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Neo-Conceptual Process-Revival: Sam Lewitt’s ‘Casual Encounters’

Sam Lewitt, “Weak Local Lineament (Copperhead 08)” (2014), etching on copper-clad plastic, photo-lacquer, asphaltum, steel bracket, 96 x 20 x 4 inches; “Weak Local Lineament (Copperhead 06)” (2014), etching on copper-clad plastic, photo-lacquer, asphaltum, steel bracket, 96 x 20 x 4 inches (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Sam Lewitt is a young artist in a hurry. He was barely out of his twenties when he scored the 2012 Whitney Biennial, and right now he is filling both outlets of the Miguel Abreu Gallery — the modest space on Orchard Street and the immodest one on Eldridge. The two, very different presentations comprise his fourth solo at Abreu and his first in New York since the Biennial.

Lewitt’s installation at the Whitney, “Fluid Employment” (2012) — which I described at the time as “a whimsically repulsive floor sculpture” — felt “funky and new” while harking back “to Process Art and the BP oil disaster.”

The installation consisted of rectangular plastic tarps covered in ferromagnetic liquid, with magnets to hold particulates in place and electric fans to disperse them. The Biennial’s online blurb about the work quotes the artist as saying that he wanted “Fluid Employment” to “put constellations of graphic and plastic material into motion around subjects that resist representation.”

As difficult as that might be to visualize, it’s a pretty good summation of his current show, which goes under the title Casual Encounters. The more convincing, or at least the more readily graspable, of the two parts is found on Orchard Street, where Lewitt is presenting a series of four wall-mounted sculptures called Stored Value Field Separators, which were made in 2013 and 2014, and two etchings from this year that also come from a series, Weak Local Lineaments.

The sculptures, three vertical and one horizontal, are made out of debit and credit cards sandwiched between surplus hard drive magnets, some of which are covered in translucent or black thermal plastic. The setup therefore renders the magnetic information strip on the cards “inaccessible,” according to the exhibition’s press release, “by the adjacent magnetic forces radiating from the hard drives, creating a feedback loop of energies based on canceling and erasure rather than storage and transmission.”

Sam Lewitt, “Weak Local Left Turn Lineament” (2014), milled copper-clad plastic, polyester stiffener, blind assembly nuts; 100 x 48 inches

There is a certain satisfaction, even a poetic justice, about this interaction, with the forces of capitalism — albeit on a compact, individualized level — held in check by essential pieces of the information machines that ordinarily grease the world economy’s wheels. Politics aside, these sculptures, like 2012’s “Fluid Employment,” are uncomfortably, uncommonly beautiful. The gleaming stainless steel elements screwed to the wall in a thin, solid line suggest spindly vertebrae (the information centers of living machines) or spindly cellphone towers (the nuclei of 21st-century interconnectivity).

At first glance the sculptures are striking in their gleaming, robotic perfection, but the longer you look, the more defects emerge — components jammed in at odd angles; bolts, screws and other bits of loose hardware trapped under the translucent plastic — not to mention the intrusion of the cards’ graphics onto an otherwise abstract object, recalling the way Ashley Bickerton used to slap corporate logos on Minimalist aluminum boxes back in the eighties.

These complications enrich and enliven the experience of looking at the sculptures, moving them past their conceptual base into arenas of imaginative play. The etchings, which are done on copper-clad plastic, the kind used to make flexible electronic circuits, are imprinted with a scanned image of a molted copperhead snakeskin; the purple plastic coating is removed to delineate the snake’s shape, leaving tessellated segments of exposed copper, which is lacquered or oxidized in some areas, leaving muted patches of off-white and green-gray.

Sam Lewitt, “Stored Value Field Separator (svfs 23)” (2014), surplus hard drive magnets, stored value cards, thermal plastic; 72 x 3 1/2 x 2 inches

Beyond the copper/copperhead pun and the techie gloss of their material origins, these scroll-like works, hanging off the wall on metal brackets and weighted at the bottom, are shimmering, Edo-inflected quasi-abstractions that resist the idea of sensuousness yet ultimately succumb to it. Their hard-edged, plasticky shapes feel almost grating in their purple-and-copper settings, but the cumulative effect is sinuously alive, a paradox for something that is doubly dead — an industrial material bearing the image of a snake’s sloughed-off skin.

If only this kind of layered complexity carried over to Abreu’s sprawling upper-story space on Eldridge Street, where the major portion of the exhibition is installed. This section left me perplexed and more than a little troubled, which is perhaps a good thing. But for an artist who has elsewhere seemed able to occupy several positions at once, from the purely material to the metaphorically political, the works in this piece of the show were oddly remote.

These variously conceived and executed objects continue Lewitt’s Neo-Conceptual, Process-Revivalist explorations, pushing outward with his technological applications, developing — again from the press release — “an algorithm that plots a path within an architectural drafting program between optimal viewpoints into the gallery’s every room. Lewitt uses this excessively rationalized navigation of the site of exhibition as a starting point.”

Sam Lewitt, “Skin Too Thin” (2014), milled copper-clad plastic, steel bracket, rubber bands; 64 x 41 x 12 inches

The algorithm, the statement goes on to say, “is commonly deployed to analyze and enhance spatial logistics and motion planning in architecture, urban environments, first person shooter games, and emergency management.”

And while the large-scale copper sheets cut with a computer-controlled CNC router, such as “Weak Local Split Decision Lineament” and “Weak Local Lineament of an Un-straight Gait” (both 2014), contain what looks like the gallery floor plan, these pieces are curiously inert, making the reliance on programming seem beside the point. Several of the other, livelier works in the show feel driven not by algorithms but by the arc of recent art history, gathering what they need from the past to fuel their march forward. There are four reliefs made from curled and dangling copper-clad plastic that brought to mind the wall-mounted painted sculptures of 78-year-old Frank Stella, and a floor piece that evoked 75-year-old Richard Serra’s rolled lead works from the 1960s.

Another series called Screen Test Lineaments (2014), which combines industrial materials and oxidation processes, is at once the most successful and the most unsettling. By exposing panels of acid-etched grids based on LED backlighting arrays to atmospheric corrosion for differing spans of time, the artist has allowed the surfaces to change in whole or in part into a range of colors, from black to blue to polished copper. This results in gorgeously variegated colors along the borders of the grids and within their reflective surfaces.

Sam Lewitt, “Screen Test Lineaments” (2014), five etchings in copper-clad plastic, steel brackets; 68 x 106 1/4 x 6 1/4 inches

But the unrelenting regularity of the narrow vertical panels arranged in horizontal rows, exacerbated by the profusion of gridded copper dots, suggest a uniform imperviousness beneath the discolored skin — an inflexible logic that barely cracks the door open for Dionysus — unlike the Biennial installation or the works on Orchard, which simultaneously invite chaos into the proceedings and contain it with a palpable tension.

Perhaps these works are meant to be oppressive and alienating in response to the social and political environment that engendered them. And perhaps the progression of authoritarian rationality, embodied in “spatial logistics and motion planning,” is simply the point of the show. But elsewhere this prodigiously inventive artist has shown a knack for uncovering the cracks in an ironclad methodology, be it capitalism or a magnetic field, and perhaps his next set of works will mix it up a little more and sow a few extra seeds of anarchy.

Sam Lewitt: Casual Encounters continues at both locations of the Miguel Abreu Gallery (36 Orchard Street and 88 Eldridge Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through January 11, 2015.

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