The Vilcek Foundation
167 East 73rd Street
September 15 - November 10
Surfaces sans image, the disused billboards in O Zhang’s series of road-trip snapshots from across America, “I Am Your Mirror,” 2011–12, present inquiring signs of the times. Captured at varying distances and angles, often through car mirrors or rain, they appear lonely, sometimes woozy against the sky, shabby yet orderly monuments to commodified desires along the open road. Some announce themselves “Available,” listing a phone number—the tersest personal ad. Others, dismantled to their skeletal armatures, linger as modernist grids partitioning the horizon. Most simply face us as widescreen blanks whose formal and historical affinities with postwar abstraction we’re invited to ponder (James Rosenquist once painted such outsize adverts for a living; lined up they resemble a Donald Judd series), while Zhang’s thematic record recalls Ed Ruscha’s gas stations and the Bechers’ industrial typologies. The abandoned specimen Zhang installed to obstruct the exhibition entrance, though, confronts visitors foremost with fraying materiality. That hulking artifact shares the room with photos of kindred examples in distressed wall collages, eight large C-prints, and faded ink-jet printouts strewn and rustling underfoot, an autumnal touch in more ways than one.
The pylons and utility poles glimpsed at these pictures’ edges remind us of imperiled infrastructures nationwide. More specifically, many of the empty boards speak to local decline, alongside the migration of advertising’s “It”-interface from board to screen. If in recent memory highway beautification still sought to reduce “billboard blight,” today these panels seem newly innocent, almost noble for still believing in apostrophizing a public in public. Read as economic indicators, the unleased lots may not inspire confidence—unable to rival the increasingly hyperactive visual field across urban China, say, a transformation Zhang witnessed growing up—yet the surrounding landscapes seem to welcome their accidental, structuring beauty. A reluctant respite from media and messaging, these roadside caesuras both memorialize and give pause to the imperatives of growth.