Critics’ Picks

Robert Bittenbender, Pennys from Heaven, 2019,mixed media, 60 x 48 x 11".

Robert Bittenbender, Pennys from Heaven, 2019,
mixed media, 60 x 48 x 11".

New York

Robert Bittenbender

134 Bowery 4S
May 3–June 16, 2019

The 2003 Lifetime TV movie Homeless to Harvard tells “the inspiring true story” of a young girl who escapes her drug-addicted parents and destitute childhood by making it to the Ivy League. Captivatingly played by Thora Birch (of 1999’s American Beauty), Liz Murray lived this classic American tale of rags-to-riches reinvention, one Robert Bittenbender presumably riffs on in his assemblage Homeless to Haverford (all works 2019), one of five such pieces in this exhibition, “Space Vixen.” There are also two digital videos in which pages from friends’ unpublished novels run on a loop (The Blond Berber and Teeth and Taxes). If those details feel like an Adderall spiral, you’re not wrong—looking at Bittenbender’s work feels a bit like when you Google search one thing and end up in an hours-long internet K-hole. Alongside allusions to Kafka (Hunger Artist Games), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Charisma Carpenter), and Billie Holiday (Pennys from Heaven), there’s the material goriness of his overloaded junk-store aesthetic, with its proliferation of zip ties, cloth flowers, chunks of guitar and computer parts, photographs, and price tags.

Though his intricate tableaux are often compared to the 1950s and ’60s assemblages of Bruce Conner or Lee Bontecou, Bittenbender’s works are not nostalgic for some long-buried notion of bohemia. New York is a creaking ruin, and our perverse perseverance in the face of relentless urban development and creeping ecological disaster speaks to the sterility of today’s alternative downtown lifestyle. With his inclusion in this year’s Whitney Biennial, Bittenbender has made it to Harvard, so to speak, as a young artist, but it is his apparent embarrassment of scaling the capitalist scaffolding (and its definitions of success) that is a key charm of his work.