Sarah Sze at Tanya Bonakdar
September 10 to October 17, 2015
521 West 21st Street (between 10th and 11 avenues)
New York, 212 414 4144
Sarah Sze makes art from a sci-fi future. Though we recognize objects, they seem to have evolved past our understanding, to be organized by unfamiliar principles, and bound by forces we cannot see. During a conversation with the artist on October 3 at Tanya Bonakdar gallery, curator Russell Ferguson compared her work to “a scientific experiment run off the rails.” Sze is known for employing everyday materials: Q-tips, water bottles, matchbooks, loose change, aspirin, and so on. But this exhibition presents an uncharacteristic embrace of both technology (sound and video), and traditional art materials such as chalk, wood, glassine, and paint. A delicate work on the gallery’s second floor, made of stones, steel, paper and a solitary branch, titled Night Standing (all works 2015), looks like the kind of pet a robot would make for company after all the humans are gone.
Paint is front, center, and all over the sides of this show. Acrylic on various plywood, newspaper, or plastic supports stands, leans, or dribbles on to the floor. Lacy white sheets of it hang from crossbars, mirroring and good-naturedly mocking the “white cube” of gallery walls, and a great swath on the floor at the entrance resembles a rather messy installation in progress, deliberately confusing visitors who often pause, thinking the show not open yet.
This ambiguity is deliberate. Sze believes her work is most interesting when our understanding teeters in a precarious way — and she courts our uncertainty accordingly. That is the moment when the work ceases to be in conversation only with its maker, and starts to interact with the viewer.
The gallery visitor is set several challenges in this show. Not only must he or she tread lightly and carefully around the seemingly fragile works (a limited number of people are allowed into the exhibition at one time), but once in, one must embark on the conceptual unpacking of these deconstructed paintings. In Mirror with Landscape Leaning (Fragment Series) a torn picture of pink clouds in a blue sky floats on a wall while organized lines of white paint trail from plywood balanced on a chair. In Lost Image Standing there is practically no paint at all, yet scraps of archival prints of sunsets clamped to a large rectangle formed of stainless steel rods seem to indicate a refreshing new kind of landscape.
Art about artmaking is a difficult enterprise but Sze succeeds in connecting the artist’s challenges — and those she sets the viewer — with our greater challenges as a species. No answers are given, so understanding is not easy.
Upstairs, Sze’s focus expands from interaction with art to interaction with the Earth and the cosmos. Occasionally we see this literally as the artist’s hand in the making, as in the case of a glazed ceramic sculpture titled Grey Matter, where peeled and twisted shavings of clay have been wrested from a squarish block and litter the floor around it — an intervention that seems almost violent. A hammock called Hammock (inspired in part by Robert Rauschenberg’s famous 1955 combine, Bed) conjures the idea of a comfy rest, but a closer look reveals that the hammock’s strings are already occupied by a smattering pattern of acrylic paint. In Measuring Stick, a desk previously used by Sze for video and sound editing is now densely clustered with steel armatures supporting assorted unsettling objects, including broken glass and an egg, and video projectors positioned amongst the clutter stream NASA’s feed from the Voyager 1, our only lonely spacecraft in interstellar space. The desk is both the site and the evidence of the creative process, and the NASA feed, of creation itself. Outside Measuring Stick’s dark room, smooth grey rocks are neatly bifurcated and lined up by size, a secret bird’s nest made out of archival prints, branches, stone, thread, and enamel is hidden in a skylight, and blue chalk dust liberally dusted over the floor functions as a visual signifier of water, doubly so when gallery goers blithely wander into it as they did one recent rainy day, tracking blue footprints all over the gallery, down the stairs, and out into the street.print