Michael Steinberg Fine Art March 21 – April 26, 2008
Remember Julie Christie in the weirdly creepy cult classic, Demon Seed (1977), where a computer named Proteus falls in love with her, holds her prisoner, and impregnates her? At the end of the film, the child born of this union speaks in the computer’s voice: “I’m alive.” Something of that porousness between machine and human is to be found in Lydia Dona’s most recent exhibition, which consists of one large, three-panel painting (seven feet high and sixteen feet wide) and four prints. The ostensible subject is what lies behind the surface of upscale, urban lives, the designer-perfect condos that are part of New York City’s building boom, which, if you have looked up Sixth Avenue recently, doesn’t appear to be slowing down. A selling point for a building under construction in Chelsea is that it comes with individual elevators so you can park your car outside your door, even if you live on the third floor. Richard Meier is now called a “starchitecht.” Look at the real estate ads, and what you learn is that everything is about displaying the right balance of wealth and taste. Minimalist ostentation goes a long way these days, and the goal for many seems to be to conduct their lives as if they were the topic of a magazine article on the immaculate taste of a perfect family living a spotless life. Some might call this desired lifestyle the simulacrum, but that gives too much credit to the virtues of superficiality and selfishness.
From Heat To Sub-Zero, the title of Dona’s large, three-panel painting, evokes the perfect kitchen, complete with marble countertops and the must-have item for every urban sophisticate’s kitchen: a Sub-Zero dual refrigeration system, often with a self-contained wine storage unit. The outer panels have the prevailing tones of copper on the far left and grayish-silver on the far right, while the middle panel is copper in the upper half and bilious green (or weathered copper) in the lower half. Layered over the grounds are diagrammatic views of machines, hoses, plugs, a meandering orange line (exactly the same color as the industrial electric cord you see at every interior building site), and areas of smeared oil paint, as if it leaked onto the surface. In addition, in the right panel, Dona has made diagrammatic vertical and horizontal lines that evoke the painting’s stretcher bars, highlighting the fact that a painting is also a construction site. By refusing to make a tight, uniform surface, the artist reminds us that painting is a messy business that, contrary to many of her peers, need not deny this aspect of its materiality. Art doesn’t have to become a spotless mirror (as in Jeff Koons’ paintings) held up for preening collectors, unless you believe mutual narcissism is a worthwhile goal.
Emphasizing the contours of household appliances and internal combustion engines, but not their substance or interiors (a distinction that is important to the artist’s project), the plugs, wires, and machine parts become signs and symbols of the eroticized body. While a number of observers have pointed out a connection between Dona’s diagrammatic images and Picabia’s mecanomorphic paintings and the role of machines in Duchamp’s Large Glass, it seems to me that she has let the grittiness back in. Picabia and Duchamp tended to be pristine and precise, while Dona’s paintings embrace a state of disorder that strikes me as being the result of what the painting demanded and the artist’s insights. Decay and entropy lie behind every surface, even that of the shiny Sub-Zero refrigerator. Dona’s diagrammatic machines are a rejoinder to the masculinity we associate with industry and with Picabia and Duchamp. But more crucial than being a rejoinder to Picabia and Duchamp, Dona answers the charge that abstraction cut itself off from the realm of human affairs and no longer could address modern life, which is transitory and contingent. (Aren’t the curators of the Whitney Biennial implicitly supporting that charge by including the paintings of Olivier Mossett in their exhibition?)
Dona’s machines are hybrid forms, both male and female, phallic and full of orifices. They seem to be depicted upside-down, with their hoses and plugs uncoupled. There is something pathetic about them. In the areas where the imagery is densely layered, everything exists in its own isolated realm. Nothing connects with anything else. And yet, the painting isn’t heavy-handed, like so much non-painting agitprop we see these days. In choosing to show one painting, Dona wants to shift attention to the work itself rather than display the amount of production she has managed to achieve since her last exhibition. From Heat To Sub-Zero evokes what precedes as well as what awaits the perfect kitchen and the lives of its perfect owners. An emblem of utopian domestic life finally gets its comeuppance, and not a moment too soon.