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The internet’s utopian promise in the 1990s may have been to make the world more interconnected, but its current state has exposed the fraying that accompanies every connection. The same might be said about production and consumption, which, far from creating an efficient feedback loop, have spewed their hazardous byproducts far into the air and deep into the sea.
Sarah Sze’s dynamic sculptures have always aimed to capture relationships and their gaps, as well as the solidity of objects and then their discarding. Meticulously composed from everyday materials ranging from plastic cups and metal screws to houseplants and inexpensive desk lamps — potentially anything that is small, colorful, and disposable — and joined with wires, sticks, or plastic tubing, Sze’s sculptures are marvels of precise detail teetering on entropy.
Her current exhibition at Tanya Bonakdar contains one of the sculptural concoctions for which she is best known. Yet the installation filling most of the gallery’s main floor, “Crescent (Timekeeper)” (2019), formally and thematically substitutes images for her usual small objects, although there are plenty of these too, including bowls of water, glue sticks, and plastic spoons; a variety of such items are aligned on the floor into a pair of arcs emanating from the larger sculpture.
In her previous work, Sze worked with the proliferation of items on the periphery of the everyday, but here she is engaging with the torrent of images in an increasingly digitized world. In the dark room housing “Crescent (Timekeeper),” projected videos flicker on small squares and rectangles of torn paper, some printed with photographs related to the video, so that a coyote runs across its static self, or a bird flies on top of its frozen double. Stacked, rotating projectors behind the sculpture cast more images — and the shadows of viewer — around the room.
The visual effect is gleaming, obscuring, ephemeral, occasionally beautiful, and kinetic, in keeping with the ceaselessly streaming digital milieus that surround us. It is also a bit more frontally oriented than other Sze sculptures, which tend to twist and spiral. Perhaps this is to suggest the passivity with which we receive our daily deluge of images, or that a robust phenomenological world has been replaced by a series of little screens.
At the same time, to walk behind “Crescent (Timekeeper)” is to see most of its mechanisms exposed, particularly the clamps, cords, and projectors. This reveal is central to the entire exhibition, with its emphasis on process as much as product.
Skeins of paint drip down the windows and front door of Tanya Bonakdar, which are also embellished by photographs taped to the glass, and painting supplies are stacked immediately inside. The objects gathered on or near the door and windows on the east, or right, side of the gallery’s facade, constitute the installation “Images in Refraction (East)” (2019).
A separate installation, “Images in Refraction (West)” (2019), composed of digital projections and a meandering line of photographs, serves as a conduit joining “Crescent (Timekeeper)” and the windows on the west, or right side of the facade, emphasizing the importance of interrelation in Sze’s art. In these two installations, the images, tape, and paint literally and metaphorically connect much of the work on display.
From this perspective, the entire exhibition might be viewed as a single sculptural installation, and it is clear that Sze has considered the whole space — including its exterior — in assembling the show. Yet there is a feeling of work intentionally left incomplete as a way of undermining notions of the autonomous art object while simultaneously revealing networks in formation. The visual indistinctness of much of the imagery that at times moves in and out of abstraction only emphasizes this rhizomatic quality.
Sze began her career as a painter, and an upstairs gallery presents three canvases that combine oil, acrylic, collaged vertical strips of colored paper, and photographic images. Although these elements are frozen in place, their composition is energized by the unpolished, mixed-media quality of the whole.
The starkly white “Last Glimpse (After Object)” (2019), its left side cluttered with torn photographs attached to the surface by blue painter’s tape, is scuffed and scraped in a way that indicates the same laboring of materials that Sze more obsessively employs in her sculptures. They possess the same quality of open-ended aggregation — as if more could be added, or that a picture could never be complete — embodied in the Post-its that dot the surface of the splotchier “Three Dead Trees (After Object)” (2019) with handwritten notes.
A sense of the provisional — and the improvisational — is crucial to the exhibition’s concept and execution. “After Studio” (2019), a room-sized installation, replicates an artist’s studio with variously sized paintings on the walls, a couple of which look unfinished. A layer of cardboard protects sections of the floor, while a small table and chairs casually conjure the artist’s presence.
In a dark room upstairs, “Images in Translation” (2019), a miniature installation resembling “Crescent (Timekeeper),” including a table, computer, and digital rendering projected on the wall, functions as a working sketch for the larger sculpture. It also enables Sze to exert a modicum of control over the anxiety of image and information overload. Sze has always been concerned as much with how things are taken apart as with how they are assembled. At Tanya Bonakdar this approach resonates vividly with a world racked by tectonic political, social, and environmental shifts.
Sarah Sze continues at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery (521 West 21st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 19.
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