Powders, a Phial, and a Paper Book


Victor Pasmore, “A Line from the Tune of Swanee River” (1987). Paint on canvas and board.
Victor Pasmore, “A Line from the Tune of Swanee River” (1987). Paint on canvas and board.

Looking beyond the literal connection between the materials utilized in Powders, a Phial, and a Paper Book, a group show at Marlborough, Chelsea, and the exhibition’s titular references to The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, it is the dated milieu of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel that most clearly resonates with the odd feel of this exhibition. The book’s dank, Victorian environment of gas-lamp lined streets, smoking chimneys, and candle-lit interiors forms a quaint backdrop for the 19th century tale: the protagonist’s ultimately failed attempt to rid himself of the base animal instincts he associates with the root of evil. (The mystery rewards a re-reading, especially Dr. Jekyll’s final confessional detailing his torturously dueling perspective.) Similarly, the oft-uneven installation, characterized by casual placement and a misdirected alignment of the exhibition’s Minimalist (and Minimalist-inspired) sculptures and paintings, functions as a shopworn backward glance. There are, however, many individually striking pieces in the show, including Keith Sonnier’s telegraphic neon wall-relief, “Wall Slash, II” from 1988, and Victor Pasmore’s improbably constructed and perfectly tuned paintings from the late 1980s on canvas and wood.

Stranger than the transformation of Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde, however, is Marlborough’s allusion to the story using Minimalist artworks as puppets. In his literary work, Stevenson emphasizes the role of the body in our perception of good and evil. This idea can be linked to the motivations of pioneering Minimalist artists such as Richard Serra, who claimed his monumental metal sculptures should be understood “immediately [and] physically, by your body.” It therefore makes sense to think about the materials and even the aesthetic of the Minimalist movement in connection with the novel, but what the exhibition ultimately lacks is the carefully considered execution of such ideas. While one can sense the core relationship in Carl Andre’s, “Pentaherm” (1997), a Balkenkreuz-shaped pedestal of eastern pine blocks, its haphazard placement “somewhere” in the large main gallery dilutes the work’s impact. Ethan Greenbaum’s humbly prominent, Crayola-mortared concrete block wall, “Untitled” (2010), also reads corporally through its scale and dimension. Using sculptures to make a stage set, however, undermines their power to invoke as individual artworks; the location of Greenbaum’s piece superficially alludes to Dr. Jekyll’s bisected house, with the placement of Vlatka Horvat’s, ”Ladder” (2009), positioned above, weakly pantomiming the doctor’s comings and goings between both parts.

Highlighting a pivotal moment in the book—Dr. Jekyll’s increasingly unpredictable transformations—the protagonist desperately implores his colleague, Dr. Landon, to help him regain control of his ability to choose which of the two chemically-induced selves he would become, a feat achieved by fetching the items listed in the show’s title. The materials of the artworks in the exhibition, such as encaustic, neon coils, velvet powder, paper envelopes, and marble, connect with the aesthetic implied by the basic chem-lab toolkit Dr. Jekyll demands. The gallery’s statement claims that Stevenson did not reveal the exact nature of Dr. Jekyll’s transformative prescriptions, and likewise, that “the objects and elements used by the artists in this exhibition have also undergone a myriad of transformations, while their processes maintain the same degree of ambiguity.” This statement reveals another curatorial misstep; there is no ambiguity in the artist’s processes, they are all there for the reading. The pleasure of decoding Talia Chetrit’s beautiful studio-bound silver gelatin prints resides in the fine distinctions she makes in her photographic processes. Transforming possibilities for physical access, Vlatka Horvat’s “Ladder” cuts clean lines of welded steel and cast shadow.

The show evades Stevenson’s core message, which is grounded in the linking of physical form and consciousness. A starker, more calculating placement and selection of work would be necessary to evoke Jekyll’s final heart-wrenching surrender to evil, and more pointedly, the connection between his story and ours. By becoming ape-like, base, a haunting conclusion warns us all. Ultimately, Powders, a Phial, and a Paper Book functions successfully as an illustration of transformation, but suffers in comparison to Stevenson’s literary delivery.


APR 2011

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