Modernity's Dark Nights

John Haber
in New York City

December, Marianne Vitale, and Melissa Gordon

I have to hand it to Howie Chen. Whatever I think about group shows to tide galleries over those long, dark nights, at least he is honest about it. He calls a show simply "December." Never mind that most people will stumble into it only after the holidays. Never mind that they will be scratching their head at not a sign of humanity or snow. It still counts as truth in advertising.

The darkness is still hanging over the new year in 2012. Is the solstice "auspicious," with the promise of lengthening days, or terrifying? An eastern tradition says much the same about the subject for U-Ram Choe. Could the remains of a burning bridge stand for the same promise and fears? With her dark recycled lumber, Marianne Vitale finds terror and rigor in Minimalism, while Melissa Gordon traces her promises and fears to the very heart of Modernism. She connects Mondrian and de Stijl to moments in history that may have changed everything—if only one could remember them. Cheryl Donegan's Not in Love (Mitchell-Innes and Nash, 2011)

Bleak December's winds

For those sick and tired of group shows, Howie Chen achieves a welcome focus with, it appears, a proper handful of artists. And what they have in common is the darkness. Someone has set a small, misshapen but vaguely humanoid lump on a pedestal, beside an only slightly smoother brown lump stuck to the wall. Did you know that a potato was of the nightshade family? By far the most prolific hand might have scratched, cracked, or marked illegibly on glass and black MDF. With a little struggle, one might make out RICH &, but almost surely neither one's own reflection nor FAMOUS.

Fame here is just out of sight, along with recognition. And wait, for by far the largest mirror has a blood-red scrawl that one can hardly help reading, for the artist seems to stop only because he has run out of space. It veers painfully between sexting, confession, apologies, and confusion. One could look for help to the press release, but it presents only a long paragraph of nouns and adjectives, like a shattered ode to winter. One will have to decide for oneself its mood or its relevance, from pathos to diffidence. Like the rest of the literal hall of mirrors, it amounts to what Stephen in Ulysses called "the cracked glass of a servant."

By now, one might start to get the idea that nothing is as plain as it seems, even the show's title. One lump or two? Jean Dubuffet created the first in 1954, with a mysterious title a few letters away from Sorcerer, while Margaret Lee modeled the potato. Several artists worked in blackness and reflection, including Tony Matelli, Cheryl Donegan, and the master of invisibility when it comes to art and identity, David Hammons. Donegan calls hers Not in Love, but with whom? Ian Cheng calls the shiny red scrawl Bigger than Your Blog, which perhaps it is—but starts it Ohm My God, like the compression of text messaging in reverse.

This must be the month for the ambivalent frankness of social media. Just three Chelsea blocks away, a second gallery offers its own "Dark Christmas." Here Chen has a virtual hall of fame of the creeps—from Hans Bellmer, Pierre Molinier, Paul McCarthy, and Kiki Smith through Gerhard Richter, Andres Serrano, David Wojnarowicz, and Cindy Sherman. Out in Williamsburg, Robert Whitman warns of adult content for his Polaroids of Minneapolis in the early 1980s. Striking or not, his friends are trying just a little too hard to party. And Facebook may have made the whole notion of this as sociology or art a period piece.

In "December," the juxtapositions deepen even as they slip away. In context, the scrunched and tacked black fabric of Tom Burr's Sentimental Suture turns monochrome abstraction into effacement and violence, while the black smile from Joyce Pensato looks on. With his photos of a man with no head and too many arms of legs, Adam Putnam could well be quoting Bellmer or Molinier, and only Max Coyer's robotic portrait looks out of place. After a rag and paper elephant by Jessica Stockholder, I kept looking for the animal for in Lucky DeBellevue's scarf folded like bat wings. After Megan Plunkett's wax-like buttons along corner walls, I saw what looked like a wall label or a prescription, and I wondered what pills she had squashed or taken. Perhaps Joe Bradley needed to take something for the winter blues.

U-Ram Choe, a Korean artist, offers Custos Cavum, a tribute to a tenth-century Indian sculpture on display nearby. Remember Shiva, man slayer and destroyer of worlds—or of art? The Hindu god with so many arms has become what the Latin title calls "Guardian of the Hollow." It has also become a beached-whale skeleton of steel and aluminum with a bronze sheen and rising tentacles. Somewhere between tree branches in winter and lobster claws, they wiggle patiently and await the viewer. You may wonder if the standing resin figures around it, in all their cartoon anonymity, belong to the work or to fellow visitors.

A rude bridge

Some dreams were never meant to come true, especially bad dreams. When Marianne Vitale exhibited her Model for Burning Bridge in 2011, she reduced an old-fashioned covered bridge to charred remains. The scale model promised more, by definition, even as its black nightmare had already come to an end. It also promised a model in the sense of an ideal, although a perverse one. That ideal showed in its Minimalist geometry, from square cross-section to triangular peaks and diagonal bracing. Appropriately enough, the promise of a bridge stood at the center of a group show called "Lost."

As it turned out, Vitale was not burning her bridges behind her after all, any more than Ted Victoria in his own Surrealist version of Minimalism. The model has come to fruition on the scale of a gallery. It has entered the past tense now, as Burned Bridge. Its geometry is clearer than ever, with a flat roof, a gentle arch, and wooden verticals extended above and below. It has gained a kind of permanence, on block-like supports. Is it a bridge too far? Not necessarily, for it is still at heart a model, spanning not a river but a room, darkly.

Marianne Vitale's Model for Burning Bridge (1) (Invisible-Exports, 2011)Richard Forster represents more dreams or nightmares of construction. One sees a photographic record of broken earth and rising buildings, all the stranger for its grain and blur. In fact, Forster has made meticulous drawings after a film from a construction site in Germany, right down to the wide and impersonal black on which they appear mounted. Other drawings in black and white tackle the sea, coastline descending like lightning bolts, and young nudes in the woods, like the 1960s as a Victorian pastoral. The illusion extends to the tape seemingly holding the pictures down. Like that burned bridge, all three series lie between construction and memorial.

Do these artists "need to lighten up"? Vitale says so herself, in the exhibition's very title—with two four-letter words that I shall refrain from quoting and, for good measure, full caps. Her video in the 2010 Whitney Biennial carried much the same message, as she shouted some awfully serious commands. Look to the press release to decide, though, and you will find only a strange account, citing Todd Colby, of schizophrenia, arson, and violence supposedly affecting about a quarter of the local population in 1845. The epidemic, one reads, went by the name "Combustivism." Maybe she had better not lighten up, if that means arson, as in a burning bridge.

Art and arson here have their good side, though, only starting with Vitale's mind games and haunting installation. The construction is ecofriendly, from "recycled lumber." A large wall-mounted grid still has protruding nails from the verticals that lend it texture, color variety, and danger. Buyers do have a choice whether to treat it as a Robert Ryman or a coatrack, but maybe they better not get too close. The sole other piece looks like a shed with no entrance or exit, and Vitale calls it Outhouse. As she says in that title, she needs to lighten up "about a lot of shit."

Apart from drama, Vitale still draws on Minimalism, and she is not entirely ironic. She makes fun of those coarse timbers by Carl Andre while emulating them. Has she found a meeting point between formalism and expressionism? Such old distinctions are vanishing more and more these days, and "recycling" could also be a clever term for appropriation. Is a larger bridge, as impervious to human traffic as ever, a breakthrough or a dead end? For now, Vitale may lack variety, and she may need time to lighten up, but that charred mix of bodily sensation and fantasy is hard to forget.

When Modernism shocked

If Modernism requires one's full attention, Gerrit Rietveld's Red and Blue Chair leaves one little choice. With its single long plane of wood tilted only slight back, in fire-engine red, and its perfectly flat blue seat, it all but screams, "Sit up straight!" One can imagine being strapped to its blue armrests, their yellow tips marking the electric shocks. If form follows function, one hardly wants to think of its function. For most people, De Stijl means just one name, Piet Mondrian, and they think of his paintings much the same way. Melissa Gordon, too, still sees them as the site of powerful forces—only for her that is not altogether bad.

Like so many back then, Rietveld was a dreamer and not a torturer. He worked in all sorts of media, including jewelry, and he reduced them to simple elements to make them affordable to all. Few remember his name, although many visitors to MoMA will have seen the chair. He had the Bauhaus in mind when he began it, but Mondrian's Dutch art movement came to inspire its primary colors. Maybe he saw that Mondrian had what he lacked, asymmetry—those compositions that barely rein in the commotion of modern life. Gordon can control them at all only by pulling them apart and stripping away the color.

Rietveld himself welcomes one in, through a photograph of his press layout room for UNESCO's headquarters in Paris. The triangular patchwork of flooring already looks askew, for all its clean, empty space. The press here are not the only absent editors. Gordon reproduces it as a small painting, basically a coarse silkscreen, with a detachment more than one step removed from Modernism's urgency. And she takes the same approach to Mondrian, with full-scale appropriations in black and white.

The corresponding colors appear as blocks on pedestals, like theme and variations, and I took them for independent sculpture. Evidently something has come apart in half a century or so, and the viewer has responsibility for putting it back together. A second room makes that task even more challenging, with coarser screens, thicker edges, messier grids, occasional colors, and some images. Who are these people? Gordon starts here with newspapers, injecting not Mondrian into the present but recent history into Mondrian. She could almost have scraped it away by hand—about such investigative journalism as the Pentagon Papers.

Do silkscreens, grids, headlines, and crises recall Andy Warhol, like the electric chair of his Orange Disaster? Do not blame Rietveld for the shocks, but do not blame Gordon and appropriation for the lack of them either. Imagine that Warhol had looked for past rather than present headlines, answers rather than frightening questions, an earlier modern art rather than a growing minimalism—and then stripped them all away. Gordon shares something of postmodern fears of institutional power, but also a degree of respect. Absence here becomes almost longing. Her show is not quite great moments in history, and it is certainly not one itself, but like "December" and Vitale she remembers and imagines them.

A truly postmodern chair turns up a few blocks away, and one can even sit in it. Well, maybe not sit still, for Thomas Heatherwick and his curvaceous metal spins in circles pretty much whether one will or no. Other seating, in long silvery benches, has the same one-piece elegance, produced by extrusion, but also a rigidity that De Stijl would envy. Heatherwick, too, is known for exploding the past, as in the Brit's reinvention of London double-decker buses, the flowing stairs leading up to a second-floor department store, and a "puff ball" pavilion that looks from the outside like a gigantic seedcase of sixty thousand optical strands. Form never quite follows function, at least for readers prone to nausea and in search of seating, but it does reflect on function. I have to hope that his architecture does the same, but can Postmodernism ever draw on forces half as powerful or terrifying as the past?

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"December" ran at Mitchell-Innes & Nash through January 21, 2012, "Dark Christmas" at Leo Koenigthrough January 12, Robert Whitman at Black & White, through January 14, Marianne Vitale at Zach Feuer through February 25, Richard Forster at Flag Art Foundation through May 19, Melissa Gordon at Marianne Boesky through February 11, and Thomas Heatherwick at Haunch of Venison through March 3. U-Ram Choe ran at the Asia Society through December 31, 2011. Portions of this review on Marianne Vitale first appeared in a different form in Artillery magazine. I originally had an aside explaining that I took my heading about bleak December winds from "To a Mouse" by Robert Burns, but the best laid schemes. . . .


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