New York

Vito Acconci

Carpenter + Hochman

Over the past few years Vito Acconci has become increasingly involved in public projects, a fact responsible, in part, for the infrequency of his gallery shows. I sense that his recent exhibition of sculptures should be interpreted in this light; most of the exhibited works are publicly impractical, yet evade the normal compass of collectors. Instead, they appear to be intended as heuristic exercises, testing boundaries between art and architecture, sculpture and furniture, and esthetic and social issues.

A rich mix, that, but not without precedent: all of the works deal with Acconci’s interest in viewer participation, in bridging the barrier,common in esthetics, between subject and object. The viewer is invited to enter, perambulate, and variously use the sculpture, transmuting artwork into functional object. Many pieces employ seating arrangements, becoming furniture: the raised circular Big Baby Floor, 1985, for example, is cut with seating niches, while a wall punctured with cutout figures is lined with stairs and confining seats. One work, Head Storage, 1985, is an oversized cupboard, a face-shaped structure with multiple compartments, most of them covered with mirrors. To “experience” it you must manipulate it, pulling down the rolling drawers that circumscribe “ears” or opening the cubbyholes and files simulating some storage system of the mind. This is tacky art, but with a critical twist: Head Storage plays with that sleeper in furniture vernacular, the wall unit, while Big Baby Floor provides a spin-off on the convivial redwood tub. But if such sculpture leans toward furniture, it also veers into architecture, as in Houses up the Wall, 1985, where a sequence of facades and sections are jammed together to form seating units and stairs. The compacted spaces enforce uncomfortable positions; Acconci deals with architecture as the body’s conduit, stressing the point at which its clean geometries and sharp configurations become scum bled by sensuous play.

Here Acconi seems to be reaching for a public vernacular, aiming at an art that becomes accessible by encompassing popular culture. This is raunchy art, amorous of urban kitsch, evoking our collective slumming in Americana. Its materials are cultural dreck—quilted polyester, mirror, hacienda-style facades, potted plants. And it is successful in its urge to employ them as a language, as a dialect for public work. But Acconci would also go farther, for inasmuch as his repeated use of body shapes, faces, and mirrors implies narcissism, he deals with the exteriorization of the private, with the point at which the once masked and protected domain—the body and its implications—goes public. Here, Acconci’s past interests find new vehicles, and the “me” generation its public artist.

A piece installed concurrently in City Hall Park was less eventful, lacking the wit and whimsy of the gallery works. From a distance, I thought it was a plant stand installed for a flower show: five stepped rows of green synthetic turf curving into a gently rising mound. But closer inspection yielded a face shape, with eyes, nose, and upturned mouth carved into compact seating pits. Or trashbins, as was the case, in the predictable reversal of public use. A bit too cute, one thought, as the smile turned to a yawn and the gotcha! feeling faded.

Kate Linker