It’s the relation of the part to the whole that is the crucial element of Elias Sime’s assemblages — and what makes his work consistently enticing is that he allows the viewer to engineer what that relation reveals, just by moving closer or farther away from the work. From afar they seem like large, modernist, finely textured color field canvases; occasionally, the silhouettes of bodies placed in stark landscapes suggest surrealist dramas. Up-close I can see long, vinyl-coated wires, and innumerable nail heads holding them in place. In some, there are circuit boards, as in “Tightrope: Narcissism” (2017), where they form a dark parallelogram in a field of red; it’s a city floating in an architectural diagram, or a tear in the patina that reveals what’s underneath. All this work is absolutely lovely.
But there’s a but. This work, currently on view in Twisted & Hidden at James Cohan gallery, has a lesson attached. According to the press release, Sime has mined the electronic waste of the profligate Western world that’s been dumped on Addis Ababa, where the parts are available in outdoor markets. For his work, Sime finds or purchases these parts, transforming the waste into visual opulence — a transmutation which, the gallery cites, critic Holland Cotter finds “utopian.”
The Ethiopian artist certainly reclaims and transmutes e-waste, and this is an act of conscience, but I can’t help but think that the work is swamped by its own aesthetics. I want to imagine that Sime might also provide his audience with a glimpse of the muck and mire from which this work stems, so we aren’t left with a hopefulness or benign admiration that’s unearned. Instead, the work is beautiful in a way that allows the method of its making to offer a narrative that’ll be desirable to collectors and dealers, but does little to stem the tide of trash that will eventually overwhelm us all.