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For Chelsea’s season opener, several exhibitions mimic post-disaster accretions including Thomas Hirschhorn’s Concordia, Concordia at Gladstone Gallery, Mr.’s Metamorphosis: Give Me Your Wings at Lehmann Maupin, and Matthew Lusk’s More Broken Glass Than There Was Window at ZieherSmith. In each case, water and human hubris play some role in creating the chaos; our dangerous love affair with stuff — and lots of it — enhances the devastation. While they all required considerable effort, each show offers different levels of insight into the events purportedly explored.
The monumental diorama, Concordia, Concordia, at Gladstone is Paris-based Thomas Hirschhorn’s take on the 2012 wreck of the cruise liner Costa Concordia. While an impressive physical feat, it’s not much more than a replica of the foundered ship’s sideways interior rendered in the artist’s characteristic lo-fi assemblage. The piece can serve as an easy metaphor for the running aground of the world’s economy (for which no one wants to take responsibility) as well as a call for ‘the captain’ to get back on ‘the boat,’ but it feels more like Hirschhorn flexing his muscle by filling a hefty, blue-chip space. There are also incongruous details which come off as laziness in the prop hunting department such as an inordinate number of chairs that are much too dilapidated for fine dining at sea. Pages from Karl Marx’s Das Kapital scattered over the mayhem only reiterate the obvious commentary on the excesses of luxury, but most unfortunate is that the vertiginous floor to ceiling construction can only be looked at. Kept safe on the sidelines, I was unable to enter — and therefore fully feel — the threatening disorientation. This distance gave me the impression that Hirschhorn’s piece doesn’t come from any personal imperative but rather from a detached perusal of media photographs, of simply wanting to do something big.
In contrast, Mr. is clearly more immersed in his source material. Maybe this is why viewers are permitted to walk around a similarly dense collection of clutter in his installation, Metamorphosis: Give Me Your Wings. Inhabiting the gallery like a beached whale or giant cocoon, a colossal blob of Japanese commercial goods consisting of toys, TVs, books, clothes, etc. — self-anesthetizing at its best — are meant to evoke the cultural detritus stripped from its owners and sent awash by the catastrophic 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. This cannot possibly compare to being there. However, the sheer quantity of dispossessed crap does point to the reckless consumption that has contributed to the international economic crisis. It also successfully gets at the collective depression the artist sees hampering Japan during its latest mental, emotional, and financial challenges.
With the inclusion of Mr.’s bright, manga/anime-inspired paintings, the intentionally crowded space does become overstuffed, but the super cute, Superflat works infuse the accumulation with the deep wounds inflicted by World War II. Consequently, a connection is made between past and present trauma. What will metamorphose out of the current situation remains to be seen and that’s why the blob is impenetrable.
In keeping with the theme of economic fallout, Matthew Lusk took on the immense task of building out ZieherSmith to look like the interior of a failed bank in More Broken Glass Than There Was Window. It is by far the most polyvalent exhibition of the bunch sharing the business-gone-wrong sentiment of Josephine Meckseper’s anemic vitrines and Kim Beck’s renderings of closeout clearance signs. Lusk differs from Hirschhorn and Mr. in that his approach is less pile-up than orchestrated arrangement, but there is still plenty to take in. Blending retro decor and exposed raw building materials, the various rooms — janitor’s closet, office, vault, mailroom, bathroom, and boardroom — are home to an array of altered vintage objects, some a perfect fit, others seemingly just part of the entirety of Lusk’s recent artistic production.
Of particular interest is this artist’s ability to reference iconic artworks through everyday artifacts of yesteryear. They seem to serve as the flip-side to so much bad mojo, as emanations of a lemons into lemonade spirit. For example, in ‘the bathroom,’ a white, backlit architectural cornice complete with spiked pigeon guards is simultaneously reminiscent of a 1965 L beam sculpture by Robert Morris, the California Light and Space movement, and Dan Flavin. More art historical associations can be made in the voyeuristic access to a secret room. You can either look at it via ‘the boardroom’ through peepholes that bring to mind Marcel Duchamp’s “Étant donnés” (1946–66) or via ‘the vault’ through a slash in the tyvec that is evocative of Lucio Fontano’s signature gesture. There are also modernist grids galore from the barren mailroom letter boxes to the cast sand ‘gold bricks’ laid out on the boardroom table.
How does water play into Lusk’s anachronistic oeuvre? Not the first person to equate man-made cultural disasters with natural ones, he compares financial failings — both past and present — with the failed levees that made hurricane Katrina so much worse than it needed to be. He does this by writing Katrina in magic marker on a tabletop fan and by piling moneybags up like sandbags — pathetic protection against the ebb and flow of fickle financial tides. Through the layering of time periods spanning booms and busts from the depression era to our own, Lusk effectively reflects on cyclical historical shifts. This includes the move from the industrial era to the information age daily in evidence in the Newburgh, New York neighborhood where his studio is located. In such a place, Lusk no doubt encountered more broken glass than there was window in the street one day and found it a poetic emblem of our very messy present moment.
Even though it’s not the biggest of the three installations, More Broken Glass Than There Was Window seems the most substantial because it appears to come from intimate connection and experience with the rough stuff life dishes out. For me, it called up stories of perseverance within my own family history as well as my own. It might be too quaint for some, but at a time when tweets from Justin Bieber and the confounded Kardashians trump news of pandemonium in the Middle East and poverty here in the U.S., among other cataclysmic world events, it’s refreshing to see a sincere attempt at depth. From what I saw in these three shows, a cultural metamorphosis is indeed needed. There is urgency in the air these days, and I enjoy work that doesn’t turn away from things that are uncomfortable. I left Chelsea wondering, why do we wait for disaster to strike before fixing a problem? Why are we so sure it — whatever it is — can’t happen to us?
Thomas Hirschhorn’s Concordia, Concordia continues at the Gladstone Gallery (540 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until October 20.
Mr.’s Metamorphosis: Give Me Your Wings at Lehmann Maupin Gallery (530 West 21st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until October 20.
Matthew Lusk’s More Broken Glass Than There Was Window at ZieherSmith Gallery (516 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until October 6.
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