As if I didn’t have enough uncertainty and fear in my life, last week’s gallery crawl reminded me that the past is quicksand, the present is tenuous and the future is pretty much an inevitable march to the trash heap. Then again, this news was communicated through the creation of gorgeous artifacts that were so beautifully rendered I couldn’t much blame the messengers for the tenor of their messages. Though I might spend the day roaming galleries in the name of diversion, I tend to ignore the most diverting attractions in favor of those that challenge my complacency. Last week’s shows, however, dismantled the shared delusion we call reality, starting with the foundation of history.
Bass & Reiner’s Thinking of You features painter Ray Mack and fabric artist Bean Gilsdorf, with an afterword by Marshall Elliott. The show was carefully constructed so that, upon entering the gallery, the viewer is met with a visual sweep. One of Mack’s paintings depicts the rising of a curtain on a 19th-century stage, candles glowing in the footlights while a malefic host-presenter is caught in the act of drawing back the grand drape for a Francis Bacon-faced audience. It is a view of the proscenium from back stage, making the viewer the curiosity that is on display. The gesture is mirrored by two of Gilsdorf’s gilded flags, which hang to the right of Mack’s painting. The image of gold fringe meets actual gold fringe; the painted curtain fold continues in the actual fold of the flags’ fabric. With this one gesture, the curators brilliantly highlight the depth of communication between the two artists and immediately transmit the show’s thesis as an examination of this historical sweep and the malleable nature of history.
Both artists use historical imagery as source and inspiration. Mack distorts the pictures into grotesques; Gilsdorf cuts them up and sews them into flags of no nation, demonstrating the fictional nature of flags — and nations. In one painting Mack renders Betsy Ross as a blurry smear caught stitching an American creation myth. Gilsdorf includes images of the frontier, covered wagons expanding westward, bringing “civilization” and void. The flags are backed by brightly colored fabric that makes a subtle halo, in one instance a neon pink casts a lurid lipstick shadow; the idea glows. We know how powerful national stories can be, especially when they remain under-scrutinized, or go unchallenged. The work conjures images of border disputes and real or proposed walls, of a pridefully open society overrun and closing down, revealing the false promise of openness.
The past, alas, is just a story that changes with the teller and the telling. Must we accept the melting of facts in an age that no longer has need for them?
But over at Romer Young, old objects are brightly painted and used to collage new and wondrous sculptures of a more delicate sensibility. Kirk Stoller’s Go Ahead and Pass Go features often whimsical materials that relate to a childhood hinted at in the show’s title. The color palette invokes nostalgic thoughts, pieces of old chairs are recognizable, wooden ones from a dinner table, metal from the summer yard. But look closer, the objects, while stable, are held together in an uneasy state of balance. One piece, Untitled (wish), is magically floating on the wall, effortlessly suspended in a state of relieved tension, held elegantly in place by a small square of brilliant orange plexiglass.
Stoller communicates both the bliss of a fleeting emotion and the tenuousness of its existence. We are in an uneasy detente. There is joy and beauty, but it is held in place by the smallest of props that seem incapable of handling any additional pressure. The linchpin works overtime; the present equilibrium is fleeting and fragile.
Finally, at Fraenkel Gallery, Christian Marclay presents Six New Animations, each a video constructed by the assiduous documentation of garbage, collected during the artist’s daily walks along the streets of London. We are first met with a reference to Marclay’s own international sensation, The Clock, a 24-hour masterpiece about film time. But this clock is made out of discarded straws and lids from fast-food soft drink cups. The meditation here is about time running out; it is about how we are quickly suffocating ourselves in piles of our own detritus. The inevitability of the clock combines with the way these objects are treated as afterthoughts by the companies that make them and the consumers who discard them. They are invisible containers only of value while filled with an even less valuable (and often harmful) liquid. They are designed to be thrown away; clear plastic vessels becoming meaningless once their contents have been drained. Combine this with other disposable items that end up on city streets (gum, cigarette butts, q-tips, bottle caps) and we come to understand our own cleverness as a species in a new way.
We design these objects for disposability and then somehow are able to ignore them as they pile up in our environment. None of these items is particularly good for the user — sugar drinks, chewing gum, cigarettes, and when the momentary satisfaction of consumption is over, they are made to be spat out, regardless of how they might be encountered by someone else. In that moment, there is no other person — just the smoker and the spent cigarette, the chewer and the flavorless gum. The accretion of this evidence, this garbage within our own living spaces, demonstrates our own disposability as consumers, we too will eventually be consumed and spent. Marclay animates discarded bottle caps until they slowly become a world and then poke a hole in the world — as bottle caps eventually will do; his Lids and Straws animated clock ticks toward that inevitability.
Wow, I was so struck by Ray Mack’s painting (which I think could also be depicting the early 20th century), as it is chilling and stirring and extremely potent. It also reminds me of the work of early 20th-century German painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. She is really someone to watch. I was also struck by the message of The Clock, by Christian Marclay and appreciated your interpretation of it.