Lizards and stones

2014 Whitney Biennial, installation view of the fourth floor contribution by curator Michelle Grabner. Photo by the author.

2014 Whitney Biennial, installation view of the fourth floor contribution by curator Michelle Grabner. Ceramic sculptures by Ruby Stirling in the foreground. Photo by the author.

Given the withering criticism of this year’s Whitney Biennial for prioritizing the work of deceased and older artists and eschewing politics in favor of material craft, it begs the question: aside from curatorial predilection, trends, and auction prices  all external factors  what makes an artwork significant? As Jerry Saltz points out: “[The Biennial presents] work that looks and behaves like it is supposed to look and behave but that doesn’t make us see differently, that doesn’t rethink form, reimage structure, or explore material, color, or new orders.” But in addition to rethinking form, isn’t art also a question of being of the world? What shape then is relevance?

In sense of the world (1993/97) Jean-Luc Nancy quotes Heidegger as determining:

The stone is without world. The stone is lying on the path, for example. We can say that the stone is exerting a certain pressure upon the surface of the earth. It is “touching” the earth. But what we call “touching” here is not a form of touching at all in the stronger sense of the word. It is not at all like that relationship which the lizard has to the stone on which it lies basking in the sun. And the touching implied in both cases is above all not the same as that touch which we experience when we rest our hand upon the head of another human being…Because in its being a stone it has no possible access to anything else around it, anything that it might attain or possess as such.

Nancy questions such a patriarchal imposition as a pat on the head: why should access or possession determine our manner of “being-toward-the-world”? There are other relations, he suggests, such as “being-among, being-between, and being-against” and, I would add, being-of-the-world. A stone is, in the sense of matter, the world – that is, material earth – and visibly projects its conditions: its obdurate existence, surface sensuality, determinant vulnerability, just to name a few qualities that weigh upon but also extend beyond beauty. Our own relation to it may be one of admiration, pride, or utility; its usefulness both destructive and constructive – functional and symbolic of distribution and exchange – a means of death or pleasure and security.

For Heidegger, the stone is without world; but for Nancy, it is world. Like sculpture, its features include size, mass, shape, density, and surface; its relations are of space, scale, distance, and affinity. Is touch then abstract or concrete in such an interpretation? And can we extrapolate from the discussion sculpture’s relevancy as a medium of cultural production today? For while I write extensively on art that starts from a conceptual base and bears a flexible relation to medium, sculpture has recently attracted my attention and given me pause to rethink a range of relations. Here are some highlights:

Sarah Lucas, NUD NOB, Gladstone Gallery, 515 West 24th Street, thru April 26, 2014

Sarah Lucas, NUD NOB, Gladstone Gallery, March 7 - April 26, 2014. Photo by the author.

Sarah Lucas, NUD NOB, Gladstone Gallery, March 7 – April 26, 2014. Photo by the author.

Never a fan of Sarah Lucas’s all too obvious metaphors, I was delighted to find her pickles, squash, and dildos at Gladstone Gallery a satirical riff on classical perfectionism – it’s a shame the exhibition was not timed to coincide with Jeff Koon’s Whitney retrospective but perhaps that would limit the humor and critique lying in wait among these aggrandized euphemisms. The smaller bronze casts of balloons cum bodies of entangled ecstasy, have the nerve to be twisted, deflated, and swollen, reflective of very real and imperfect acts of sexual muddle.

Tunga, From the Skin, 2014, installation view from “La Voie Humide,” Apr 19 - May 31, 2014, Luhring Augustine, New York.

Tunga, From the Skin, 2014, installation view from “La Voie Humide,” Apr 19 – May 31, 2014, Luhring Augustine, New York. Photo by the author.

Tunga, from La Voie Humide, Luhring Augustine, 531 West 24th Street, thru May 31, 2014

Tunga’s terraqueous assemblages of ceramics, glass, crystal, wrought iron, fabric, and pearls draw the heavens down to earth: stone radiating sun warmth to languishing lizard touch; elongated digits pointing, counting, or dipping into vessels of expectant mysteries. These contiguous arrangements of diverse forms of matter – molded, smoothed, and smelt – audaciously defy the misconception that a stone has no possible access to anything else around it. As playfully constructed as titled, these works shimmer in a rhythmic dance: Eros with The Splash of a Drop, From the Skin.

Alma Allen, Untitled, 2013 (3 separate works), Whitney Biennial, thru May 25, 2014

When works are a coupling of earth and imagination why do we feel compelled to draw an art historical lineage in order to establish their value? Alma Allen is one of very few self-taught artists exhibiting among a plethora of institutionally trained contemporary cultural producers. Considerations of lineage and influence, therefore, are for him of a different nature entirely. These shapes are far too quirky to come from thinking about Brancusi whose lissome synthesis of form inspired more minimalist objectives. Though autonomous and object-like, they call for more space than afforded them in their scrunched Biennial installation. At the same time, one imagines a diminutive talisman, in the palm of the hand, fondled absently in reverie of a time and place where caring becomes a gesture of recuperation.

Alma Allen, Untitled, 2013, marble on oak base; Untitled, 2013, marble on oak base; and Untitled, 2013, walnut on aluminum base, installation view, Whitney Biennial, March 7 - May 25, 2014. Photo by the author.

Alma Allen, Untitled, 2013, marble on oak base; Untitled, 2013, marble on oak base; and Untitled, 2013, walnut on aluminum base, installation view, Whitney Biennial, March 7 – May 25, 2014. Photo by the author.

Sara Simon, Pratt Institute Junior Exhibition, April 25, 2014

Sara Simon01

Sara Simon, Untitled, 2014, primed rayon, performative costume. Photo by Martine Kaczynski.

In its uncertainty, experimentation often resonates closely to the mannerisms by which we regulate and conduct our interpersonal relations. Sara Simon, a junior exhibiting her artwork in Analia Segal’s and Martine Kaczynski’s sculpture class, introduced a work at once painting (primed fabric), sculpture (in the round), and performance (inhabited condition). The artist (on the left) first wore this piece alone carrying the extended sleeves and pant legs bundled around her like the excess fabric draping Sara Bernhardt in Nadar’s nineteenth-century portrait photograph. Alone, she elegantly hugged the absence. Inhabited by three, however, grace was only one condition of their unity –awkwardness, physical communication, and collaboration both hindered and aided their circulation across the floor. Then they rested as friends do in the park, and I waited for that tensed fist to relax across her friend’s hand and touch in a manner of being-among others.