New York

Rebecca Howland

ABC No Rio

Rebecca Howland’s Brainwash, a big, ugly, confused, and confusing Rube Goldberg of a sculpture, is a provocative paradigm for a moral, municipally scaled artwork. Howland is attempting a complex ecological and political narrative using a traditional municipal ornament, the public fountain; her fountain, however, is no panacea for parched urban wayfarers. Too opinionated to relax into being an oasis, Brainwash delineates and challenges the symbiotic relationship of energy plunder and, pun intended, power.

Howland’s fountain begins and ends with incredible resistance, almost as if its very shape were a struggle against being born and dying. Nowhere is there a natural, easy merger of forms; rather, the parts are constantly fighting against the whole. It would be convenient to see the antagonism of the parts as mirroring the pillage being documented, and to a degree this is an accurate view. But there is also a sloppiness to the piece which, while ingenuous in the mode of a junior high school science project. can prevent it from being taken as seriously as it means/needs to be. I mention this reservation because Howland is turning some corners with her work that simply haven’t been discerned before. Compared to the formally onanistic machine works of, for example, Dennis Oppenheim, Howland’s work comes across with a principled vigor reminiscent of, say, Oppenheim a decade ago. Hence an annoyingly facile reference to graffiti and a poorly rendered image (of a dollar bill) are irritating simply because they should have been smarter and/or better executed. Nonetheless, I can’t remember seeing such a rough extravagance since Paul Thek’s Processions (particularly the Tower of Babel and Uncle Tom’s Cabin components) at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art in 1977.

The piece, which extends for 20 feet. begins with a jagged-edged, 8-foot-high support etched in low relief with fossil and economic strata whereby an exploding money bag leads onward and upward through coal and oil. Abutting the support is a column of short-fused time-bombs, the top one of which emits painted metal flames above a terraced model of strip-mined mountains. Here the flow of water for the fountain begins. One stream courses down, over a brain impacted with mirrors and bottlecaps, into a lake filled with flame-topped fuel-storage tanks labeled Mobil, Exxon, Shell, Gulf, and Occidental. The lake sits on a sharp-angled platform; one of the platform’s legs stands in a money bag, another in an upside-down severed head. From the lake water is partially siphoned off into a stepped cascade bordered by a relief of leaping frogs; this empties into a shallow pentagonal pool decorated with General Electric logos and surrounded by water-spouting machine guns etched with guts and shit. Above, a second tributary trickles from the mountains through a tube, across a bridge, and into the prow of a boat, the tip of which is decorated with a model of the World Trade Center towers rising like a clunky hood ornament. The graffiti-covered prow of the boat is pointed toward a large cement dollar bill. Surrounding the piece are transmission towers, a rickety “Gateway to Chinatown,” and, most curiously, an up-ended plaster ball gown containing a medallion etched with the image of a couple making love/having sex.

Installed in No Rio’s wasteland of a garden, the piece appears both endearingly jerry-built and menacingly apocalyptic. Its fly-away presence is ominously in concert with the course of destruction it traces. In this context, the gown becomes something like a spinnet abandoned by the Donner party in their mad run along a shortcut to Hell. Howland’s fountain is a scenario for a catastrophe predicated on glut and driven by greed; Brainwash is a frightening accomplishment.

Richard Flood