Thursday, August 17th, 2006

Public Art

Josie Robertson Plaza (Lincoln Center) until September 4
Broadway, between 62nd and 65th Streets

Paul Kasmin Gallery until August 18
511 W. 27th Street between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-563-4474

70 Washington Street, permanently installed
between Front and York, 718-222-5555

Lever House until August 26
390 Park Avenue between 53 and 54 Streets

Nancy Rubins Big Pleasure Point 2006 installed at Lincoln Center
Nancy Rubins, Big Pleasure Point 2006 installed at Lincoln Center

New Yorkers who forgo the pleasures of the seashore to remain in the city for the Mostly Mozart festival this summer might feel that Nancy Rubins’s exuberant sculpture, “Big Pleasure Point,” installed by the Public Art Fund at Lincoln Center, is making gentle fun of their decision.

The sculpture is constructed from a mass of old boats, canoes, kyacks and other light vessels, ingeniously suspended overhead on a steel column and held in place by suspension wires.  Mingling with the sounds of the nearby fountain, the second-hand boats, many salvaged from the Pleasure Point Marina in Big Bear Lake, Southern California, and still bearing the rental imprint on their hulls, seem actually to have that faint summery smell of salt and sand.  The cumulative effect kinaesthetically puts you in mind of the beach.

Surreally stranded vessels could have sinister associations.  After viewing Al Gore’s movie, “An Inconvenient Truth,” with its predictions of a submerged Manhattan, “Big Pleasure Point” could be interpreted as a grim prophecy.  Boats thrown into the air might have had the same out of element sense of the forlorn fishing fleets on the dried-out North Aral Sea in Kazakstan.

But actually, the connotations of Ms. Rubins’s sculpture are all light and airy, chirpy and positive.  The overall structure is birdlike, with the mass of individual boats reading like feathers.  A similar mood pervades her delightful, oversized collages on the same theme as the sculpture, on view at Chelsea’s Paul Kasmin Gallery.  The boats read like spiky petals on an exotic flower.  This sunny disposition epitomizes California, you might think, but actually, it is at odds with the connotations, alike, of bricolage, her chosen sculptural method, and with the style and temper of the Californian avantgarde, of which she is very much part.

Ms. Rubins is married to the veteran performance artist Chris Burden (most famous for having himself shot) and together they taught for over twenty years at the UCLA art department, resigning when a student mimicked Mr. Burden’s firearm antics in class.  Californian artists from Edward Kienholz to Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy have used appropriated, cast off materials to cast a dark view of life.

Ms. Rubins has used industrial and commercial goods throughout her career, but to different aesthetic ends.  She maintains the look, shape, and feel of her chosen objects without inheriting their psychological or political baggage.  The results are as much, therefore, of an iconographic as a physical balancing act.  Connotations of waste, loss, lack of control, disaster even, are there, but held in check.  It is as if the sculpture cries out “Hold that thought,” and supplies other, more felicitous, abstract senstations of flight, pleasure, bouncing around.

“Big Pleasure Point” is a feat of engineering.  In the dense cluster of dozens of vessels, each craft retains its totality.  There isn’t the sadistic crushing you get in the violins of the late Arman, for instance, or the mangled corpses of John Chamberlain’s assemblages of auto parts.  This rentention of wholeness in the midst of displacement, collision, a cacophany of concaves and convexes lends the work a musically satisfying complexity.

Ms. Rubins takes her boats at they come: Neither tarted up nor neutralized, they are a like an unaffectedly natural floral arrangement in their mix of brash, synthetic plastics (red, torquoise), pleasingly distressed painted woods, trade logos (“Malibu Two XL”), and harbor registrations. Her aesthetic is one of robust clarity: there is an exhilerating mass of detail and clustering of effects, but everything remains clean, legible, apparent. It is skilfully engineered, but you can see how everything is done, the soldering of the supporting diagonal column, the wires holding everything together.  With ABT and Mostly Mozart at hand, the sculpture is shot through with a bracing, sprighly discipline.  Lots of fast notes, but a clear structure, a clean legato, a consistent mood.  Bravo.

Helen Brough Emulated Flora 2006 installed at 70 Washington Street
Helen Brough, Emulated Flora 2006 installed at 70 Washington Street

Every morning I walk my dog through Washington Square Village, the Corbusian 1960s NYU housing complex, noting progress on a program of renovations.  Sunken, vaguely Zen Garden-ish centerpieces in each lobby have been ripped out and replaced by level tiled flooring, a triumph for practicality over period charm.  Whether this original “feature” had been an architect’s indulgence or a handsomely rewarded sculptural commission, it is lost to art history, mourned or not.

Some might argue it never belonged to art history—it was merely décor.  But the fate of intentional artworks are no better assured when they are permanently installed, site specific schemes.  Public art in private places has tricky status: It can seem by sheer quality and charisma to be fated for longevity, but one has only to think of Jorge Pardo’s exquisite 2004 bookstore for Dia.  Soon after completion the museum closed up its Chelsea operation (they plan to relocate to the Meatpacking District.)  It isn’t just vita that’s brevis.

While it recalls Mr. Pardo’s work in its spritely verve, there are no melancholy thoughts in relation to artist Helen Brough’s sculptural installation, “Emulated Flora,” which was completed in May for the new condominium conversion of 70 Washington Street, a sprawling block wide warehouse in DUMBO.   This at once zestful and restful lobby decoration is a hit with children, an important factor according to the building’s owner, David Walentas.  I ran into him in on the day I went to inspect his lobby and he pointed out that every tenant has two children and two dogs.  The children loved the colored shapes immediately, he said, whereas some parents only came around gradually.

Ms. Brough (b.1966) had been a participant of the Triangle Artists’ Workshop’s first residency program, generousy hosted by Mr. Walentas at 70 Washington before renovations began.  This makes “Emulated Flora” a rare, happy link between the artists who helped put the neighborhood on the map and the affluent residents basking in its upward transformation.  If the suspended elements only moved a bit it would be a mobile for the socially mobile.

The work consists of dozens of laser-cut Plexiglas shapes—in a variety of colors and arranged in parallel lines—that are suspended from, or bolted to, a mirrored ceiling.  Some of the shapes are also themselves cut from sheets of mirror.  From the street, and then more intensely within the lobby, one senses row upon row of translucent plastic, curvaceous shape, and chirpy, soft, nursery color.  The layering puts you in mind of rows of scenery in a theatre’s eaves.  The mirroring doubles the perceived depth of the work, giving a soaring sensation of light and color above.

This sounds cathedral like, with the connotations of elevated vaults and stained glass, but actually the feeling is anything but solemn.  On the contrary, a festive vibe—somewhere  between science fair and nightclub—arises from a shape vocabularly which is sensuous and hi-tech at the same time.  The irregular, fluent shapes recall the floral motifs in Matisse’s cutouts, Arp’s biomorphic forms, and molded French Curve geometry sets.

The often punctured piece also look like painters’ palettes.  This together with the sense of overlapping pools of color gives the installation a painterly feel.  A tilted mirror about the reception desk composes cropped, oblique views of the piece in crisp reflection.  But part of the charm of this distinctive yet unobtrusive work is that it expands the space, filling it with a generalized major-key mood, rather than imposing specific meaning or asking to be looked at in sculptural terms.  It works best subliminally and on the move.

EV Day Bride Fight 2006 installed at Lever House
EV Day, Bride Fight 2006 installed at Lever House

Ms. Brough’s vaguely retro look would work perfectly in a steel and glass corporate headquarters.  At Gordon Bunshaft’s Lever House on Park Avenue, however, the new owners have their ideas about art and architecture.  Aby Rosen, of RFR Holding, completed a renovation last year of this classic 1952 building and initiated a series of site specific installations for the lobby and courtyard, which after their alloted run enter the Lever House Collection, which is curated by Richard Marshall.

A 63 foot high Damien Hirst sculpture is somewhat bizarrely placed in the Isamu Noguchi garden (resurrected from an abandoned scheme commissioned by Bunshaft).  In painted bronze, the work depicts a standing figure of a naked young woman (her face and pose recall Degas’s Little Dancer) whose skin is demonstratively cut away from her right thigh to the right half of crown to reveal muscle, skull, and her pregnancy.

A theme of stripped virginity is taken up in the vitrine-like lobby where E.V. Day’s “Bride Fight” (2006) gives new meaning to the phrase “window dressing”.  Also on view, and consonate with Mr. Hirst’s medicalia, are three of her “clam and tongue” sculptures, gruesomely precisionist renderings of human tongues on clam shells, pierced by oysters and mounted on crumpled black velvet in steel and glass display cases.

“Bride Fight”, which could equally have been called “Bridezilla,” is an exhilerating tour de force of camp theatricality evoking Japanese animé and an array of other art historical sources.  Ms. Day has deconstructed two bridal gowns and accessories to depict a ferocious catfight, although it is tulle, silk and lace rather than fur that is flying.  Ingeniously, the couture fragments are held in place in an elaborate choreography by suspended fishing tackle suspended between floor and ceiling by metal hardware.   Inside the Marilyn-style puffed up skirt of one bride are a pair of pink, full bodied panties, while her adversary, whose dress is the more shredded, opts for a skimpier white number with torquoise garters.  Suspended between the pair and stretched lace gloves.

The title inevitably recalls Duchamp’s “Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even” (also known as the “Large Glass”) (1915-23) although here the brides manage without male intervention.  Formally speaking, the work evokes Abstract Expressionism in its “all-over” web of line and shape.  It creates a tight, dynamic gestalt.  But while it is fun to marvel at its ingenius construction and witty craft, the work is actually best enjoyed sweeping by at night in a taxi, when it is dramatically lit.  The experience then becomes cinematic rather than sculptural, as the props bounce into action.

Versions of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, July 13 and August 17, 2006.