One of the most pleasant surprises to pop out of the August doldrums is Summer Reading at The Hole — particularly for the lemonade that the gallery has made out of its lemon of a space.
As noted in a previous post:
The Hole’s zigzagging, cut-up space and its jarring mismatch between a centrally located exposed-brick wall and the conventional white sheetrock walls surrounding it […] relegate most of the artworks to what come off as leftover spaces. The paintings wend their way around the corners and recesses of the gallery without gaining cumulative power.
These irregularities, as reconfigured into three distinctly different rooms through Summer Reading’s ingenious exhibition design, are transformed from annoyances to enchantments. (The space on the other side of the brick wall that partially traverses the gallery is not in use).
There are two factors that contribute to the cohesiveness of the space. One is the placement of two large busts by Long-Bin Chen near the entrance. Made out of magazines that have been compacted together (the spines are visible at the rear), the sculptures are each 30 inches tall and sitting on a pedestal on the left as you enter the gallery space.
The busts, which are oversize portraits of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo (“Renaissance Man I (Da Vinci)” and Renaissance Man II (Michelangelo),” both 2012), form a de facto corridor into the farther spaces. They also act as a divider for the area behind them, which is outfitted with upholstered armchairs and a moderne coffee table, the most intimate and inviting of the three spaces.
The other factor is the shelving, which is built with brackets without vertical supports. Periodically breaking off to allow generous and sometimes surprising spaces for the artworks on display, the strictly horizontal shelving lends the show an air of classical pizzazz, an easy mix of openness and rigor that shows off everything, even the often chaotic jumble of books, to its best effect.
The art itself can get a little precious in its bookishness. Many works use books as raw material, with greater or lesser degrees of inventiveness, while others play off of cover designs or feature books as the subject of a still life. A few show readers with a book (or newspaper or smartphone) in hand, such as the eye-catching, pop-macabre untitled work in acrylic and flashe by Taylor McKimens, which depicts a flayed man reading a book titled Flash!.
McKimens’ painting is part of a wall ensemble featuring shelves full of boisterously colored zines collected by Paul Bright between 1993 and 2010. The wall anchors the gallery’s largest room, a well-lit space decked out with rolling desk chairs, paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs, not to mention books on every subject under the sun.
While the gallery’s press release refers to the installation as “a giant art book reading room,” the inclusiveness of the selection, which resembles an intuitively arranged used bookstore, takes the show to a different plane.
Many of the books are about art, but most are not. They include everything from Aleister Crowley’s Diary of a Drug Fiend to The Complete Single Mother (Third Edition) by Andrea Engber and Leah Klungness. The artworks, on the other hand, are almost all about books. Consequently, the books become signifiers of the limitless granulations of contemporary culture, while the paintings remain circumscribed in their range of meaning.
The effect is curious because the books, in aggregate, become an open-ended vessel, a metaphor in itself, which — in the context of an art exhibition — is usually the function served by art.
Ordinarily, art that treads the most lightly on a given theme is often the most intriguing, and this is especially true in Summer Reading, where the artworks are competing for attention with the books, and the ones that engage with them most directly are the ones forced to cede the battle.
I’m thinking in particular of a pair of digital C-prints by Peter Funch, street scenes in which everyone is engaged in reading a book, newspaper or phone (“Diverting Diversions,” 2007) or carrying a mysterious manila envelope (“Informing,” 2002). These works might seem theatrical and over-determined in another show, but here their playfulness and undertow of dark humor come to the fore.
Another suggestive but very different work is a text piece in the form of a torn-paper collage by Simon Evans called “Letter to the Future” (2010), written in a childlike hand and beginning with “Dear Future, I am dead. This picture was in an art show. My times were scary.”
The letter continues to free-associate until its last line, “I hope I hope I hope I fit into the bias of your era.” Below the signature (“Signed, William Shakespeare”) are two addenda: “P.S. Writing this letter was part of my job” and “P.P.S. I was the only person who made art like this.”
Just as diverting and even more refreshingly off topic is Jen Stark’s “Tri-Angular” (2011), a painted conical wood sculpture composed of spiraling steps in colors covering the spectrum from yellow at the base to green at the tip.
It is situated in the middle of the floor in the smallest of the three rooms, and while its relationship to the other works in the alcove-like space may be ambiguous content-wise, its bright coloration becomes a nexus for the equally bright, more thematically consistent works installed there, such as the glowing LED art and architecture books by Airan Kang, the glossily painted paperbacks by Shane Bradford and the diagrammatic abstraction, “reading” (2013), an acrylic on panel by Andrew Kuo.
Flanked on one side by the brick wall that seemed so intrusive in other shows, the overall effect of the space is warm and comforting, with unexpected openings, colors and lights — an externalization of the wondrous head-trip that reading can provoke.
A similar sensation, but even more magical, prevails in Brian Dettmer’s “Lands and Peoples” (2011), a teeming collage of images from hardcover books that, at 2.5 inches deep, brings to mind a mashup of pop-up illustrations piled one atop another.
A cruciform work divided into a dozen sections, its newspaper-comics colors and twisting, deep-cut forms stir evocations of floating cities and worlds within worlds. As our eyes roam among the densely-packed details — which are primarily abstract patterns and architectural motifs — we find ourselves, in a rebuke to every formalist precept, spinning narrative threads to knit together the manifold image clusters.
While forgoing any literal allusion to the book as an object, Dettmer’s work goes the farthest in delivering a jolt of the peak pleasure of reading, the sublimity of our own imagination.
Summer Reading continues at The Hole (312 Bowery, East Village, Manhattan) through August 24.
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