The two-part title of the exhibition Formula 1: A Loud, Low Hum at the CUE Art Foundation reflects a two-part premise, walking a fine Neo-Conceptual line between sincerity and satire without distinguishing much between rigor and fun.
Organized via a combination of crowdsourcing and gatekeeping by the artist/curators Mira Dayal and Simon Wu, the show originated in the dicey proposition that art-making can be reduced to a set of formulas without becoming formulaic.
By casting their predicate in such provocative terms, the organizers, who are in their 20s, seem intent on turning Neo-Conceptualism’s weakness — its tendency to illustrate a priori ideas rather than intuit unexpected ones — into a strength. And they decided to go about it in a novel way.
In their catalogue essay, Dayal and Wu explain that they “had particular aesthetics in mind — ones that […] had an air of familiarity, but whose origins and contemporary relevance [they] could not necessarily pinpoint.”
Rather than suss out these signifiers by themselves, they decided to put out an open call to “people who regularly see contemporary art” — not to submit proposals themselves, but “to suggest materials and ideas that were particularly prevalent in art being made today or in recent years.”
The result was a list of criteria revolving around “goop, detritus, ‘live’ elements, fragrances, and bodies,” as well as “architecture, algorithms, and […] ecosystems.” The curators then invited three artists — Nikita Gale, Laurie Kang, and Amanda Turner Pohan — to make new work along these lines. The end products were done “partially in response to the formulas […] and partially as continuations of their past investigations.”
This process could be considered part one of the premise, as reflected in the term Formula 1, which of course also relates to Grand Prix auto racing. According to the Wikipedia entry for Formula One, “The word ‘formula’ in the name refers to the set of rules to which all participants’ cars must conform”; if you swap out ‘cars’ for ‘artworks,’ you end up with the “air of familiarity” detected but left undefined by the curators. Or, as Andrianna Campbell writes in her essay for the catalogue, Dayal and Wu “have configured Formula 1: A Loud, Low Hum to constructively assess recurrent artistic tropes and take stock of overly derivative styles.”
But a curious thing happened en route to the exhibition’s subtitle, A Loud, Low Hum: even as Gale, Kang, and Pohan adhered to typically postindustrial tactics in steel, concrete, and polyurethane, they independently developed a shared premise exploring the contested field between the visible and the invisible, seeking inspiration in scent, touch, sound, and silence.
Working separately, they came up with a selection of objects that answer the curators’ cheek with cheek of their own, but governed by a seriousness of purpose that belies the whimsy of serpentine wall studs, a bronze-plated Alexa, and shiny, leaky helium balloons.
The loud, low hum of the subtitle comes from that bronzed Alexa, part of a piece by Pohan called “I’m best at answering questions” (2019). As a feminized robot, Alexa is given voice only in response to other voices, a perpetuation of the gendered silencing at the root of Western civilization.
In Pohan’s version, the AI device is reengineered to translate physical vibrations into white noise, flipping oppression into omnipresence, while her two interconnected works — “ololyga, ololyzo, eleleu, elelizo, alala, alalazo, io!” and “ololyga, ololyzo, eleleu, elelizo, alala, alalazo, io! (read out)” (both 2019) — draw on Anne Carson’s essay, “The Gender of Sound” (1995), to memorialize the silencing of women at its source.
In one corner of the room, a robotic arm with an electroplated hand (based on a classical statue of Calliope, the muse of poetry) taps out messages on an imaginary phone, transmitting the words “ololyga, ololyzo, eleleu, elelizo, alala, alalazo, io” to a vertically oriented LCD screen mounted on a wall near the opposing corner — the “read out” of the piece’s title. What seem like nonsense syllables to the uninitiated are in fact the ululating cries, known as the ololyga, that ancient Greek women would shout during female-centric rituals, hidden from the censorious eyes and ears of men.
As a punctuation mark, Pohan has fashioned two brassy helium balloons into the shape of an I and O, or “io,” the last word in the sequence (“io or IO or 1 0 or a slow leak,” 2019). Attached to the floor with fishing line, they are slowly and deliberately emitting the gas that keeps them afloat. The infusion of helium into the room, Dayal quipped during a walkthrough of the show, is meant to signal its potential to raise the pitch of the human voice, sending the utterances of men and women alike into the upper registers.
Sound and its opposite are also the subject of Nikita Gale’s contributions, sculptures that entwine sound-abetting equipment (guitar stands and audio cables) with sound-suppressing materials (terrycloth and polyurethane foam, deceptively stiffened with concrete).
The gray, ladder-like “FIXED LOOP I-II” (2019), apparently named after repetitive audio circuits, climbs the wall on your left as you enter CUE’s 25th Street space. Strips of foam and toweling are tied together from rung to rung, with a couple of gravity-defying loose ends standing straight up when they should be hanging straight down. It’s an elegantly fragmented revival of Analytical Cubism infected with the raffish nonchalance of early Robert Rauschenberg.
Echoes of the past continue in the main gallery, where “-PATCHING” (2019) — again a play on audio terminology, made literal by the bandages of foam and cloth wrapped around sections of a cable plugged thigh-high into the wall — brings to the fore thoughts of “Honigpumpe am Arbeitsplatz” (1977) and other genre-skewing installations by Joseph Beuys, whose self-mythologizing seems as pertinent today, as a keyhole into the mindset of ambitious men, as it felt disappointing and disreputable several years back.
Another sculpture, “HALF REST” (2019), its title punning on musical notation, incorporates a guitar stand, audio cable, terrycloth, and polyurethane foam, balancing the contemporaneity of its abject, utilitarian materials with the soft curves of Constantin Brancusi or Jean Arp. Gale’s work is dusky and musty, something you might recoil from if you stumbled upon it in an abandoned cellar, but its down-and-dirty tactility — fitting neatly into the “detritus” aspect of the show’s formulas — is countered and complicated by the apparently inexhaustible formal invention the artist applies to her circumscribed range of materials.
Towering above the work of her colleagues, the two- and three-dimensional elements of Laurie Kang’s “Involution” (2019), a construction of steel wall studs on flexible tracks curving into a room-length double-S formation, are constantly changing roles, from photography to painting, cladding to frame, sculpture to environment.
Several large, overlapping sheets of unprocessed and exposed photographic paper in soft shades of mauve are partially wrapped across the work’s midsection, held in place with magnetic balls. These speak to Kang’s background in photography, but the archipelago-like photograms on some of the sheets and the blank surfaces of others can also be read as sculptural fragments or abstract paintings. Or they could be skin grafts on a robotic ribcage. “Involution” checks off the exhibition’s “architecture” formula, while also hinting at the “bodies” ingredient in the way it writhes across the floor with its steely organic reach.
Nestled within the hollow of one of the framework’s bends, “Carrier III,” and its companion piece, “Carrier I” on the other side of the studs (both 2019), relate to “bodies” as well as “goop”: each is composed of stainless steel bowls containing pigmented silicone (creamy white in “Carrier III” and milky pink in “Carrier I”) and lotus roots cast in aluminum. “Carrier I” also holds a polymer cast of a netted fruit bag. Sitting in their viscous soup, the lotus roots and the fruit bag are especially jarring in their resemblance to internal organs or fecal matter vis-à-vis the spotless perfection of their gleaming steel bowls; you expect them to stink, but you’re encountering an illusion.
And illusion cuts against the Neo-Conceptual grain — one of the unanticipated departures in a show pretending to illuminate the sameness of it all. In fact, Dayal and Wu have created a tight, smart environment that pulses with heterogeneous forms, materials, and movements. Despite a curatorial strategy littered with wild cards, their insights into the practices of the participating artists have melded disparate elements into a formidable unit. With Kang’s steel frame as the anchor, the ideas of the three artists skitter about the room, scoring points off one another and otherwise jacking up the collective experience.
By eliciting an authentic aesthetic response to Neo-Conceptualism’s storehouse of clichés, the curators are doing their part to scour their generation’s assumptions, turn conventional thinking on its head, and hit Refresh on the radical critique that once defined Conceptual Art.
Formula 1: A Loud, Low Hum continues at the CUE Art Foundation (137 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through May 8. The exhibition is organized by Mira Dayal and Simon Wu.