This Is Not A Propby Nina Wolpow
DAVID ZWIRNER | JUNE 27 - AUGUST 3, 2018
In 1993, David Zwirner opened his first gallery on Greene Street in SoHo with a solo show of the Austrian sculptor Franz West. The 47-year-old artist produced papier-mâché objects he called Passstücke, a German portmanteau meaning “fitting pieces.” Because of the myriad ways the Passstücke could and were meant to be handled, the art world began to refer to them as “Adaptives.”
This summer, West (whose estate Zwirner acquired this year) is the inspiration for This Is Not A Prop curated by two 26-year-olds who work at Zwirner: Alec Smyth and Cristina Vere Nicoll. As Smyth puts it, “In a way, [West] embodies the ethos of the gallery, which has always been to show artists that are surprising and exciting and weird and doing something outside of what you would normally think of as art.”
Not A Prop features work by fourteen artists, but only three —Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Wolfgang Tillmans, and West—are represented by Zwirner. The curators consciously selected young artists, early in their careers, who have worked with smaller galleries, or do not have representation in New York at all.
Surprisingly, West’s work first confounded Smyth, but in studying it, he and Vere Nicoll came to the understanding that, as artworks, the Passstücke existed in “the liminal space between body and object.” In other words, the curators found that the interactive elements of West’s creations allowed them to exist as umbilical cords between the viewer and the work; as an extension of the artist’s body. Thus, in moving forward, Smyth and Vere Nicoll sought artists with a similar impetus, but from a different generation, artists who might relate to West fundamentally, or transitively by demonstrating a shared interest in the human body.
“We found almost the exact same reaction from every single artist we reached out to, which was that they felt that Franz’s practice was so instrumental to who they are and what they wanted to make,” says Smyth. One of these was Alex Da Corte, a Philadelphia-based multimedia artist whose 2017 installation at Vienna’s Secession generated significant press. Da Corte agreed to bring Slow Graffiti (2017) a shot-by-shot remake of Jorgen Leth’s The Perfect Human (1967), with Da Corte standing in for both actors and dressed as Frankenstein. The 13-minute film was the Secession show’s centerpiece, and would have been the highlight of This is Not A Prop, if it were not for the acoustics: unfortunately Da Corte’s voice, fashioned into a soft British accent, is distorted and lost in the immense viewing room.
Among the freshest and most exciting pieces in the show were works by three young artists: Hannah Levy, Oren Pinhassi, and Christina Quarles. With only a few months notice, as planning for the exhibition began in January, Levy, Pinhassi, and Quarles managed to contribute new works made exclusively for their debuts at Zwirner.
Hannah Levy’s Untitled (2017), is a structure that looks like an upside-down whisk from which a silicone harness (reminiscent of a baby swing) is hung, with a zipper at the crotch calling attention to the pelvis, the site of human production. The harness—a fleshly pink—is at once embryonic and hardcore, innocent and threatening, like a Louise Bourgeois spider refashioned with kink on the mind; to get in it would be to simultaneously infantilize and sexualize oneself
In sight of Levy’s structure is Israeli-born artist Oren Pinhassi’s Springs (2018). Made of burlap-covered-steel, coated in plaster and sand, it is shaped like a chuppah, the canopy used to shelter a bride and groom in a Jewish wedding. But there’s a twist: he has slathered the structure’s glass windows with Vaseline in a nod to gay hook up culture (one of Pinhassi’s central themes). Looking through the viscous substance, one participates in a thinly veiled exhibitionism as one’s view is warped and disturbed, resulting in a sense of semi-privacy that is as unnerving as it is erotic. Simultaneously architectural and organic, the placement of Levy’s and Pinhassi’s pieces near one another puts them in conversation, like strangers who are in on the same secret.
Quarles’ technicolor Fell To Earth (Felt To Pieces) (2018) is the only painting in the show. It depicts two androgynous peach-colored figures sitting together on a grass-green plane. In the background, the sky is an electric blue gradient, dotted with pill-shaped clouds. As a light skinned artist who identifies as Black but is often mistaken as white, Quarles is interested in visual ambiguity: what we think we are seeing is not necessarily what is there. Her figures are disembodied in a Cubist style, but more sinewy than angular. They are indefinite and ineffable, rather than distinct. Quarles asks the viewer to reevaluate the very nature of the human form. Such a connection—between artist, object, and viewer—is the sort that West’s “Adaptives” positioned in the middle of the show’s main room are after.
There is 2625 (1991/1999), an installation in three parts—two chairs and a suspended-lantern like sculpture—as well as two facsimiles of clubs that visitors can pick up, play with, and return. Sharing the space with such lively and passionate work as Levy’s, Pinhassi’s, and Quarles’s, West’s all-white work seemed somewhat lapsed and referential, the way an old blueprint might when framed and hung on the wall of a renovation—still important, and foundational, just tired.
As strong as this show is, there is a disappointing dearth of women artists on the roster—only three of fourteen. On the other hand, the show features work by three transgender artists—Jonah Groeneboer, the photographer Elle Pérez, and the performance artist and sculptor Gordon Hall, which is three more than have ever entered Zwirner’s halls.
Though they acknowledged the importance of identity in art today, Smyth and Vere Nicoll insist that they did not set diversity quotas for the show. They believe that the outsider-nature of West’s project attracted artists who did not identify with main stream culture, and in fact felt “othered,” the way West did, originally, when introducing the world to his Passstücke.
Nina Wolpow is a writer in New York. She is pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. Her nonfiction work has been published by Vox, Refinery29, BuzzFeed, Teen Vogue, Rolling Stone, and Bon Appétit.