Friday, August 29th, 2008

Phoebe Washburn: Locating Propriety in the Inappropriate

Zach Feuer Gallery until October 4
530 W24th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues, 212 989 7700

A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, August 22, 2008 under the heading “Locating Propriety in the Inappropriate”

Phoebe Washburn Tickle the Shitstem (detail), 2008 mixed media, overall dimensions variable Courtesy of Zach Feuer Galler
Phoebe Washburn, Tickle the Shitstem (detail), 2008 mixed media, overall dimensions variable Courtesy of Zach Feuer Galler

There is something appropriate in finding Zach Feuer Gallery open for business in mid-August with a Phoebe Washburn’s installation, when the rest of Chelsea is a ghost town. Seeing this Dadaistic riff on productivity in a gallery district that feels like the artistic equivalent of the rust belt cannot but accent an initial response to it. Almost every door on West 24th Street has notices of apology as galleries prep themselves for the relaunch of the season, after Labor Day.

Ms. Washburn’s sprawling, complex, decidedly nutty piece, “Tickling the Shitstem,” which is something of a “happening” in the old-fashioned sense, a work poised between sculpture and performance, is all about the foibles of an improvised production-line. Because it is a zany exploration of progress and decay, this is a work that, by its very nature, will unfold and only fully realize itself with the passage of time, when the built in failures inevitable in such as wacko system are bound to take effect.

By the time the art world throngs to the gallery for the delayed private view on September 4, therefore, the piece will have had a couple of weeks head start on its audience. This probably explains the odd choice of opening time for such a highflying young artist who, at 35, has already been the subject of solo exhibitions at the Berlin Guggenheim and UCLA’s Hammer Museum.

As you enter the gallery, you are confronted with what has become the trademark look of a Washburn piece: a shimmering surface of at first seemingly randomly knocked together 2-by-4s, appearing like a cross between panicked or lackluster carpentry and some outgrowth of nature. But this ramshackle first impression is deceptive, and this is a robust, if primitive seeming, workable structure. Turn the corner and you see that it houses a hive of industry — or to be more precise, commerce, as a pair of workers offer an odd mix of merchandise, in the form of unappetizing soft drinks, printed tee-shirts, and various inexplicable souvenirs whose enigma is their sole attraction.

Penetrate further into the gallery and another workstation presents itself, linked to the sales barn by various tubes and wires. There is a washing machine feeding a stepped arrangement of glass tanks, the top three of which are filled with brightly colored golf balls, and the last a hardy water plant. Off to one side, though again linked with hosing, is a big orange Igloo drinks cooler, filled with sand, and feeding a garbage bin over the top of which a dirt tee-shirt is stretched, attached with bright orange pegs that match the cooler and one tank of golf balls.

In a third space is a water feature, a fountain surrounded by garishly colored rolled up towels, once again linked to the goings on of the other elements of this playful factory. Such Heath Robinsonian ingenuity — everything works, but only just, and by the most circuitous and intentionally obtuse means — serves to underscore how, despite the efforts of Andy Warhol, “art” and “factory” are a contradiction in terms. A factory, after all, turns out something useful with streamlined efficiency, whereas art, as Oscar Wilde insisted, is by definition useless. The aesthetic experience, in fact, is what is exposed by inefficiency, in the cracks between expectation and actualization.

By now, the viewer is itching for explication which is at hand from the press release, or the salespeople back at the souvenir shop. The industry here revolves around the machine washing of found tee-shirts, and the management of the liquid waste emerging from that process. The stuff for sale — soft drinks of the same colors as the golf balls, the bottles to be filled afterwards by undrinkable waste liquids of the same colors — is secondary to the process of its own manufacture. In fact, the “shitstem,” as its name implies, conflates waste and productivity.

Faux-industriousness has a long pedigree in the Dada tradition, dating right back to Marcel Duchamp’s meditations on constellations of displaced mechanical objects (chocolate grinders being a favorite) in such works as “The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even” (1915–23). This proceeds via the twittery, jerky pointless-seeming machines of Jean Tinguely to Ms. Washburn’s neo-Dada contemporaries. These include the late Jason Rhoades, with his manically compulsive arrangements of appropriated detritus; Ms. Washburn’s stablemate at Zach Feuer, Danica Phelps, with whom she shares an obsession with color-coding; and the technophile absurdist Roxy Paine, with his elaborate machines for making art. Semantically close to the scatalogy of Ms. Washburn’s Shitstem is Wim Delvoye’s “Cloaca,” a super-elaborate machine that produces excrement.

But while there might be some shared intentions and values with these waste generators, with a humor tinged by ecology, Ms. Washburn’s aesthetic stands in contrast to that of Messrs. Paine and Delvoye in that it eschews mechanical streamlining to insist on a homey, hippy aesthetic of the handmade and pieced-together, recalling instead — though without the heavy handed moralizing — the not much fun fair aesthetic of the Swiss Thomas Hirschhorn. Another distinction of Ms. Washburn’s strategy, bringing her closer to the American installation artist Sarah Sze, is a willingness to create elaborate mechanisms in which an allowance of some kind of erosion or failure is built into the life of the work.

What Ms. Washburn does have in common with all these artists is a need for narrative. This, however, is a departure from her artistic origins. When she first came to public attention with her staggeringly sumptuous installation of stacked and tacked together shards, such as “Nothing’s Cutie,” her debut solo exhibition at LFL (the precursor of Zach Feuer), the emphasis was on the formal experience, not its underlying meaning, although the very use of detritus and the rushed sense of improvisation undeniably gave the piece an ecological edge. This was a moment in her development when the experience could only be described in abstract, phenomenological terms: Kim Levin, for instance, aptly observed how Ms. Washburn’s “improvisational logic is rhizomic, fractal and not nearly as precarious as it looks.” Now, the emphasis has heavily tipped from form to content, from stasis to process. With more “happening” there is correspondingly less that is sculptural.

Recalling the impact of that early work, it is hard not to regret Ms. Washburn’s progress, and to yearn for a reconnection with her initial ecstatic creativity. In the meantime, though, and taken on its own terms, her funky aesthetic affords plenty that is fun and thoughtful, which is not a bad place to be.