London

Amikam Toren

Matt’s Gallery

Amikam Toren’s one-week solo show in East London was the best exhibition of contemporary art I saw in England, the least precious, the least “professional,” and the most compelling. Toren’s installation here involved two kinds of elements, processed on the premises: boxes on the wall and chairs on the floor. The boxes were laconic musings on mediation—each was the advertising-coated cardboard carton of a different-model color TV. Toren had sealed off the “front” end of each box by stretching canvas across it, stapling the canvas to its sides. On each canvas he made an image of the interior of a box, using as a medium pulverized cardboard (the missing box flaps) mixed with PVA Adhesive and Sealer. The odd, hybrid objects that resulted were absurd metaphors for the claims of TV and of pictures generally to present views of things not literally there to be seen. Their homemade look suggested items from someone’s anthropology of economic underdevelopment, or tokens of a nostalgia for images in a future posttechnological culture whose memories of video and painting have coalesced.

Toren’s emphasis on process has an almost satirical edge. The obvious gratuitousness of the box pieces turns his use of cardboard as pigment into a mockery of recycling. But it was the chairs more than the boxes that set the tone of the show: they were poignant monuments to the fragility of the human world. Toren salvaged from junk shops a bunch of used but serviceable wooden chairs. In a typical piece, he treated the chair as if it were partitioned in half by a vertical plane. Leaving one half untouched, he whittled and sanded the other down to a frail skeleton of its original structure, leaving it with just enough strength to bear its own weight.

The other chairs were subjected to a similar boning treatment. In one case the frame of the chair seat, rendered spindly by Toren’s woodworking, was fitted with a small box holding the sawdust that was once the chair’s substance. In another, he cut away the lower forelegs of a chair before carving it into emaciation, so that it appeared to have been brought to its knees.

The esthetics of salvage have played a large part in British sculpture recently, in the work of Tony Cragg and Bill Woodrow, for example. But Toren’s chairs were more visceral in feeling even than Woodrow’s flayings of old appliances. They consequently lacked the note of backhanded optimism Woodrow and Cragg often strike in their reuse of derelict commodities. The analogy of the chairs is not only to the human skeleton and our common mortality, but to the unnamed animal in us that works so hard to clothe and lose itself in costume, furniture, art, and all the paraphernalia of material culture. The sensation of seeing that creature mirrored in objects without representation seemed primarily sculptural.

Kenneth Baker