Funny and slick, Daniel Boccato’s exhibition at The Journal Gallery is called Creepers, and comprises six wall-based sculptures in cast fiberglass and epoxy, all dated 2016. Boccato is a native of Brazil, currently resident in New York with a newish (2013) BFA from Cooper Union. He has already shown a bit in Europe and elsewhere in North America; Creepers is his New York solo debut. In a savvy move, Boccato has latched onto a currently popular color-and-shape-based aesthetic and taken it to a material extreme. His work is impressive, well-wrought and beautifully installed, but too strategic to be psychologically engaging in the way that truly odd work is. Such conservatism is entirely understandable given Boccato’s situation as a smart, ambitious young artist in a field already quite full of them.
This is not to deny the artist’s considerable achievement with this show, which has both forcefulness and staying power. The shapes of these monochrome works (and their titles) refer obliquely to exterior sources; some may be entirely abstract, but even those seem to be motivated by observation of mechanical and/or natural forms. The front of the sculptures is parallel to the wall, from which they protrude a few inches to a couple of feet; they are, roughly speaking, silhouettes. But not entirely, because they are constructed in two or three levels or steps; within the overall shape are sections that either extend still further into space, or recede by a similar depth.
The largest work, at over nine feet high, is “knipface,” painted an eye-popping violet pink. It looks at first quite like a tree of some kind, or maybe a wonky umbrella — it has a curved, roughly vertical stem, topped by a kind of mound shape. But that easily translates into a head atop an elongated neck, with a schoolgirl flip and a wiseacre grin. The “face” side is, then — a face. In fact, they’re all faces: “laxface,” “belface,” “ribface,” “bopface” and “tokeface,” in (respectively) green-yellow, cobalt blue, coal black, lemon yellow, and a deep orange that’s close to burnt sienna, but more saturated. Coated with polyurethane, the color seems embedded, flawless.
The surfaces, on the other hand, are flawful indeed — deliberately so. They are networked with wrinkles and crinkles from the casting process. The mold the artist used was evidently a pliable material (or was lined with one), and the resulting buckles and ripples are immortalized in resin. So although they appear at first sight to be soft or underinflated, these works are hard, shell-like. (Yes, I tapped one with a knuckle.) The self-conscious glitches spanning the surface of every piece are neither visually incidental nor technically unavoidable; they are ostentatious displays of “process” that don’t make the work any more approachable, but all the more polished. That’s interesting in itself, and it’s cool that the pieces look like they’re sagging, but it’s not clear to me why the illusion of instability and immanent collapse is important to the work.
I’m reminded of a criticism you sometimes hear of Meryl Streep’s acting — that while her technique is impeccable, she doesn’t often truly inhabit a role. Frequently, she’s just not believable as the character she’s playing. As a viewer of Boccato’s work, you become acutely aware that the artist has opted for a formal vocabulary that teeters on the brink of recognition, an unequivocal palette, and a method of color application that eliminates any hint of hesitation or adjustment, along with a reliable procedure for enlarging those forms to an institutional scale. While that’s no mean feat, it isn’t enough to draw you in, to beguile you, to take you elsewhere. Rather than inhabit the process by which it is made, Boccato’s work declaims it.
The outside contour of “belface” recalls a rotary telephone; roughly semicircular shapes take it a second step into real space, indicating downcast eyes and an angry frown. If the work’s title refers to the old phone company, Bell, then it’s easy to think of this scowl as the aftermath of a disconnection. But what about “laxface”? Has it something to do with negligence, or the Los Angeles airport, or magnesium citrate? The work is four-and-a-half feet high, bottom-heavy like an ink bottle, sporting a centrally located cylinder for a nose and a gaping mouth that, in an animated cartoon, would signify a panicked bellow. (“WIL-MAAA!”)
Maybe it’s better not to take the “-face” reference literally, but in that case I wouldn’t know what to make of the creeper called “tokeface” (the dark orange one). Of all the works, it has both the most generalized, blob-like outline as well as the most articulated secondary feature — a hybrid of rectangle and oval that suggests forearm and fist. If, as the title suggests, we’re looking at the visage of a pot smoker, then he’s bogarting that joint while he laughs his head off.
As to Boccato’s artistic lineage, Richard Tuttle made thickish, shape-heavy wall works in the 1960s, though they are painted plywood, much smaller, and generally desaturated in color. In the same vein is Imi Knoebel’s “24 Colors — For Blinky” (1977), a group of 24 large, oddly shaped, chromatically exacting monochrome paintings on 4-inch-deep wood panels. (The set was recreated under Knoebel’s supervision in 2008 for an installation at Dia:Beacon.) Doreen McCarthy has recently shown some eccentrically shaped, inflatable monochrome sculptures that allude to biological forms without representing one; Justin Adian’s pillowy, stuffed-canvas works, while not invariably monochrome, are similar to Boccato’s high reliefs in their wall-flowering three-dimensionality. This necessarily abbreviated list of kindred spirits must include the late, great Richard Artschwager, who presided over the mid-’60s marriage of minimalism and Pop and whose influence I sense in Boccato’s choice of industrial materials, minute attention to craft, and deadpan presentation.
Is it fair to subject Boccato to so many comparisons? I think it is. He strikes me as a strategist who is trying to stake out his territory in the contemporary artists’ land-grab by fabricating studiedly awkward, ungainly objects on a public-address scale — Donald Baechler meets Jeff Koons, but without Baechler’s illustrational nostalgia or Koons’s kinky gaudiness.
This work has moxie, a quality many collectors seem to appreciate. But it may be that six Boccatos in one space are five too many. To come upon “ribface,” for example, while wandering around a museum or corporate lobby might be tremendously exciting. It is the black one, nearly seven feet high and over a foot deep, and inscrutable to an extent the others are not. Its knotty, goofy shape doesn’t signify anything in particular; it looks unlike a rib, and even less like a face. The pruney randomness of its front surface is contrapuntally at odds with the orderliness of a pair of inverted triangles — one protruding, the other recessed — that dominate the work’s upper and lower registers. Its alt-jazziness in full swing, “ribface” shows that you shouldn’t have to sacrifice perversity for the sake of professionalism.
Daniel Boccato: Creepers continues at The Journal Gallery (106 North 1st Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn) through December 18.
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