier "drawing in space," but they do have more fluid, porous boundaries. More than before, too, the sculptor brings out the softness and pliability of wood.

No doubt the echoes of primitive cultures have something to do with the prehistory of her native Germany and her Polish-Ukrainian family's wartime disposession. She has always played with the big boys, and one thinks of objects like these less as carved than as hacked, with the jagged edges showing. No doubt they accord with traditional associations of a woman's own body with art object and nature, as in the work of Ana Mendieta, Barbara Probst, and Hans Breder. Her forgiving materials accepts her marks easily, and some works leave bent, thin, pressed layers of slats clearly visible. Even giants have to start small.

Her modular constructions also make her results more fluid and accessible. She does not take an axe to a massive block, but rather assembles large blocks from forcefully hewn smaller timbers. Protruding knobs at the center of each piece add contrasting color and texture, as well as a context in Minimalism's repeated units or even back in the playground. She has learned to nudge sculpture toward deep history step by step, rather than wrest her achievement from outside of time. Where Yeats described time as an axe in the seven woods, von Rydingsvard seems content to pare away at her woods crudely but more carefully—and to let water and time take its course on them, come what may. I could see that contentment better now when I returned to her outdoor constructions in Madison Square.

Both pieces there flow more than one expects at first glance. They swell toward the top and twist a bit along the way, like buildings in a strong wind. The protrusions relate them to the knobs and knots of surrounding trees. I still have my doubts, especially when I step back, only to discover how perfectly lovely the trees look on their own. Sadly, too, fences protecting the grass keep art at a distance more a gallery or even museum guards would ever dare. Still, this year's other summer sculpture has played it safe by comparison—with nothing else half as monumental or as personal.

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"Trace" ran at The Whitney Museum of American Art at Altria through November 12, 2006, "Quid Pro Quo" at The Studio Museum in Harlem through October 22, and Ursula von Rydingsvard at Galerie Lelong through October 21 and in Madison Square the same summer and fall.


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