Make It Now: New Sculpture in New York
SculptureCenter through August 31
In the perhaps overly exuberant trailer for Make It Now: New Sculpture in New York at the SculptureCenter in Long Island City, letters flash across the screen, exclaiming “Make Art Now,” “Make Pedestals Now,” “Make Monuments Now,” “Make Bird Baths Now,” “Make Dildos Now...” “To make” is a verb that is closely related to other fundamental verbs like “to do” and “to cause.” We may no longer be certain which objects in the world are works of art, or which persons are artists, but we do know that human beings take wood, stone, clay, Styrofoam, plastic, whatever happens to be on hand, and make things.
Curated by Mary Ceruti, Anthony Huberman, and Franklin Sirmans, Make It Now: New Sculpture in New York features the diverse practices of twenty-eight artists, both emerging and established, all of who are currently working in New York. Unlike the sprawling and congested Greater New York at P.S. 1, Make It Now is manageable in size, displays work that was either created specifically for the show or is being exhibited for the first time (nearly everything is dated 2005), and, more importantly, offers a proposition—namely, that contemporary artists have returned to making objects that self-consciously participate in the language and history of sculpture. This is an interesting and substantive claim. Through the 1960s and 1970s, Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Robert Morris, and Richard Serra, artists who were indisputably sculptors, served as a kind of aesthetic vanguard; but in more recent years sculpture has not so much gone into decline as dispersed into a variety of practices and media.
The first piece a visitor to the SculptureCenter encounters is Ester Partegas’ “Monument to the Truth” (2005), a big, awkward, stooped thing packaged in black tarp held down by ropes and set atop a raw plywood pedestal. A sign on the pedestal states, “pardon our appearance while under construction.” One of the inevitably ironies of monuments is the swiftness with which they are overtaken by history and become anachronistic. Partegas’ monument wryly suggests that the truth about the present is always being erected, always has the ugliness and ambiguity of a construction site. Phoebe Washburn’s “Poor Man’s Lobster” (2005) is behind a service door on the outside of SculptureCenter. It is a large, dilapidated funnel nailed together pell-mell out of two-by-fours. Green, blue, and red gravel spills down the ramp onto the floor, and lengths of yellow string are pulled between exposed nail heads along the planks. “Poor Man’s Lobster” resembles a refuse chute at a construction or demolition site, and the whole things looks like it might collapse at any moment into a heap of lumber. Yet its tone is festive, as though suggesting that what is most interesting is precisely that which is unfinished, on the brink of falling apart, teetering on the edge of disorder.
Making and unmaking, assembling and disassembling, are closely intertwined and sometimes indistinguishable in Modernism and its aftermath, and this is a theme that is just beneath the surface in “Monument to the Truth” and “Poor Man’s Lobster.” Andrea Cohen’s “After Snow Landscape (2005) is a tall, hybrid monument cobbled and glued together out of painted tree branches and Styrofoam sheared to look like stones. There are little blue Styrofoam balls and decorative red and lavender foil; there are rolls of bubble wrap and crumpled sheets of dyed vinyl. The diverse materials used in “After Snow Landscape,” and its nonchalant elision of the organic and the inorganic, the natural and the manufactured, evokes Sarah Sze’s influential aesthetic, but Cohen resists the seductive elegance of Sze’s work, opting instead for sculptures that look as the they were stuck together haphazardly, on impulse.
Gedi Sibony’s “Even Though its Forms are Constructed Completely of Things Taken from the World” (2005), by contrast, looks programmatic. The tall, rectangular steel support of a temporary wall stands in the middle of the gallery, and below, a roll of dirty, institutional grey carpet warps over a curved sheet of a cardboard. Sibony’s contribution to Greater New York is in a similar vain, but stronger. “Disguised As Material Properties” (2004) has a cardboard box propped up by sticks against a wall, a black tarp folded over it, and on the floor is a length of cheap carpet and a wood tube with bunched tarp stapled to it. The elements in “Disguised as Material Properties” look like things left behind in an abandoned wholesale warehouse, yet they also have an idiosyncratic formal tautness.
The found objects and materials that predominate in Make It Now are often shabby and even dirty, like leftover scraps heaped in a dumpster, and in that they look back to the 1950s urban assemblage aesthetic of artists like John Chamberlain and Robert Rauschenberg. Fritz Welch’s “under guests to drift living” (2005) is an obsessive and mystical contraption that lumbers across one of the SculptureCenter’s basement galleries. On one wall is a dense, spidery drawing of a mandala that morphs off the wall into crisscrossing strings and dangling cages full of cast body parts and a model airplane. There are hanging cans full of plaster, gnarly knots of rusted chains and locks, and boxes full of old bottle caps. There are paper covered tubes and wood beams that look as though they were torn from a waterfront dock, on top of which is balanced a plastic cow with its legs ripped off. The piece culminates against the opposite wall with furniture legs and microphone stands, the gouged wall spattered with greasy yellow paint. Compared with Welch’s magisterial junk construction, Bryan Savitz’s “Goodness Grows in Exporter” (2005) is anal and fussy, but if anything his materials are even nastier. Receding back into a low, cavernous space, “Goodness Grows in Exporter” is a kind of city intricately built out of the cardboard from produce boxes. There are buildings, stairways, extension bridges, satellite dishes, and even a geodesic dome; there are decorative eagles, lions, and snakes, a weight set, and a swimming pool. The pedestals for Savitz’s architectural carnival are made from boxes that look like they have been run through a compacting machine. “Goodness Grows in Exporter” is as detailed in its construction as Tom Friedman’s paper space ships, and Friedman is an artist who has undoubtedly exerted an influence on Savitz. But unlike Friedman’s work, Savitz’s pieces retain the filth and raggedness of the streets, of back alleys, of markets late at night. The cardboard is stained with fruit and vegetable juice; one can almost smell the rot.
Part of the mandate of Make It Now is to reflect the diversity of current approaches to sculpture in New York, and of course not all of it involves scrap lumber and messy, rehabilitated garbage. One of the most acute and ambitious artists of the moment, Seth Price’s three pieces, all titled “Video Still, Five Hooded Men with Seated Man” (2005), consist of translucent sheets of polyester film on which images have been printed in dark purple silkscreen ink. The film is twisted and folded and mounted directly on the wall. The blotchy, schematic images are at once gorgeous and menacing—the hooded men, one assumes, are terrorists and executioners. In one piece, set high on the wall, the film has been bunched, crinkled, and smashed down, as though someone were trying to destroy it. “Video Stills, Five Hooded Men with Seated Man” is in a way a companion to one of his contributions to Greater New York. The creepily elegant “Theater for Wearing to School” (2004) is a thick dark glass sheet with patterns from computer scans printed on its shiny surface, set on stacks of CD cases containing downloads of hostage execution videos.
SOL’SAX’s “La Vie Sous-Sol: ‘SUNDA—ground life is upside down” (2005) is also charged with politics. Whereas Price’s sensibility is coolly ironical, SOL’SAX’s is hectoring and in-your-face. “La Vie Sous-Sol” involves six life sized papier-mâché figures, all black, suspended upside down, and variously decked out in white parkas, tennis shoes, mirrored sun glasses, caps and even a bowler hat. The female figures have sumptuous gold dresses and elbow-length purple gloves. All of these figures are stiff, lumpy, and dried out, as though they were mummies, and on the floor beneath them is a wooden sunburst painted gold. The accompanying video moves from footage of Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” to anthemic rap to images of sculptures slapped together out of bottles and coconuts. SOL’SAX’s work is comic, macabre, and visionary; Robert Visani’s “Four Moments” (2005), on the other hand, is meditative and unsettling. In “Ogun NY Money,” for instance, wire, hair, jewelry, and an object that looks like a handgun are suspended in a large, bubbly disc of pink resin. In “Strange Fruit,” there is a rifle stock on a mirrored base, mangled antennae and wood snarled on the top, and “Maiden Spirit Automatic” has a plaster automatic weapon draped in a sheer black over, crowned with a plastic doll. The sculptures in “Four Moments” are fetishes, pieces of sinister contagious magic for a violent world, and they are at once rigorous and improvised.
There is a certain amount of art in Make It Now that is not so much weak as uninspired and off-key, as though Ceruti, Huberman, and Sirmans got exhausted and distracted and lost track of their central theme. Nicole Cherubini’s baroque ceramic work, “A Pair of G-Pots with Lions” (2005), festooned with jewelry and fur, is clever, sexy, and indulgent, but little more. The stacks of prescription pill bottles in Jean Shin’s “Chemical Balance” (2005) are intriguing—it is amusing and depressing to read the labels on the bottles and think about the vast array of pharmaceuticals people take to stave off death and insanity—but the point is obvious and has been made often. Jessica Jackson Hutchins’ “Death Shroud for Us” (2005), a black papier-mâché shroud propped up off the floor by a wood pole, should have some post-9/11, post-Afghanistan, post-war in Iraq resonance, but it remains inert, unable to reach beyond its form.
That said, Klara Hobza’s video documentation of a light performance she did in SculptureCenter’s clerestory, titled “Morse Communication (An Improved Attempt)” (2005), is the only work in Make It Now that really explores sculpture as something that can be time based. Hobza rigged the clerestory with tens of thousands of volts worth of high intensity lights, and, sitting at a control board surrounded by masses of electrical wires, she banged out blinding messages that could be seen miles away. I have no idea what the message is, or whether there is any at all, but it has a desperate, blazing ferocity that is raw and defiant. “More Communication (An Improved Attempt)” is a reminder that we live in a political context in which public discourse has become impotent. It probably doesn’t matter whether better forms of communication are attempted, or how stark and bright the message.
Make monuments now. Make pedestals now. Make turntables now. Make puppets now. The “now” in Make It Now is important because it implies an extemporaneous, improvisatory hurry—make it now with whatever you have at hand. The strength of Make It Now is in its emphasis on the act of making—not process, not conceptual procedure, not virtuosic skill, but making. The best work in this show is urgent, immediate, and slyly sophisticated. It acknowledges the three-dimensional physicality of its chosen medium without devolving into purely formal investigations, and it maneuvers between the subjective presence of the artist’s hand and the fact that, to paraphrase the title of Gedi Sibony’s piece, art is constructed completely of things taken from the world. We live in a world that is increasingly buried under the accumulating debris of its own history. It is inspiring to see that things can still be made, and that they can still speak.