Darren Bader is a canny manipulator of the art world’s mores, though this doesn’t betray his heart of gold. In his American Express Holiday Show, at the Lower East Side gallery Harkawik (formerly Real Pain), he brings a conceptual playfulness to found-object assemblage, updating Marcel Duchamp’s concept of the assisted readymade for the age of the online shopper. Through January 2, the rooms of the gallery are filled with the kinds of things you might pick up at an eccentric’s garage sale. There’s an autographed poster from a forgotten Hugh Jackman musical, and a dusty home printer with a handwritten note reading “Just needs a little tenderness” in its copier trough. Barnyard animals, sheathed or hidden images, and depictions of nipples all appear with thematic abundance. Though it’s not immediately clear which collections of objects are considered discrete works, an impression builds naturally in the space over time. Collectively, the work looks at first like some kind of deadpan joke before gradually transforming into a cosmic one.

Assemblage is a form of art that is often contested. Everyone has heard some version of the stories in which museum goers snap photos of objects left discarded on the gallery floor, or a janitor accidentally sweeps up vital curds of installation. If the hiss about modernism was “my child could have made that,” postmodernism’s might be “I could have done that by accident” — and, indeed, certain corners of your parents’ attic or crawlspace might resemble a Bader. Because there is no technique at play here besides juxtaposition, this kind of art making is exceedingly easy to do, and almost impossible to do very well.

Darren Bader, “AES-PoPRS4” (2021), mixed media
Darren Bader, “AES-PoPRS20” (2021), mixed media

Darren Bader does it well. A crucial ingredient to his practice is accessibility: his lack of interest in coming across as mysterious or pedantic. In a text accompanying the exhibition, the artist explains the origins of these wall and floor works straightforwardly: a $22,000 “buying and bidding binge” with a company credit card, as he aimed to “tread ground I hadn’t considered since 2011, an approach to found-object sculpture requiring no words.” Even without the text, his exhibition retains the ebullient energy of a good eBay haul. A copy of Madonna’s 1992 book Sex, here positioned beneath a plate-glass tabletop and wooden chicken, is still in its mint-condition Mylar wrapping. A signed letter from Margaret Mead and an official 1996 White House invitation from “Mrs. Clinton” both have an excitingly biddable quality to them. The title of the show may refer to Bader’s own Amex, used for purchases, or the fake Platinum card displayed on a sculpture of a pachyderm-hominid near the back of the gallery, which is rather worn and registered to one Tyler Durden.

A few references to the here and now include a folded face mask atop a novelty plate; this feels significant, as does its proximity to a wine bottle modified with a Nivea logo and pump-top, which looks like Duchampian hand sanitizer. In one of the show’s more telling inclusions, not one but two 2020Solidarity posters appear — the products of an artist-driven fundraiser in response to the pandemic, organized last summer by the photographer Wolfgang Tillmans’s Between Bridges Foundation. Tillmans’s own “still life (Bühnenbild)” (2020) blends into a wall work.

Installation view of Darren Bader: The American Express Holiday Show at Harkawik in New York. Left: “AES-PoPRS11” (2021), mixed media; right: “AES-PoPRS6” (2021), mixed media

I was thinking about Tillmans in the context of this show even before I recognized his presence in it. The photographer, who installs his work personally, tends to arrange his exhibitions with intentional whimsy. His self-curation is open to whatever he feels like revealing that day. It seems as though Bader is doing something similar here with sculpture: his style has no organizing principle, and only the most basic of formal constraints. His compositions have an impulsiveness to them, recognizable as his thanks only to some intangible quality. And yet he achieves through this a surprisingly rewarding thematic cohesion. Each of Bader’s assisted readymades bears his presence of mind; the result is a sense of humor and seriousness that resides in them at once.

Darren Bader: The American Express Holiday Show continues at Harkawik (30 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through January 2, 2022.

Editor’s Note, 1/3/2022, 12:45pm EST: A previous version of this review wrote that Bader spent $1,400 on the eBay purchases in the show based on information provided in the gallery press release. The gallery has updated their press release and we’ve made the changes accordingly. Bader actually spent $22,000 and each item cost $1,400.

Nolan Kelly is a writer and filmmaker currently living in Brooklyn.