On ViewTanya Bonakdar Gallery
September 10– October 17, 2015
New York City
“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
On the first cool day of autumn, Sarah Sze walked me through her exhibit at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in Chelsea. In the moments before she appeared, I’d been looking at the new work, feeling a bit like Alice in a topsy-turvy place, bursting with questions. Many of the constructions in the large first-floor gallery space seemed to be unfinished—plywood planks propped casually against a ladder, fragile-looking sculptures consisting of metal rods embedded in rocks, armatures for scraps of assorted ephemera, and loose paint chips scattered about the floor. Were these ideas to be revisited? I wanted to know. Sze offered a Cheshire-Cat smile with her suitably oblique answer, likening the experience of seeing her art to meeting the main character of a book: someone you will, at the end of the story, understand in a new way. And she believes this is so because, as she put it, “We constantly reassess our experiences through the new lens of time.”
While exploring these sculptures, feeling somehow oddly included within them, it became clear that precariousness must have been much on Sze’s mind—part of an intentional effort to invest the gallery walk with the serendipitous hazards of an everyday walk, and to then stretch this very mortal experience to a sense of our existence in an unfathomably infinite universe as it roils in cataclysmic states of flux and change. And Sze deliciously serves up the mercurial nature of this exhaustive experience in art’s pared-down language, the basic elements of line, shape, color, and light as we experience them in different forms and in different kinds of spaces.
Mirror with Landscape Leaning (Fragment Series) (2015), for example, looks like a craftsperson’s work table upon which thin strips of acrylic paint—some dangling to the floor—are placed like threads waiting to be woven. A nearby mirror reflects another “line” hanging across the room, Long White Paint Hanging (Fragment Series) (2015). This construction takes the form of an enormous acrylic “brushstroke,” a sculptural-form-as-painting suspended from a wooden bar. Herein lie any number of two-way conversations—between line and form, two dimensions and three, painting and sculpture, and art object and art vehicle.
These formalist talking points assume visual drama on the gallery’s second floor with Hammock (2015). Suspended beneath a skylight, this inviting hammock shape consists of electric blue acrylic paint strips, similar to those seen on the table downstairs. These supple lines-as-sculpture, swinging from bars attached to the ceiling, offer no structural support and contrast with a series of strong vertical lines Sze has penciled along the surrounding walls which diagrammatically designate the placement of sturdy beams behind the sheetrock. Though the architectural lines bow to the hammock’s painterly lines as form, none of them are functional in any way whatsoever: they exist only as psychic and intuitive markers of what the mind’s eye imagines.
Sze’s genius lies in her ability to playfully orchestrate mutations of visual language in the service of serious themes. Many viewers, for example, at first blush dazzled by Measuring Stick (2015), one of this exhibition’s smaller installations, are apt to ask: “How do we value things?” or, “How do the things we value in our daily lives matter in the bigger scheme of things?” In this work Sze juxtaposes everyday natural and manufactured commodities—toilet paper, cantaloupes, soda cans, and bottles of water—within a forest of hanging mirror shards and images from the Voyager I 1977 NASA space probe that she’s projected on a small video screen. These elements dramatically play with proportion and scale: architectural constructions symbolizing knowledge, random reflections caught in mirrored light, and images beamed from outer space are scaled down to our size even though they are exponentially larger than what mere mortals can comprehend. These convergences conjure a Wonderland-like universe where viewers may imagine the unfathomable depths of celestial space like a youngster with a teddy bear, not needing to let go of all the comfortable and familiar trappings of everyday life.
This exhibition is sparer than many of Sze’s earlier shows, and may feel emptier (even sadder) for some, or more reflective and emotionally poignant for others. But, as Sze noted, her art is about reassessing experience through the lens of time, and she offers an opportunity for viewers to do so at every new turn throughout this exhibit. Empty Room Sound (2015), for example, a video projection that’s set behind a wall, consists of a spare typewritten message, the words of a blind man describing “love at first sound.” He speaks of subtle echoes in our environment—of how furniture sounds when it is removed from a room, of the “ssssss” of tires on a wet surface, and of the quiet of snowfall. “I don’t have vision in my thoughts,” the blind man writes. “It’s space, it’s sound, it’s touch.” After reading this, the impulse is to see this show anew, to revisit a now familiar place through Sze’s “new lens.” To do so is to reacquaint oneself with the transformations and permutations of the individual characters we meet along the way: the line that becomes the form that becomes the object that becomes the idea that gets us from here to there and the places in between.
JOYCE BECKENSTEIN is a writer living in New York.