New York

Irma Blank

O.K. Harris Gallery

Astonishment—Diaghilev’s criterion for esthetic success—is a conveniently slippery item to enlist in the service of critical judgment. One would require increasing quantities of astonishment in order to continue being astonished; it’s an addicting practice for which the only known cure is a methadone maintenance program of so-called “interesting” art. As summer’s vacation makes fall’s art scene seem, by contrast, congested, last year’s business seems, by contrast, this year’s pleasure. Maybe the X quantity that tilts these contrasts toward the active and enjoyable is astonishment, but who can tell? Astonishment is in the eye of the beholder.

“Giggling in the Gallery” is not the title of a Busby Berkeley number—that’s “Petting in the Park”—but is an appropriate title for Irma Blank’s installation. You walk into the gallery and behold what seems to be reams of onionskin paper, arranged in rows like parchment documents, and your stomach sinks when you realize you have to read all those neatly inked columns. When you get a little closer, having already suffered through the internal dialogue, “Libraries are for reading, galleries are for looking,” the realization that the india inkings are just squiggles resembling handwriting from afar brings your stomach back to where it belongs, with the accompaniment of a couple of belly laughs.

What I like about Blank’s opus is its play on responsibility—you feel obliged to read what’s there (when you think it’s there) but then the absence of text liberates you from the task. Her perverse illusionism makes a new stage in idea art: trompe l’oeil conceptualism. As the billboard in Soho reads, “I didn’t know art could be so much fun!”

The failing of the piece is that it is a one-joke act—but what a joke! Usually a designer’s mock up for advertisements or dummies of magazines have these squiggles to indicate where the text is to go. Mock-ups and dummies are plans for finished work, not the work itself, and Blank’s leaves of squiggles have a breathless aspect of observer completion: she invites the spectator to fill in the blank.

There’s a jaded quality to this work that’s a mark of its maker’s overeducation. The obvious boredom in creating a dummy for a nonexistent set of documents is a rear-guard comment on the paucity of options available in reductive and conceptual art. To be sure, this is an insider’s observation, and the devastating humor of Blank’s piece might well be opaque to the uninitiated. What’s readily accessible to anyone who sees it, however, is its mechanical, obsessive, repetitiveness, like the labor of pasting up a “mechanical” of a newspaper, an ad.

Blank’s (can that really be her name?) ideal is to make art for that audience which genuinely believes in the superiority of a lobotomy (advocated by those authorities of youth culture, The Ramones) to an operative mind, the advantage of squiggles over a text. Given a lobotomy you don’t have to think, given squiggles, you don’t have to read. This is a desire for the tranquillity of the totally mediated world (there are those who think, and those who think they think; the second group is happy) with processed white bread requiring little digestion, processed ideas you don’t have to reason out; in short, a New Wave New Jerusalem.

And there’s a posture of politeness here, too. Blank’s regulated rows are a tactful way of pronouncing the emptiness of any art gesture. Her delivery is inscrutable, diplomatic, recalling the way displeased guest Dyan Cannon benignly looks at hostess Natalie Wood in “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” to say, “The gazpacho is astonishing.” We don’t believe her for a second.

Carrie Rickey