Art

Making Fun of Minimalism in Two Chelsea Galleries, Pt. 1

Could it be that the slick surfaces and lustrous finish fetish of high minimalism isn’t exactly suitable for the current atmosphere of economic austerity measures? Along with the painful recession consequences of mass job loss, gallery closings and the bloody fight over British arts funding cuts has come a suspicion of entities too big to fail: the black boxes of big banks and even bigger corporations. Taking this to the art world, I’ve been noticing an artistic suspicion of the hermetic perfection so glorified by minimalists like Donald Judd and Anne Truitt. Two current Chelsea exhibitions show artists taking down minimalism’s cold self-seriousness with the movement’s own weapons. Out with the preachers, in with the artistic mischief-makers. In this review, check out Yuichi Higashionna’s Fluorescent at Marianne Boesky

Yuichi Higashionna at Marianne Boesky Gallery

Installation shot of Yuichi Higashionna's “Untitled (Moire)” (2011) (all photos by author)

The first thing that made me laugh in Japanese artist Yuichi Higashionna’s solo exhibition Fluorescent was walking into the initial gallery and seeing the strict straight black tape stripes that covered the interior of the space end in loose curls coming unstuck from the wall at floor and ceiling, a minimalist installation gone preparator’s nightmare. But these loose ends are intentional, a manifestation of the artist’s aim to poke fun at the kitsch-y and imperfect appropriation of Western culture in the prosperous 1970s. The striped walls are no Zen contemplation of universal order; they’re an embrace of the handmade that appropriates the language of pure minimalism but doesn’t adhere (haha, get it?) to its strictures. The interior of this first gallery is occupied by stainless steel mobiles hung with pointy black glass stars, a 21st century sci-fi take on Calder, constellations made with tongue firmly in cheek.

These works are part of Higashionna’s engagement with Japanese fanshii culture, a new term for me, and one certainly not as omnipresent in Western art-world dialogue as Superflat’s kawaii. Fanshii is the Japanese transliteration of “fancy,” and has come to represent the tacky and kitschy interior decorating style that dominated in Japan’s flush 70s. Fanshii stuff is somehow off, slanted between Western and Japanese culture without fitting entirely in either, and certainly not bowing to the limits of taste. Higashionna’s work is definitely flashy and demonstrative in a sarcastic, sleight of hand way, taking on minimalism with a sense of humor and a sense of the futility of perfect adoption. Higashionna’s fanshii minimalism (say that out loud, funny, huh?) is fabulously tacky, but the artist also pulls no visual punches: these works have real force along with their cross-cultural commentary.

Detail of Yuichi Higashionna's “Untitled (Moire)” (2011)

“Untitled (Moire)” (2011) is like the thumping-bass porn soundtrack version of a Robert Irwin scrim. Instead of a rectangle, a vertical oval is cut into the surface of Boesky’s wall with a dip behind it. Inside the silhouette shape are installed two orange fluorescent lights. Masking the opening of the hole into the gallery is a shimmering black curtain: the “moire” of the title refers to the eye-watering op-art effects of offset lines intersecting, like an off-frequency old TV display. The weave of the curtain deflects the fluorescent light in a dizzying, sexy way that alters with every movement; instead of the silent purity of visual experience that characterizes an Irwin, there’s something dirty and sweaty about that shimmering orange surface.

Yuichi Higashionna's “Untitled (Mirror Assemblage)” (2010)

The nightclub vibe continues with Higashionna’s “Untitled (Mirror Assemblage)”, a dazzling surface of mirrors installed on another striped wall. An overwhelming collection of makeup compacts and small mirrors come together into a disco ball stretched out into a rectangle shape. Upon approach, I was refracted into a hundred different images. The artist’s op-art fetish totally comes through in the disorienting experience. In another work, Higashionna strings up black tape in a looping pattern that recalls a piercing corset (link NSFW). The piece is installed against another sloppily striped wall, this time by rolls of white paper that look like newsprint and lit by a fluorescent light placed on the floor. It’s a kinky Agnes Martin. Minimalist materials and visual vocabulary gone S+M? Sign me up.

Yuichi Higashionna's “Untitled” (2010)

The use of fluorescent lights, a riff off minimalist Dan Flavin, continues in Higashionna’s epic chandelier installation, a structure made up of dozens of circular fluorescent lights joined into a tube shape and strung up by their electrical cords. Once again, total nightclub bathroom, using a warped version of Flavin’s own preferred medium. Another set of circle-lights attached to the wall in a vertical line isn’t quite as engaging, though. With his appropriation of minimalist materials cast into kitschy contemporary monuments, the artist throws his lot in with Jim Lambie, a sculptor with a similarly rock-star approach that mingles disco bling with austere tape stripes in a wall piece on view at the Boston MFA and whose glittering turntables mingle finish fetish with off-kilter Bollywood glamour. The artists break down minimalism’s blank-faced façade, exposing its laughable solemnity with a sense of cynical humor that’s welcome in the current climate. Better to laugh than to cry.

Yuichi Higashionna’s Fluorescent continues at Marianne Boesky Gallery (509 West 24th Street) through February 12

Later today, I’ll take a look at another exhibition featuring artists who all take aim at minimalism and modernism’s stern academicism with a sense of humor and the absurd. Stay tuned!

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