I laughed out loud the first time I saw a sculpture by Carl D’Alvia. On a pedestal sat a forlorn, four-legged creature (a kind of rodent/hominid hybrid) slouching on his haunches. Made of cast resin, the little guy had a thick coat of mousey-brown fur the diameter of spaghetti, which covered his face (including eye sockets), hands, feet, tail — and even the rectangular sign, stuck on the end of an equally furry pole, that he wielded, weakly, in his right hand.
It is titled “The End Is…” (2007), and I laughed again when I saw it at Regina Rex, where it presides over Endless, an exhibition of D’Alvia’s work of the last several years. More of Endless — three new works — is at Nathalie Karg Gallery. This knockout, two-venue show — D’Alvia’s first solo outing in New York since 2013 — demonstrates the absurdist humor, masterful craftsmanship, and elliptical thinking of an artist for whom working at apparent cross-purposes is an end in itself: embracing irresolution, the banalities of existence combine to form imponderable conundrums.
Covering things with the texture of fur (or visually related surface treatments, such as hair, grass, scales…) has been a go-to strategy for D’Alvia for some time now.
In many cases, the thing itself resists recognition, or suggests several things at once. At Regina Rex is “Robot” (2007, bronze), which looks like a small, boxy vehicle with one mechanical arm that, having crumpled to the floor some time ago, is now just a heap of junk overtaken by moss or crabgrass. But emerging from the useless wheels and belts, eclipsing this suggestion of time having passed, is a humanoid face, with jug-handle ears and a wide, urgent grimace.
The title of “4:20” (2012, painted resin) is a reference to smoking pot, and sure enough under all that purple sculpted hair there’s the same weird rodent/hominid guy, taking a hit off an enormous bong, which emits a (similarly hirsute) purple cloud of smoke. Another puff appears in “Puff” (2013, painted resin), but this is otherwise one of those inscrutable pieces that, for me, defies rational comprehension: an elongated wedge protruding between a pair of rubbery, cartoon-like legs, bent at the knee. Everything is covered with a pattern of little leaves. (It could be that I just don’t know enough about the varieties of bong design.) The sculpture is slightly too big for the pedestal, a nice touch.
The 34-item checklist at Regina Rex is retrospective in scope, reaching back to 2001. A major treat is the broad selection of the artist’s exquisite drawings, many of which are in ink or ballpoint pen. “Carburetor” (2005) is an “exploded view” of that device, apparently appropriated from an auto parts manual. Devoid of labels, the unidentified components swarm in formation, floating in pictorial space. This unassuming little work implies that an unintentional vernacular surrealism, by means of which the familiar is made strange, fuels D’Alvia’s larger project.
“Engine” (2005), a drawing of a stripped-down 12-cylinder engine set on end, looks like a fetish object from a patriarchal, power-obsessed civilization. (Hmm.) Other renderings display curious uses of familiar materials, such as a box made of wood slats (“Untitled,” 2016) with a 45-degree bend at the middle, designed to hold — well, who knows what? (“Puff,” maybe?)
D’Alvia’s drawings of his sculptures, such as “Eagle” (2015), apply a chiaroscuro treatment, straight out of Caravaggio or 1940s film noir, to these often comical objects, plunging them into incongruously melodramatic raking light and deep shadows. It is as if the artist wanted to see what one of his characters would do, what it would become, in an unfamiliar situation. The source sculpture for “Eagle” resembles an out-of-shape Maltese Falcon with a toucan’s enormous beak, tipped slightly backward on its base; it’s hard to tell if the creature is recoiling in terror from the inky void, or just dozing off.
Though he wears his scholarship lightly, D’Alvia is adept at the semaphores of 20th-century sculpture. One fairly obvious reference: actual fur is of course prominent in historical Surrealism’s best-known sculpture, Meret Oppenheim’s 1936 “Object (The Luncheon in Fur)” — a teacup, saucer and spoon lined with the stuff. (Fun fact: it’s Chinese gazelle.)
“Worm” (2014), a long, rectangular form, segmented and hairy-looking, holds its head-end erect, alert. Despite its right-angled infrastructure, the work is as animate-seeming as its title suggests and recalls Tony Smith’s penchant for metaphor disguised as Minimalism. (‘Literalist’ art’s Trojan Horse?) A nearby drawing, possibly hypothetical, of a similar but much smaller, single-segment work, is titled “Kiki” (2001).
Perched on a plinth, “The Birds” (2016) consists of five bronzes about six inches high, abstract but distinctly avian in character. Four of them continue in D’Alvia’s modus operandi of ornamenting an essential underlying form with obsessively detailed (in this case, feathery) surfaces; in contrast, the central piece is smooth, burnished to a high sheen. The latter channels Constantin Brancusi’s “Bird in Space” (1923) and “Mademoiselle Pogany II” (1925), with a nod to “Princess X” (1916) for good measure.
The Romanian master is the primary link between the two installations. Of the three works at Nathalie Karg, the largest by far is “Endless” (2016, resin and aluminum) which, shoehorned into the gallery’s far-from-cramped space, is endlessly frustrating to photograph. That’s not only because of its scale, which is better suited to an outdoor site, but because the camera can’t really deal with the work’s elongated, rhomboid volumes with their optically confounding angles.
But in person, it’s a blast. It refers, of course, to one or more of Brancusi’s “Endless Column” variants. (The public, 30-meter-long version in Târgu Jiu was erected in 1938, but Brancusi made the first prototype at least twenty years earlier.) Flat on the floor rather than upright, it stretches to almost 60 feet in length. Three feet high, it is a series of discrete rhomboids — imagine a cube stretched at opposing corners, so that every side is a parallelogram.
“Endless” has eight such sections, plus a half-rhomboid at each extremity. (You can imagine the beginning picking up where the end leaves off, like Finnegans Wake.) These elements are aligned corner-to-corner, so that the acute angles are just a few inches apart. They are physically discontinuous, but the gaps between the volumes are too narrow and steeply angled to allow you to pass through easily. You have to walk around “Endless” to really see it; outdoors, I expect, its resemblance to a barrier would be less conspicuous.
The funny thing is that it’s made of “boards” of cast resin (from clay originals) marked by deep wood grain and knots, here and there, that look a whole lot like eyes. The boards are obviously faux, once you look closely, but the many screw heads dotting the surface are real — surprise! — and attach to an aluminum armature. Gallery information has it that every element is unique because, while the constituent boards are themselves multiples, they are assembled differently in each section.
Eight feet high, smooth of surface, and painted a semi-gloss black, “Lith” (2016, aluminum) is in the spirit of the Modernist, public-scale, vaguely anthropomorphic sculpture of Clement Meadmore, who gave elongated geometrical volumes — typically square in cross-section — all manner of twists, curves, and curls. “Celestial” (2016), an eight-foot-diameter circle of nearly 50 sections of unglazed black earthenware extruded in rope-like thicknesses, recalls Richard Long’s floor-based disks made of shards and chunks of slate.
“Endless” takes center stage, though, and seems the most conceptually expansive. Brancusi designed his masterpiece in tribute to fallen Romanian soldiers who defended Târgu Jiu against the advance of German forces in WW1. Might the barrier-like “Endless” refers to a certain proposed border wall, and the seemingly infinite xenophobia that prompted it? Farfetched, maybe, but these days, an artwork’s implications, however latent they may be, migrate from the margins to the center of this viewer’s interpretive imagination. Forms attract associations like iron filings to a magnet. Walls and barricades, like the color orange and the word “nasty,” signify differently than they did just a year ago.
You don’t have to be a fan of affect theory (I’m not) to be aware that unintentional or supplemental meanings accrue to the reading of an artwork according to contexts, both spatial and temporal, and contribute to the viewer’s emotional response to it. Absent explicit narrative or other interpretive guides, content can be fickle, changing with the daily headlines. What we see depends on what we see with — the cognitive mechanisms we bring into the gallery. Looking at “Endless,” you’re on one side, or you’re on the other. You can’t pass easily between the gaps, but if you really wanted to, you could. “Endless” may be difficult to breach, but not impossible.