New York

Keith Sonnier

Castelli Gallery

Recently Keith Sonnier has worked toward two ends—tightened geometry, at least insofar as individual units are concerned, and environmental theatricality. I am still not convinced that these ends are congruent although Sonnier’s prevarications are, by moments, capable and realized solutions to these antithetical propositions.

But there is a lot of weak work. I say this gingerly, taking into account my confirmed view that Sonnier is, with very rare exception, one of the valuable and talented artists we have. The swarm of imitators and hangers-on who have pullulated in one year is proof enough of this. The weakest works were those which partook of a straight aleatory distribution—even as they were at the same time handsome. A yielding yet massive pile of folded and tossed foam rubber near the warehouse entry should suffice as example of this.

Far more complicated, and thereby liable to more anguished failure, are those pieces which incorporate large geometrical forms of foam rubber—cubes and the like, neon segments, black light, tripod-born arc-lights, heavy cable, television tape projectors, and still more metaphorically mixed elements. Central to all this conglomeration is the problem of how to structure light. Sonnier accepts as given the tautology that light is luminous but, paradoxically, since his arrangements emerge out of extenuated metaphors for painting, his luminosity has detached itself from color and is now embodied in projection (video tape), emanation (neon light), transparency (glass) and reflection (mirror). Viewed this way, light becomes divorced from its “sensuous” expression and is more readily allied with a “structural” need—to “hold” or to become “tectonic” or in some special and ultra-refined way, to “engineer” an episode which otherwise might be disorganized or disintegrated. Part of the impressive character of the warehouse entry piece—a glass circle leaning against one wall while, opposite it, a square of glass leaning against another—is that its “artistic“ identity is conferred through beams of light—one circle shaped beam which illuminates the circle as it passes through it and another, a square shaped beam, which passes through and illuminates the square. This crisscross blipping is a permutation of a geometrical idea and, as such, is equally relevant to a large mirrored pair of glass squares standing vis-à-vis across the warehouse, each mirroring and reversing each other’s order.

Even in the “failed” complex works, “mirroring” as a structural premise is sensible in those projections from one kind of small antechamber space into another grotto-like cavernous exhibition hall. The rhythmic beat of a foot and images of installation processes were magnified in the large room, filling not only a wall, but, by “feel,” the whole atmosphere, as the tape itself was easily and simply readable on a small television set in the front room.

The problem, as always, in such complex situations, is that technological elements tend to obfuscate and get in the way. It is easy, even banal, to say that media are only as good and important as the artist whose hands they are in. However, unlike watercolor or pastel, the cumbersome character of new media is yet to be integrated with ease. I expect that the disjunctiveness of these materials add a kind of gauche beauty to Sonnier’s new work. Yet, because of this, I preferred the clarity of the geometrically based pieces—although they represent a hesitant step away from the highly atmospheric and intellectually extravagant, if not entirely impossible, technological environments.

Robert Pincus-Witten