Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

Over Here: Three Americans in London, Testing the Boundaries between Object and Subject

Report from… London

Will Corwin: Mt. Zion at George and Jørgen; Pascual Sisto: FILL_IN_THE_BLANKS at Seventeen; Trisha Baga: Rock at Vilma Gold

Installation shot of William Corwin sculptures (all 2012, hydrocal plaster, from left) Blue Boy, Ugly Duchess, King and Termites. Courtesy of George and Jørgen Gallery, London
Installation shot of William Corwin sculptures (all 2012, hydrocal plaster, from left) Blue Boy, Ugly Duchess, King and Termites. Courtesy of George and Jørgen Gallery, London

Three recent London solo shows by American artists emphasize a heightened engagement with animism and subjectivity in contemporary art. Although never explicitly centered on the problematics of labor, there is a cumulative anthropomorphism in these artists’ work that registers art making within a symbolic regime imprinted with the logics of cognitive capitalism. By this I mean the kinds of commerce that commoditize attention, affects, and relations alike.  Different as these artists are, one from another, each animates objects and images to trace what are becoming increasingly perforated distinctions, in our volatile aesthetic-political condition, between human and inhuman agencies. Their work constitutes an ongoing questioning of what might or might not serve as a stable support for subjectivity.

Will Corwin’s exhibition, Mt. Zion, at George and Jørgen [May 4 to May 27, 2012; 9 Morocco Street, London SE1] presents sculpture as a conjunction of indexicality and portent. The show takes nomination candidate Jon Huntsman, Jr.’s Mormon faith as its starting point and then correlates the religion’s origins with a salient moment in evolutionary anthropology. According to the Church of Latter Day Saints, founder Joseph Smith was led by an angel named Moroni to exhume invisible golden tablets inscribed with the history of an ancient community speculated to have resided in upstate New York. Synthesizing interests in the social and natural sciences, Corwin posits Lucy – the anthropomorphized, fossil remains of several hundred pieces of bone derived from a female Australopithecus afarensis – as an unwitting saint venerated as an icon of evolution.

Cast hydrocal approximations of our hominid ancestor’s jaw, ribs, and skull are meticulously ordered to “ape” the conventions of museological display. By contrast, roughshod, purpose-built MDF supports lend his works a willful faux-naivité that brings them closer to the aesthetics of science fair exposition than to those of archaeological vitrines. As a result, Corwin’s work offers stark reminders of the thin line between rubble and reliquary.  They reify the power relations and institutional protocols thought to render fact from faith. Additional sculptures and watercolors on view refer to the artist’s recent residency at The Clocktower in New York, where Corwin’s installation Auroch’s Library (2011) presented a chess board actually played by a pair of American masters.

Pascual Sisto, 28 Years in the Implicate Orders, 2005. Single channel video, looped.  Courtesy of Seventeen Gallery London
Pascual Sisto, 28 Years in the Implicate Orders, 2005. Single channel video, looped. Courtesy of Seventeen Gallery London

Pascual Sisto’s first exhibition at Seventeen, entitled FILL_IN_THE_BLANKS [March 29 to May 5, 2012; 17 Kingsland Road, London E2], translates the imagery and operations of theoretical physics into the foundation for an artistic practice that thrives on theoretical and perceptual speculation, with reference points that stretch from chaos theory to cosmology. Curated by Attilia Fattori Franchini, Sisto’s exhibition of sculptures, videos, and prints employ the gallery’s ground and basement levels to stage questions regarding the divisions between order and entropy. Tasked both functionally and formally, Untitled (crate) (2012) merges the structural stability of a shipping container with the resistance to containment inherent to mathematical aperiodicity. The work’s internal beams are arranged on the basis of Penrose tiling – a pattern whose rules potentialize indefinite expansion without repetition. Centered on slippages interpolated by successive layers of mediation, adjacent works (each 2012) include hand-colored silver gelatin prints of collaged found images, which are obstructed with reductive incisions in their monochrome matt boards – permitting only glimpses of their original source material.

Sisto is adept at drawing attention to instabilities within seemingly static compositions, drawing friction from oppositions. Included here, the single-channel loop 28 Years in the Implicate Orders (2005) has become a classic of video pacing. The setup is simple: evenly distributed within the forlorn scene of an parking lot emptied by the evening, 28 red balls bounce in place propelled by unseen forces. Beginning with a cacophony of dribbles, the balls’ rhythms align but briefly only to retract once more towards their isolated logics. Given its economy of means, the work’s meditation on the order resident in disorder and the ephemerality of resolution proves unnervingly affecting. In No Strings Attached (2007) Sisto wrangles his work’s abjectness into a singularly downbeat humor. Here, a chair is thrown into the frame, is pitched violently and repeatedly by unseen forces, and eventually achieves a point of stasis. Animation proves inextricable from abuse – suggesting a sinister side to anthropomorphism.

Where Corwin channels the human figure into icons, and Sisto filters humanity through a spectral index, Rock, Trisha Baga’s current exhibition at Vilma Gold subjectivizes the inanimate through a heterogeneous significatory system [April 5 to May 19, 2012; 6 Minerva Street, London E2]. Taking its name from the speculated Massachusetts landing site of the Mayflower Pilgrims, her video installation Plymouth Rock (2012) articulates the artist’s sympathies with a tattered landmark. Comprising a casual aggregate of images and objects that serve as the supports for two mutually interpolating video channels, Baga alludes to the rock’s dubious history as a site of colonial passage, and the literal fracture, reconstruction, and erosion occasioned by its migration and piecemeal commodification. A take-out menu from a Chinese restaurant, a seemingly sand-speckled boombox, three acrylic on canvas abstract paintings, an abundance of haphazardly strewn electrical wires, and other props proposing a theatre of artistic production at once rebuff and embrace myriad narrative formations. Though the objects may seem quotidian, there is nothing ordinary in Baga’s video-making, where bird’s eye views, beach scenes, slapdash screen effects, TV outtakes with mock-Arabic subtitling, and shadows entering from outside the frame, speak to illusiveness, competing literacies, and an unstable sense of origin shared by Plymouth Rock and contemporary forms of American subjectivity.

Less frenetic in pacing but no less committed to phenomenological inquiry, the scattershot, low-lying objects in a second video installation, Hard Rock, (2012) play dual roles as projection surfaces and the sources of silhouettes. A cardboard tepee, baseball mug, frosted Jack Daniels bottle, and similar makeshift icons of Americana cast craggy shadows against a video backdrop comprised of a 3-D animation of computer rendered box, rock formations, and a color shift from cyan to orange evoking the day’s passage in a Technicolor Western. A series of convulsively gestural abstract paintings on lenticular supports sustain Baga’s complex dialectics between still and moving image, further destabilizing distinctions between subject and object.

Trisha Baga, Plymouth Rock, 2012. 2 channel video, projected from memory cards, mixed media: acrylic on canvas (3), spray paint on CD player, foil, bubbled-wrapped plinth, box of electrical wires, spray paint and acrylic on phone, water bottle, 27:12 mins. Courtesy of Vilma Gold, London
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