Critics’ Picks

Paul Laffoley, The World Self, 1967, oil, acrylic, vinyl press type on canvas with a magic mirror 61 1/2 x 61 3/8".

Paul Laffoley, The World Self, 1967, oil, acrylic, vinyl press type on canvas with a magic mirror 61 1/2 x 61 3/8".

New York

“All Watched Over”

James Cohan | Tribeca
48 Walker Street
June 25–August 7, 2015

Titled after Richard Brautigan’s 1967 poem “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,” this exhibition draws on cybernetics in order to explore both utopic and dystopic systemic themes in art. Most acute, Brenna Murphy’s labyrinthine digital renderings of light and space seem to crystallize Brautigan’s vision of a “cybernetic meadow,” where idle humans are nurtured and sheltered in a technocratic paradise. The halcyon days of computer-science technologies that Brautigan envisions are difficult to imagine. Moreover, familiarity with his satiric writing leads one to believe that the poem is tongue-and-cheek in revealing the dark edges of a techno-utopia: surveillance and communication control.

Drawing out a long history of cybernetic fantasy, the earliest work on view also harks back to the late 1960s. Paul Laffoley’s The World Self, 1967, a diagrammatic pink-hued painting, resembles the tightly controlled aesthetics of system painting of the 1960s but lacks the rigor of actual scientific inquiry. Through its lack of cohesive meaning, it manages to operate in what Robert Smithson saw as the evasiveness of systems in art. Additionally, Lee Mullican’s methodic abstractions, here from the 1970s, attest to his experiments in a fictive-science abstraction from as early as the 1950s.

In our current self-assured technophilia, we imagine digital technology as a more objective approach to classification, which can resulting in less systemic prevarication. See Michael Portnoy's Kalochromes seemingly faithful bitmapped screen-prints of kale, which camouflage an encrypted image of a future trend-setting vegetable. Because the images deny the viewer full visual access, they also hamper full assimilation of information. Themes of systemic failure and distortion are carried through in Shannon Ebner’s black-and-white photographs of a poem, as she translates words into form, data, in a style reminiscent of the dot-matrix printer. Iman Issa’s information-based and unreliable reconstructions of canonical works of art remind us that systemic production has countless trajectories, which continuously engage in regression, actualization, dissolution, and recomposition within the same works. Conceptually rigorous and visually arresting, the exhibition, like the poem, manages to convey the enchantment and unease of our cybernetic universe.