GREENE NAFTALI | FEBRUARY 28 – MARCH 30, 2013
Kinetic art icon Gianni Colombo’s first solo exhibition in the United States has landed at Greene Naftali, 20 years after the artist’s death. The show focuses on Colombo’s production between 1953 and 1975, tactile and participatory works that the gallery kindly but sternly reminds us “NOT TO TOUCH” (in spite of the original intention of each piece).
Upon entering the space from the man-operated elevator—yes, this gallery is tucked away high in a building like a secret—I was slapped in the face by the distinct and overwhelming odor of some sort of rubber or plastic. Colombo’s “Bariestesia delle scale” (1974-1975) is the source of this olfactory salutation. The piece dominates the central gallery space in the form of two immensely wide and oddly skewed shiny black, rubbery-looking staircases leading up and then down a few steps, appearing as though they had been ripped directly from some sort of Dr. Seuss landscape. As I circumnavigated the gallery, examining a pulsating panel of Styrofoam rectangles, like giant novelty piano keys bobbing on the sea (“Strutturazione Pulsante,” 1959), and a mysteriously undulating fiber panel under Plexiglas, like a vaguely haunted blanket moving just a touch too mechanically to be organic (“Superficie in Variazione,” 1959), I was struck by the gentle hum and clang of gears. Colombo’s mechanical works move unobtrusively and almost imperceptibly, until the somehow sinister grinding and unyielding “work” of the underlying metallic parts announces the artist’s hand beneath the surface.
The exhibition includes a number of pieces built for manipulation by the viewer, yet we are reminded repeatedly not to touch the art. Midway through my visit, a small group entered the gallery and was greeted warmly by an employee. Their tour involved a great deal of touching the art. I learned, through these patrons, that “Constellazione Intermutabile” (1958), a short sculpture with a series of ceramic rings encasing a slim, metal rod, was meant to be touched. “He wanted his works to be alive,” commented the gallery employee as one woman watched the piece sway from her touch. The group then walked up and down the black stairs of “Bariestesia”, which creaked and almost seemed to sway. I watched them from beneath “Spazio Elastico. Quadrati che si muovono” (1967), two steel cube-frames that moved and shifted jerkily with the simple force of what the information card called “electromechanical animation,” but which to me sounded like a soft horror symphony played on quiet, un-tuned violins. The gallery employee led the visiting group in a discussion about how Colombo’s construction interrupts the usual expectations of the experience of walking up and down stairs, how they needed to brace their bodies differently, and how they felt more aware of their feet and the structure. And I stood inert underneath a steel cage that churned agonizingly above me.
The experience of the gallery as uninhabitable space is a common one, I suppose, just as is the experience of art as foreign or unapproachable—either physically (in this case) or intellectually. When I was an undergraduate studying film and video art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the first film that really challenged my understanding of the medium was “T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G” (1968) by Paul Sharits. In 2011, as a graduate student studying art education, I had the opportunity to bring a group of high school art students to Greene Naftali to experience Sharits’s work (and this gallery space). After I shook myself of the distracted giddiness of being in the same room as Sharits’s booming, bubbling “3rd Degree” (1982), I noticed the students clinging to me more than usual. “What do we do?” They were hesitant to step behind black curtains and enter dark rooms, uncomfortable with picking a distance from which to observe the pieces suspended from the ceiling. These were students who, on their very first visit to an art gallery, quite assuredly splayed out on the floor of Larry Gagosian’s space on 24th Street to make torn paper collages inspired by Richard Serra’s “Junction” (2011) and “Cycle” (2010), tossing out thoughts on what they supposed Serra intended with his giant, cresting metal shapes (skate park?). But somehow, the Sharits show stunned them into a herd of timid creatures stuck to my side, offering criticism on the blander side: “Why… is… this… so… weird?” Ultimately, they explained, the space itself was jarring: an elevator operator? A space accessible only by elevator? A dark room behind a curtain?
From an early age, we are taught not to wander into random doors that don’t say, “COME IN! WE’RE OPEN! YOU BELONG HERE!” We are taught not to approach art—anyone who has visited a museum can attest to this—as enforced by guards, velvet ropes, and lines on the floor. When these social cues are missing, to proceed seems daunting, and when the rules seem different for different people—well, it can certainly be frustrating to negotiate spaces that aren’t quite museums but aren’t quite stores and that seem so full of unspoken guidelines. Gagosian feels a lot like a museum, but Greene Naftali is an odd place for the uninitiated, who don’t know that you can barge into any gallery and walk up to any old artwork and have your own thoughts, even if there aren’t guards or posted information. As a high school art student in Omaha, Nebraska, I was not exactly surrounded by blue chip galleries and avant-garde exhibitions, so I can’t pretend that the 17-year-old me would have strolled confidently and coolly behind a heavy black curtain into the blaring noise and flickering colors that day at the Sharits show. I know that standing beneath Colombo’s creaking metal cubes, watching the “real patrons” experience the art as it was intended, I felt as detached and unwelcome an outsider to the gallery as my students seemed to have felt in their teenaged skin, wondering why this all was so weird. Yet when those more privileged patrons finally departed, I remained, drawing conclusions about the meaning of Colombo’s work that were not gently handed to me by the sweet, smiling gallery employee. I wasn’t allowed to touch anything, but perhaps I left with a richer rubbery-scented, creaky-symphony experience. Weird.
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ContributorGail Victoria Braddock Quagliata