2.13 / Review

From New York: Curtain Call

By Christine Wong Yap March 6, 2011

Curtain Call is a precise, evocative exhibition of six sculptures that emphasize physical instability and the mutability of function and form. In this solo exhibition at DODGEgallery, Robert de Saint Phalle explores the nature and physics of props—how to prop up materials, how gallery elements become aesthetic props, and how stage elements become gallery works.

The works vary greatly in scale and materials, yet share the incorporation of gallery infrastructure. Here, the functional is propped up by the seemingly aesthetic. In Dress Rehearsal (2010), interlocked steel legs keep a large sheet of black-painted glass looming over a low gray bench. Typically, cushioned seating like this invites viewers to contemplate particularly large and abstract paintings or videos, but Saint Phalle’s glass threatens to flatten those ensconced. Additionally, two elements in Dress Rehearsal add an illusionistic puzzle. A perfectly polished, amorphously shaped hole has been cut from the glass. A piece of fabric draped over the top of the glass bears a printed image of vibrant patterns seen through the hole and projected onto the fabric. It is a print of a photo of a projection. Subtle gradations of light and shadow are depicted in the same exact places as the fabric’s creases. Parsing the real shadows from the printed ones is a perceptual workout. Imagining the studio setups that resulted in the fabric print is a recursive exercise for the imagination—a rabbit hole.

Quarry (2009) consists of a rusted drum barrel with a slick sludge form inside. In contrast to the deteriorating barrel, crisp, sharp vectors define the sludge shape. Appropriately and ironically, this representation of toxic pollution is made visually seductive with automotive paints. Glossy, iridescent taupe paint transitions to sickly desert rose. It sits askew atop a pedestal that appears to be sliced at an angle, perilously narrow on the side beneath the barrel. It is a detail that would be possible to overlook if the nuance of Saint Phalle’s work didn’t beg close inspection.

Le Nana, 2011; installation view; 18 x 11 x 15 in. Courtesy of the Artist and DODGEgallery, New York.

Dress Rehearsal, 2010; installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; 8 x 8 x 8 feet. Courtesy of the Artist, Charles Mayer, and DODGEgallery, New York.

Untitled (Chameleon) (2008) contrasts functional, neutrally colored objects against eye-catching painted surfaces. Two white steel stands lean together, bridged by a freeform fiberglass sheet. The sheet is painted in iridescent color-shifting hues reminiscent of custom cars, green monsters, and Los Angeles artist Liz Larner’s massive fiberglass sculpture, Untitled 2001 (2003). While this piece is the most visually interesting element of the sculpture, Saint Phalle makes it structurally significant. In contrast, a spotlight with barn doors is clamped to the upper stand. Cordless, it is neutered of its capacity to light artworks, instead becoming “merely” aesthetic. The beady texture of the bulb’s heavy lens catches incidental light from the gallery’s halogens.

In a corner, a blue plastic shopping bag imperceptibly quivers, as if it blew in from the street and magically escaped detection by vigilant gallery-sitters. When visitors peer inside the bag’s narrow opening, they see what looks like muddy water—a familiar sight this La Niña winter. However, the puddle in this bag is cast with almost cartoonish rounded edges, and the dingy tint is graced with optical reflectivity. Le Nana (2011) is, in fact, made with cast crystal, reflecting those who gaze upon it. It forces viewers to reenact the Narcissus myth, in dirty, high-touch New York style.

Installed in the restroom, Reverend (2009) is a wooden dolly with red neon mounted on its underside. It is a one-liner about minimalist sculpture, conflating art’s precious cargo with galleries’ mundane equipment. Though it sits on the ground as if awaiting a crate, it is leashed by an electrical lead, which curtails the zone of transport to a few centimeters. Its placement in the water closet, which too commonly functions as extra storage space in new galleries, is a knowing gesture.

Lean To (2007) is a sheath of fake rock tacked to lumber framing. The assembly is tipped at an angle, but not on the wooden supports. It rests on a fluorescent tube, which illuminates the craggy trowel marks of the back of the fake rock. The size, shape, and structure reminded me of a survival shelter, though only in Saint Phalle’s inversed reality would one find shelter from nature beneath a fake rock, with a support beam of fluorescent light.

Such wordplay brings levity to the show. The exhibition begins with Dress Rehearsal, the largest, most physically menacing work with the greatest conceptual subfloors. In many sculptures, the obvious familiarity of materials and subtle form/function shifts require the viewer’s investment of time and attention. The simpler pieces more readily offer humor and absurdity. With their inclusion, the exhibition expresses instability at many scales and forms, from the linguistic to physical. Among these threats of collapse, Saint Phalle’s work encourages viewers to consider where—among familiar, expressive, or structural materials—artistry resides, highlighting the implications of combination and assembly.



Curtain Call is on view at DODGEgallery, in New York, through March 27, 2011.

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