New York

Arakawa

Extremity of tone is one way to classify art that’s being made today: the aim often is toward high seriousness or low laughs. The moderate position in art, like the moderate in the political realm, suffers from suspicion of its compromise. Galleries felt moody this month. The atmosphere triggered grins or grimaces. Inscrutability was not an emotional property of any art on view.

Arakawa—represented by exhibitions uptown and downtown—certainly enjoys the reputation of poet-didact of the art world. Early work could be seen in relation to more recent production, his Neo-Plasticism Nouveau of the ’60s becoming the background for his later arrangements of text with painting. In Arakawa’s case, words are a textplication (text + explication) of images.

The downtown space, rented to exhibit Arakawa’s The Mechanism of Meaning work (from the title of his book co-authored with the poet Madeline H. Gins) was dazzling. Arakawa, the bridler stripped bare by his odd diagrams, proposes to analyze through analog: his constructs mean to be dissections and reconstructions of how we comprehend.

The value of the dual exhibitions is to show how Arakawa got to here. The Bauhausy quality of the early ’60s work is sober, but has a dry wit: Minimalist markings on dove-gray canvases were subverted by paint splatters and lines that trailed off as though their renderer was too distracted to complete them.

His Neo-Plasticist palette—primary colors faintly painted on the dominant gray field—remains. His new interests are at the same time more extensive and more intensive than the old. His ambitious undertaking promises to clarify, but instead mystifies: he’s after a system that will explain perception. His cylinders, gears, prisms and radials are a renegotiation of Duchamp Bachelor Machine territory: that is, receptacles housing uncertain substances.

It is, invariably, Arakawa’s textplication which provides clues for decoding the mechanism of meaning. The most lyrical of language finds employment in the trade-tech: Arakawa/Gins’ five-dollar words—“hypostatize,” “modulation,” “apperception”—are in the service of your basic nickel notions of measurement and sound. Certainly it’s poetic that we can describe distance in terms of decibels and sound in terms of appearance, but Arakawa’s fusion of analog with sermon leads to confusion. Mixed metaphor and oxymoron—“The distance out of which . . . repeatedly speaks,” “that angle of tone”—mingle into oblivion. Seeing an idea is no mean achievement, but are paintings supposed to be replications of the thought process?

The extravagance of The Mechanism of Meaning paintings—in terms of scale and scope—is that of a sumptuously illuminated Duden (a 19th-century children’s encyclopedia illustrating how things are made). These gigantic proportions are serious business, and pompously beautiful. Much more direct is an obituary for Oyvind Fahlstrom which serves as a prologue to the downtown show. Arakawa specific gives us a powerful sense of Fahlstrom and his artistic presence; Arakawa general—through metaphor and analogy—gives his delicious images a peculiarly technocratic edge: poetic technical writing.

Carrie Rickey