New York

Donald Lipski

Germans Van Eck Gallery

Donald Lipski called this ambitious, multiple-piece installation “Building Steam.” The title, according to the brief statement in the catalogue accompanying the show, refers to James Watt’s invention of the steam engine in the 18th century, “inaugurating the Industrial Age which is now drawing to a close.” But the phrase also clues us into the compression and release of the artist’s creative energy as the source of the fascination of the 62 works here, which filled two rooms. The display was a daring tour de force examination of the materialized spirit of 20th-century consumer culture.

Lipski’s strategy is to take everyday things and transform them by context and various assemblagist techniques into “art.” It belongs to the venerable line of provocative attitudes to the object in the thinking of Lautréamont, Duchamp, and the Surrealists. Still, the total impression of Lipski’s work is contemporary, due mainly to the visual and thematic directness of these works and their rapid communicative appeal. Bombs, for example, are explicit symbols of the destructive production that is part of modern culture, and Lipski displayed one nose-down and leaning against a corner, its strikingly nonchalant pose focusing attention on its smooth, contoured shape. The often-ignored esthetic features of common surfaces and substances were brought out throughout the show: revealing examples were rubber shoe fronts filled with glass beads and pinned to the wall. The insertion of chalk pieces in the chambers of a conveyor-belt chain offered attractive constructivist contrasts in texture, color, and shape, while the union of a cigarette and a fork resulted in a new form underscoring the significance of each of its components as organs of oral gratification. By intertwining a loaf of bread with two IV bottles, Lipski offered a concrete statement linking bread and blood as the staffs of life. And a wrapped violin covered with numbered pushpins triggered a spectrum of associations from the silencing of music to the Modern artist’s right to arbitrary, even eccentric expression. No matter how jaded, cynical, or sophisticated the installation’s viewers may have been, Lipski’s power of imagination made the familiar into the fantastic. That in itself is no small feat in 1984.

Ronny Cohen