Sunday, January 22nd, 2006

Thomas Hirschhorn: Superficial Engagement at Gladstone Gallery and Roxy Paine at James Cohan Gallery

Hirschhorn until February 11
515 W. 24th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-206-9300

Paine until February 25
533 W. 26th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-714-9500

Thomas Hirschhorn Superficial Engagement 2006 (installation view, Gladstone Gallery)  mixed media, dimensions vary  Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York. Photo: David Regen
Thomas Hirschhorn, Superficial Engagement 2006 (installation view, Gladstone Gallery) mixed media, dimensions vary Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York. Photo: David Regen

Thomas Hirschhorn and Roxy Paine, two sculptors with ambitious installations in Chelsea right now, might seem diametrically opposed in terms of sensibility, representing Dionysian and Apollonian extremes of anarchy and order, sloppiness and control. But they might equally be different branches of the same tree: They are united by dark visions of the opposition of the natural and the mechanical, humankind and the universe.

Mr. Hirschhorn’s sprawling installation at Gladstone, the Paris-based Swiss artist’s second with that gallery, is a kind of adolescent crap-fest, exuding the raw urgency and nonchalent makeshift of protest art. The obsessive-compulsive use of cheap, found materials also lends a whiff of outsider art to the project. In contrast, Brooklyn-based Mr. Paine’s sculptures are hi-tech and precisionist, impeccably crafted and sophisticated in their understanding of art-world issues. But his conception and execution are taken to such knowing extremes that Mr. Paine’s ingenuities have a similar nuttiness to the low-tech, trashy approach of Mr. Hirschhorn.

Mr. Hirschhorn’s installation, titled “Superficial Engagement,” is a bizarre cacophony of light and dark — literally and metaphorically. Arranged on four platforms that fill the gallery to bursting point, and seemingly pulled together in a hurry, they slap together imagery from incongruous sources: geometric and kinetic art from the 1960s, mangled corpses from the Iraqi conflict. Such a jarring juxtaposition of chirpy, optimistic art and gross, grim reality — at respective heighs of the abstract and the visceral — suggests a collision of the artist’s own values and intentions. He oscillates between irony and angst, whimsy and agitprop.

This seems at first to be a phantasmagoric overload of ideas and things. But there is method in the madness. The gruesome war images, culled from the Internet and printed with an indignant sense of the provisional, dwell without remorse on battered and charred remains and body parts. A man dotes on the decapitated head of a friend or relative; a scorched torso lies on a roadside; an eviscerated groin spews mutilated innards.

The abstract art from the 1960s is represented in equally mediated form: photocopies of magazine articles; spiral motifs printed on CD-cases; battered, worn-out monitors with fading screen savers. Printed images, whether of art or war, are scotch-taped to old planks or scraps of carton.

Another motif running through the installation is nails. These occupy an ambiguous space between war and abstraction, destruction and repair. Buckets of nails and hammers and drills seem to invite intrepid viewers to leave their mark. (I heard the drill going at one point.) Nails crowd into horizontal planks, logs, and mannequins. In the planks they have a purely formal elegance, recalling the constructivist art of the Brazillian Jesus Rafael Soto. On the mannequins, by contrast, they have a menacing, surreal mystery. This brings African sculpture to mind, of which there is actually an example included, an incongruous addition to an otherwise detritus-only mix.

Although the juxtapositions are too extreme to mean anything obvious, the work has the energy of propaganda. But what ideology does this art actually serve?

The answer lies, perhaps, in one other ingredient. Obvioulsy of personal importance to the artist, though a buried clue, visually, is a text about the life and times of the Swiss medium, healer, and researcher Emma Kunz (1892–1963), presented on a makeshift lectern in front of one of the stage sets. Some of the childlike geometric patterns transpire to be copies of her visionary designs.

This interest in art as psychic healing (recalling Joseph Beuys) adds an earnest, spiritual dimension to Mr. Hirschhorn’s otherwise bewilderingly indulgent collision of purist abstraction and gruesome reportage. It might prove too obscure a hint of idealism, however, to redeem the work of its puerile addiction to the macabre and the scatological.

Roxy Paine Weed Choked Garden 2005 (detail) thermoset plastic, polymer, oil paint, PETG, stainless steel, lacquer, epoxy, pigment, 63 x 139 x 69.5 inches Courtesy James Cohan Gallery
Roxy Paine, Weed Choked Garden 2005 (detail) thermoset plastic, polymer, oil paint, PETG, stainless steel, lacquer, epoxy, pigment, 63 x 139 x 69.5 inches Courtesy James Cohan Gallery

The collision of the mechanical and the organic in Mr. Paine’s work is a kind of theater of the absurd on par with Mr. Hirschhorn’s schoolboy dada. Mr. Paine is probably best known, since the 2002 Whitney Biennial, for his steel trees, fabricated with precision not just to look but to “work” like actual, growing trees. But he first came to art-world attention with two bodies of work: hyperrealistic synthetic representations of mushrooms, and madcap machines for making art where a canvas would be robotically lowered into a vat of paint following computerized instructions.

Mr. Paine has moved on from a deconstruction of artistic creativity to a reconstruction of geological process. It’s as if he were saying, having debunked art, let’s take on God.

“Erosion Machine” (2005) uses a manically efficient factory setup of a computer, robotics, and compressor and vacuum devices to program the controlled erosion of a block of sandstone. The erosion takes place within a sealed glass vitrine. Every so often the robot sets to work, blasting the stone according to a program that follows an arbitrarily chosen but purposive set of data — the weather reports in Bridgehampton in the summer of 1990.

Another kinetic sculpture, “Unexplained Object” (2005), also works according to arcane data. A canvas tent that wobbles around as if a couple were making love inside turns out to be programmed by a Geiger counter that records, in actual time, levels of radioactivity in the environment. Again, the Paine principle is to create a simple but enigmatic effect from complex but efficient information.

Another sculpture — this one in the mold of his mushrooms — is “Weed Choked Garden” (1998–2005), a lovingly literal representation in synthetic materials of a rotting vegetable patch. In a back gallery is blown-up piece of head cheese, also in resins and plastics. A final work underscores the artist’s pessimism: “Bad Planet” (2005), a gruesomely blotchy, uninhabitable orb with a diameter of 5 feet. It looks like a hapless planet from “The Little Prince,” about to implode from its own inner corruption.

It is an impressively crafted work, but like the rest of this exhibition it is unlikely to evoke much by way of fear or awe. Too pretty looking, conceptually neat, and merely bemusing for the sublime nihilism they intimate, Mr. Paine’s artworks offer a kind of Madame Tussaud’s experience for the artworld.

A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, January 19, 2006