Night Gallery, Los Angeles | May 24 – June, 28, 2014
Jo Nigoghossian’s four new sculptures crouch together at one end of a hallway-like space in Night Gallery, just east of L.A.’s downtown. They are made of black steel: strips of sheet metal, tubing, and channel curve and twist into industrial hybrids of inanimate objects and expressive creatures. At points, gels of urethane rubber ooze through crevices like exposed organs. Perhaps hibernating or perhaps injured, this is a family of iron beasts. Two highlights of neon spark these dark beings like horrible eyes.
These, however, are no Hollywood monsters, though one might initially think of apocalyptic wreckage or the Terminator franchise, where even the most pummeled machine still has energy to destroy. Instead, Nigoghossian’s work is closer in spirit to Max Ernst, whose machines were menacing without being romantic, foreboding because their forms were based on the very engines and structures that killed so many in World War I. For Ernst, the optimism of the industrial age collided with the reality of what the world’s expanded capacity for power could mean, and Nigoghossian extends this thinking to the present.
In fact, one gets the sense that Nigoghossian’s iron monsters are not just referencing Ernst but instead are somehow Ernst’s machines. Nigoghossian’s sculptures are lurking bits of darkness that still sleep in the shadows, a violence that cannot be undone and continues to stain the present. These sculptures feel old, confident as though from a less ironic and far more unapologetically expressive age. These iron constructions seem wise but also unwilling to get specific about where their wounds come from.
To pull off these effects, Nigoghossian, strangely, mines the work of Anthony Caro, known more for his ability to use materials as materials, rather than materials as metaphor for social content. In “Larger crawler, amber, with cuff” (2014), Caro’s method is most apparent: something quite ordinary, a stool or small bench, is employed to give the viewer a basis for interaction with the work, and subsequently, this basis is changed, overrun, and stacked with extra material. “Larger crawler,” in Caro’s manner, moves from stool to insect to machine and back again, each element suggestively pushing associations in multiple directions. In this way, Nigoghossian places the insect, the hidden creature, on the edge of your mind and calls it forth when needed.
“Ball with scratches” (2014) is a similar changeling, hanging from the ceiling like an engine just wrenched from the inside of a destroyed vehicle but also resembling a brain or perhaps an exploding star. This hanging center of the exhibition is a torqued and twisted heap of metal, making Nigoghossian’s use of the word “scratches” almost comical, like saying a torched city needs a paint job. As one walks around the work, it is at times dense and opaque, at other times as fragile and empty as a molted exoskeleton.
Another creature, “Ball with scratches” is along the lines of Kafka’s Odradek, a strange being inhabiting the dark corners of stairways and hanging in the shadows. The Odradek doesn’t say much and is full of “laughter as only one without lungs can produce.” Nigoghossian’s machines are our machines, though the reason for their creation is unclear. All we know for sure is that they have a strange afterlife, a terrible immortality destined to outlive us. These sculptures have all the force of a sin returning from a forgotten place, arriving like a long shadow at the end of day. We can’t help but be anxious that night may come again.
Ed Schad's writing has been included in Art Review, Frieze, Modern Painters, Flash Art, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. His blog www.icallitORANGES.blogspot.com contains most of his writing and will re-boot with a new design later this year. Ed is also Assistant Curator at The Broad Art Foundation in Los Angeles and is working hard towards the 2015 opening of The Broad, a new contemporary art museum in downtown Los Angeles.