New York

Keith Sonnier

Leo Castelli Gallery

The hum of theology was present in Keith Sonnier’s work this spring. Two groups of sculptures were shown, the first describing a godforsaken West, the second a polytheism of the East—Hindu deities. In the gallery’s larger room stood several human-scale rectilinear constructions, of extruded aluminum finished in a mat black (and in one instance with an equally dense red). There was a tripod/anthropomorph joined to a portable radio wheezing static. There was a hard-knocks barricade of perpendiculars to which a standard pay phone was affixed. A tiny Sony color TV blinked autistically. Video and light, the medias most often associated with Sonnier, are here dwarfed by architectonics, sucked into futility by the overwhelming and negative optical symbology of black. The TV, radio, and telephone assume roles in a grim, absurdist drama: Vladimir and Estragon as receivers awaiting programming from some unspecified station manager who hasn’t phoned in.

These works have an oddly photographic quality, perhaps due to the light-absorbing effect of their patinas, perhaps because their stark and dislocated postures permit associations with the kinds of impoverished, consumption-ravaged landscapes that certain photographers, Robert Frank for one, have virtually claimed and copyrighted. (There is a photograph by George Tice of an irradiated phone booth, shot at night on a deserted New Jersey Turnpike, that I found particularly hard to shake). This section of the show was redolent of an urbo-tech ontological despair, but these structures did not amount to a philosophical or emotional gestalt. The punch that was intended dissolved into dandified gesture. The human figure—the implied dramatic component—was safely, glamorously mute here, uninflected. Absurdist dramas need the intellectually bracing presence of the Fool.

Sonnier’s other work, in the smaller space, was a series of wall constructions, balletically articulated in bamboo coated with wax, enamel paint, or with a pigment called “holi color.” From wasteland of hardware to organic Elysium. These tantric figurations, with titles like Krishna, Kali, Hanuman, and Aum-Om, are perfectly beautiful, unimpeachably serene, iconologically meticulous. (I know little about Hinduism, but Krishna, for instance, appears to be carrying the milkpails of Radha, his lover). The despair of the first room was here expiated by sheer lyricism. Yet these works, as well as being ethereal, seem etherized—wish-fulfilling fetishes rather than signs of any hard-won transcendence, and lovely though they are, they too are slight.

Lisa Liebmann