New York

Barry Le Va

Sonnabend Gallery

Barry Le Va’s work of the past few years has dealt with location. He postulates certain configurations relating to the gallery on the floor and identifies or leaves cues as to their positions. In his most recent show, he extends his geometry into three dimensions, with exponentially complicated results.

Entering the gallery, one steps into two scatterings of wooden dowel slices, reminders of earlier installations. In addition, thin sticks of various lengths were stuck to the gallery walls in deliberate but indecipherable arrangements. A notice explained that the sticks represent sightings, taken from points below the floor, along lines demarcated by the dowels and projected on the wall. This information conjures up an image of Le Va, downstairs in the Castelli Gallery, standing on a stepladder and, with X-ray vision, penetrating the ceiling/floor to delineate the resulting angles.

The ordinary spectator has no way of verifying this, of course, and must take the accuracy of the measurements on faith. Here the work comments on the relation between systemic art and its audience by taking things a step further. Such art is resolved by deciphering the system; the work unfolds as the viewer identifies, tests, and ultimately verifies and accepts the system. Le Va’s installation confounds that process, thus making the audience’s role in the work problematic.

Despite the inevitable futility of my investigations, I found myself increasingly sucked into the piece—bending, leaning, squatting and squinting to try to figure out what marked what. But except for the two wall configurations nearest the dowels, I was stumped. Some of the wall pieces weren’t even in sight of the dowels. Were the sightings penetrating the walls as well? Finally I broke down and asked. It turns out that Le Va took his hypothetical measurements, recorded them with the sticks, and then packed up the dowels and moved to another spot! Only the final configuration bore any relation to the dowels as they were currently placed. So you had to determine not only where he had been standing, but where the dowels had been as well. Is this consistent with systemic integrity, or is it a somewhat perverse act of mystification?

A series of drawings in the next room spelled out the results that remained so elusive in the actual installation. Pencilled lines connected the points, parcelling up the space in a tangled network. Despite my awareness of this, the gallery itself remained curiously empty. Those unseen lines lack the conceptual strength to assert their presence, and the work remained in the form of ingredients—an idea, data, a few physical markers.

Given the nature of Le Va’s intentions, the sticks on the wall become something of a red herring. One assumes at first sight that they are the art; their deliberately fabricated appearance and eccentric placement accentuate them esthetically as forms in themselves, throwing you off the scent. The configurations looked more like escaped Tuttles than the calculated demarcations they are. Perhaps this ambiguity arises from their function as perspectival converters. Their purpose is to render three dimensions in two, but there are no spatial cues to confirm this activity.

Whatever a system’s complexity, we expect it to be rational and clear in its operation. Certainly Le Va left me baffled, though this in itself is no measure of success or failure. I came away, however, with the feeling that he may have outsmarted himself as well, becoming so involved in multiplying the layers of complications that he lost his grip on the overall results. Thus the installation itself is less successful than its conceptual underpinnings, which remain provocative despite the difficulties with their physical realization.

––Nancy Foote