Someday the ascendant computers — having beaten us at chess, Jeopardy!, and giving directions — may share with the withering human spirit, numbed and narcotized by those same flickering screens, a moment of hideously dreamy half-consciousness. If so, Eric Sidner’s Magnesium for Sleep at Laurel Gitlen Gallery will have given us a preview.
The complementary pairs of hanging, floating, and standing pieces that fill the gallery are placed for maximum obstruction so that the room feels at once crowded and empty. Images and materials are thrown together casually, with the artist’s conscious decisions less evident in the execution of any given work than in the scrupulous arrangement of all the works in the room. The result is a fascinating but deeply alienating ambiguity — it’s impossible to tell intention from accident, serious ideas from casual jokes, or whether any given piece is really meant to be art or simply to represent it.
Five paintings hang from the ceiling, floating in space as if without contact, context, or support. The back of “Pants,” which more or less blocks the entrance, shows a peaceful, airbrush-on-inkjet, Shroud-of-Turin style face in a halo of psychedelic blues and greens. A fountain of red rises from his crown chakra. On the painting’s other side, those same red splatters trumpet from the decapitated shoulders of a white man’s torso, printed out at nearly life-size and fastened to the canvas. His deformed, purplish legs are partially inserted into a pair of actual black trousers which are also fastened to the canvas and wrap tightly around the bottom stretcher bar. By taking a painting off the wall and fastening an object to its surface, Sidner explodes the conventional formal boundaries of a painting and in so doing also destroys the viewer’s conventional habits of response — even if these explosive gestures are themselves now nearly as conventional as painting itself.
“Kid head” centers on a cut-out photograph of a little blond boy’s face, and an untitled third canvas, more thickly painted, dispenses with printouts but adds the color of soot to its images of flowers and blood. A pair of two-foot-high, multicolored silicone eyeballs that look like translucent jellyfish sit atop mirrored tables gazing at two standing white panels called “Door 1” and “Door 2”: a giant oyster shell embedded in “1” faces a lusciously paint- and epoxy-smeared cardboard honeycomb in “2.” Echo-like guitar riffs reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man trickle in periodically from the beautifully just-so installation in the gallery’s back room, where a spinning, deformed head is projected against various high- and low-tech backgrounds over a wonky, round trampoline decorated with fake snow. A more complex construction only makes the effect of the work more slippery: with the artist’s control in higher relief, his intention grows even more evasive.
Most notably, though, Sidner has installed six cardboard panels that range in shape from ballet-slipper to long, pointed Crusader’s shield. On each are stacked two more serene, slightly gauzy faces. One cries red or white tears; the other, sleeping peacefully, belongs to Osama bin Laden. What makes the dangerously obvious and easily overdetermined idea of juxtaposing bin Laden and Jesus in a Ptolemaic death mask irresistible, at least to me — so that I’ve spent several days now trying to figure out what it means even as I’m not sure it’s any good and don’t know whether I like it — is that Sidner only juxtaposes them and says nothing more. The hallmark of our muddy, value-free world of drone warfare and Google Image search is perception without awareness, increasingly clever algorithms finding meaningless but increasingly suggestive connections. The better we train the algorithms to ape us, the more eagerly we meet them in the middle, profligately pouring our imagination into happenstance like augurers staring at entrails. Two of the bin Ladens have circles cut out of their faces, and they look less like bullet holes than like outtakes from Eric Carle’s Very Hungry Caterpillar.
Eric Sidner: Magnesium for Sleep continues at Laurel Gitlen Gallery (122 Norfolk St, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through December 20.