New York


P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center

“Lighting” was the misnomer for Brooks Adams’ modest presentation of what might have been better titled “Contemporary Domestic Light Fixtures by New York Artists.” Despite its grandly general handle, “Lighting” was one of those tight little shows that suggest untapped resources for a more ambitious survey. The lighting fixture is a commodity with modernist sculptural origins that can be cleanly traced to Moholy-Nagy’s metal workshop at the Weimar Bauhaus, where students like Marianne Brandt and Wilhelm Wagenfeld innovatively explored the design possibilities of the light fittings industry. Indeed, Wagenfeld’s workshop-generated table lamp of 1924 and ceiling lamp of 1927 still influence contemporary design.

Nothing in “Lighting” suggests a viable contemporary prototype for mass production, nor is any of the work indicative of the refined craftsmanship that is compatible with industrial design. Adams has restricted himself to the idiosyncratic and domestically-scaled art lamp. There is no attempt to provide a historical context; none of Noguchi’s Akari lamps are included, or Oldenburg’s horribly accurate fixtures from the Bedroom Suite, 1963, or Ree Morton’s hanging lamps of 1974. Where, for example, are lamps by Harry Anderson, Jonathan Borofsky, Gary Allen Justis, Kim MacConnel or Hollis Sigler? Clearly, not in New York. What is regrettable about the absence of these artists is that they all have used social commentary as an integral part of their light sculptures. This is something one misses in Adams’ selection, which is short on the wit that more truly reflective work might have provided.

Of the seven artists in “Lighting,” Christopher Sproat looks least at home. His three pieces are sculpture first, more indebted to Sol LeWitt than Thomas Edison, and only incidentally about lighting. Jeff Koons’ wall work—in which spanking new household appliances (Proctor Silex Toaster, Mirro Whistling Tea Kettle) are centered and mounted on plastic-sheathed fluorescent tubing—also seems peripherally concerned with lighting and more a commentary on the glamour of conspicuous consumption. Arch Connelly’s pieces are primarily exercises in funk decor—including a humorous, but contextually irrelevant, series of portraits of retrochic lamps, epitomized by Midnight Sun, a truly hideous assemblage rising from an ornate gold frame base and capped by a nasty blue stalagmite.

Sparking the gap between the esthetically sympathetic and the electrically engaged is Ellen Cooper. Her wall lamps are reliefs with a Mardi Gras peppiness reminiscent of recent Benglis or, at their most excessive, Lanigan-Schmidt. Her crustaceous, pastel-hued sconces are in the shape of conch shells and coral accumulations. On knotty pine, they’d be vernacular; on white plaster, they’re art.

The show’s three most assertive exponents of lighting are R.M. Fischer, Kiki Smith and Calvin Churchman. Fischer’s faux-Constructivist lamps have been marketed around Manhattan as both art and merchandise (commercially ambiguous but critically distinct categories). The pieces on exhibit are clunky and tacky, assembled from a bit of this and a bit of that. They are products of a deceptively makeshift esthetic that results in sculpture that looks like the cut-rate robots June Lockhart used to order around on Lost in Space. It’s hardware art for an impoverished pop technology.

Kiki Smith’s mock-grotesque mylar chandelier is not quite bad enough to be good. Her connecting Bone Boxes (similar to tooled Mexican tin lamps) are more effective, but so gratuitously sloppy that they look like they’re falling apart before your eyes. Her Clerk’s Desk—a table with a built-in drafting lamp constructed in steel and sheetrock—is the show’s most salient attempt at social commentary. Its cramped ugliness and lack of finish—Smith emphasizes the materials’ least attractive properties—make it look like an analogy for hard labor, lying in wait for a contemporary Bob Cratchit.

“Lighting”’s most reverberant piece is Calvin Churchman’s “American Lamp Project,” a series of seven simple, decisive cultural signifiers masquerading as lampshades. Slightly tilted out from the wall, held by triangles of thread, its slender black shafts are capped by seven reductive examples of vernacular American shade classics—everything from the “coolie hat” to “twin tiara.” Formalizing the shapes and reducing the traditional scale, Churchman makes the prosaic precious. Without becoming trite, the “Lamp Project” provocatively satirizes design cliches and emerges as an elegantly individualized work of art, providing a perfect starting point for “Lighting II.”

Richard Flood