Total Work of Art: “Spaced Out” at Red Bull Studios
Spaced Out: Migration to the Interior at Red Bull Studios, New York
Curated by Phong Bui and Rail Curatorial Projects
October 10 to December 14, 2014
220 West 18th Street, between Seventh and Eighth avenues
New York City
When reviewing contemporary art exhibitions, we critics normally adopt tunnel vision, occluding our awareness of the features of the gallery space to focus on works of art themselves. The art gallery, as Arthur Danto rightly observed, “is generally not itself a further object of aesthetic scrutiny or pleasure and, lest it distract from the objects it makes accessible, it aspires to a certain neutrality.” This is why the floors in Chelsea are typically concrete; the bare walls white; and the plain rooms brightly lit, sometimes with skylights. Recently, of course, some gallery shows have tampered with the conventions of this familiar white cube. But none so dramatically as “Spaced Out,” which violates all of our well-entrenched expectations. The ground floor is covered with Jim Lambie’s vividly multicolored vinyl tape installation, while downstairs wall-to-wall there is a fluffy pink cotton candy colored carpet. The ceiling is pink and the walls of Red Bull’s irregularly shaped galleries are bright pink, turquoise, and yellow. For some time, Darren Jones and I have been writing a book about the contemporary art gallery. We are interested in the history of these spaces, and in interpreting their aesthetic, political and sociological significance. And so we have been particularly concerned with locating galleries that in one way or another challenge our expectations. But none were remotely as challenging as “Spaced Out.”
In his book Are You Experienced? How Psychedelic Consciousness Transformed Modern Art (2011), which I reviewed in these pages, Ken Johnson surveys a great variety of art made, or at least seen, under the spell of drug experiences. (A number of the artists he discusses — for example: Chris Martin, Bruce Pearson and Fred Tomaselli — are also in “Spaced Out.”) But Johnson doesn’t analyze gallery spaces as such. When I reviewed the book, I was puzzled to understand how such very varied artists all could be influenced by drugs. Bui’s installation presses analysis into the roots of visual psychedelic experience, in a more revealing and, I think, a more satisfying way. In effect, it turns our normal perceptual experience of the gallery inside out, with the art accenting its gallery setting rather than the other way around. Rather than being objects placed in space, a container for aesthetic experience, that is what we see as if we were high. In that dramatic way, he achieves unity for this exhibition of very varied works of art.
There is a lot of strong work by well known artists in “Spaced Out” — Peter Saul’s Raccoons Paint a Picture (2011-2012), Deborah Kass’s Do You Wanna Funk with Me 1 (2006), and Lisa Yuskavage’s Given (2009) for example. But although none of these artists are shrinking violets, in this setting, the spacey effect of their individual works is reinforced by being presented in what becomes the stunning total visual work of art, the gallery site. Radicalizing the style of “Bloodflames Revisited,” his recent curatorial adventure at Paul Kasmin, Bui here constructs a space, which foregrounds the gallery, setting the works of art in the background. Reading the description before I entered at this exhibition, I was sincerely puzzled about how to understand it. I wasn’t sure what the art by these very varied artists, as varied as the figures in Are You Experienced? would have in common. How, I wondered, could Robert Gober’s Untitled Candle (1991), Fred Tomaselli’s Diary (1990) and Will Ryman’s Infinity (2014), a mixed media installation, all be about psychedelic experience? But when I came into the gallery, that question was answered. The art here is about psychedelic experience — and so is the installation. And so your eye runs around the space, without ever finding a resting point, an effect that is exhilarating. At the opening, on a gray fall day, my vision was transformed. It is hard to imagine a better artistic commentary on psychedelic experience.