In the wake of Donald Judd’s perfectly fabricated stacks, Jeff Koons’s flawless, steroidal appropriations, and Richard Serra’s towering walls of sheet metal coiling, stretching, and cutting across our physical space, a sculptor might wonder about what direction he or she might take. The works of Koons and Serra seem particularly attuned to the antennae of those comfortably residing in fashionable neighborhoods, who are used to making big carbon footprints as they flit about in private planes to every art fair.
You can either try to appease these people, and become their latest servant, or you can find ways to mock their ideals, which does not fully relieve you of being their latest scullion. It is not difficult to understand why artists can become cynical and gloomy.
These associations surfaced while I was reflecting upon the work in the exhibition Nathaniel Robinson: No One’s Things at Magenta Plains (May 16 – June 17, 2018). Six monochrome objects sit on the floor. While they are related in size, with none being noticeably larger or smaller than the others, their counterparts in real life vary in scale: a disposable plastic cup; a plastic detergent jug; the canopy of an umbrella sans shaft and handle; a portable tent, a tubeless car tire; a metal industrial casing unit. None of the objects are branded and the design is what you might call generic. In this regard, they share something with Jasper Johns’s “flashlight” and “light bulb” sculptures from 1958-61.
The difference is in scale and use of materials. Johns’s sculptures maintain a one-to-one relationship to its real-life counterpart, while Robinson’s use of a single scale, which does not seem to correspond to any of the sources, shifts the work into another perceptual domain. The things Robinson has picked are — as the show’s title makes explicit — disposable and belong to no one: they are integral to a consumer society’s reliance on throwaway items, such as plastic cups, plastic containers, and cheap umbrellas. One could say his subjects exist on the opposite end of the spectrum from sculpture, which is considered on some level a precious and permanent object.
Titled “Unit (introvert, dented)” (2017-18), Robinson’s sculpture of a pale green industrial casing unit, is what inspired the initial connection to Judd. A louvered green metal box with a large dent on one side sits on the floor, presumably waiting to be disposed of. On one hand, it can be seen as a sardonic response to Minimalism’s purity and faultless execution, but I think that is too limited a view. The imperfection serves to remind us how quickly we jettison the blemishes in our material life. It also underscores the realization that nothing lasts forever, not even art.
One of the many things I like about Robinson’s works is that they evoke the garbage bin outside whatever room they are placed in, which is funny if you think about it. I mean we do not ordinarily think of art’s ultimate destination as being the waste heap. Without a shaft and handle, “Umbrella” (2017-2018) needs to be carried to the nearest trash receptacle. Its slightly wrinkled surface suggests that its better days are now a memory, at best.
By picking things that we have no attachment to — a plastic cup, which has been partially crushed, as in “Cup (1)” (2018) — Robinson also implicates himself: he knows he wants the objects he is making to be taken care of and preserved. The enlarged scale of “Cup (1)” and “Cup (2)” (2018) emphasizes their fate as objects that have been used up, crushed, and tossed away, implying that perfection is impossible to maintain, that it perpetuates the illusion that we can stop time. Meanwhile, the cups are not identical: one seems to have been crushed more than the other.
What about the “Tire” (2018), an imperfect, sagging, donut-like shape, that will never physically transport us anywhere? The humor of a tent too small to protect anything but a tiny animal, and the fact that it has no opening, shifts the work into a mysterious and engaging domain. Is the shape of an object what determines Robinson’s choices? While this is unlikely, it cannot be completely discounted. What about the huge laundry “Jug” (2017-2018)? Is there something ironic about cleaning clothes with liquid from a plastic vessel that contributes to the pollution of the earth? Does Robinson want us to think about the material contents of a plastic cup, nylon umbrella or tent, a rubber tire or polyethylene jug — things that cannot be turned to compost and are not necessarily recycled?
One reason underlying Robinson’s choice of these five objects might be his awareness that one of their ingredients is petroleum. America’s collective blindness to the consequences of its energy policies has been exacerbated by the current administration’s feckless decisions. While Robinson never directly addresses this in his work, it is hard not to discern his awareness of the likely cost if we continue down this economic path. And yet, to his credit, Robinson never takes a didactic stance in his work. He lets viewers find their own way to its meaning.
I feel there is something profound, smart, ironic, and astute about making sculpture based on things no one owns and routinely throws away. A collector who would never keep a crushed, white plastic cup acquires a sculpture whose scale is several times larger than the actual object. One could also say that both “Cup” works looks crushed Minimalist sculptures. The fact that, in this exhibition, Robinson’s works always acknowledge the existence of the trashcan seems to me to be an essential part of our experience of them.
Nathaniel Robinson: No One’s Things continues at Magenta Plains (94 Allen Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through June 17.