New York

Sherrie Levine / Haim Steinbach

Jay Gorney Modern Art

This two-person exhibition, although not a collaborative effort, demonstrated parallels in the thought of the participating artists. The works shown were about the use and character of the mass-produced object and, along the way, the artists touched on many issues concerning the expansion of consumer culture.

Sherrie Levine was represented by spin-offs on her recent “generic” stripe paintings, with the stripes here applied to four prefabricated wooden chair seats. The ones used are the most basic, with a slightly recessed area that curves to fit the buttocks (curves that cast attractive shadows when the seats are hung on the walls and lit from above). You’ve sat on thousands of such chairs—in schools, offices, and so on—but Levine has transmuted them into wall-hung works, or what we conventionally call “paintings.” In each case, the seat has been worked with patterns of two- or three-color stripes; just as the chairs have slightly varying curves, so the repeated stripes are applied in different color combinations. Although the color appears to saturate the surface, a narrow rim of unpainted wood remains at the edge of each seat, as if to “frame” the composition, and Levine has been careful to leave a hint of the natural material showing through at the interstices of the stripes. In this way Levine constructs a sign for the handmade, indicating the degree to which the idea of the “natural” preserves the value of painting. But her works are both classy paintings and carefully crafted objects and thus function on several levels at once, focusing on the historical reciprocity of art and design, the current estheticization of the designed object, and—more significantly—on the magnification, through esthetics, of the consumer value of design. By employing a found object as a pictorial support Levine moves toward neo-Dadaist practice, but since the “ready-made strategy” is common coin in current critical discourse, she appropriates esthetic ideology as well. The latter is often an excessive tendency in Levine’s art, but it is put to stunning effect in these works.

If Levine’s are luscious single-panel works, Haim Steinbach’s are elegant triptychs, tripartite arrangements of “found” consumer items mounted on modular wood-and-Formica shelves. Again, they play the an/design dialectic, since the “shelves” are sculpture bases, the supports for Steinbach’s now-famous groupings of store-bought objects. While I’ve often had reservations about Steinbach’s critical strategies (isn’t it questionable to combat commodity fetishism through the production of fetishistic commodities?), this series is among his strongest yet—a suave grouping of buttercup-yellow spherical vases lined up in varying configurations with stacks of circular wooden trays. The permutations are limited—two bowls, one stack; two stacks, one bowl—and the shelves are divided in modular thirds of chocolate brown (beneath the bowls) and wood-grain-finish Formica (beneath the stacks). On one hand, Steinbach indulges in Modernist esthetic riposte, for these are quasi-Minimalist arrangements, seductive in their formal array. But on the other, he plays on the merchandiser’s lures, for these works bespeak a very calculated “look,” a careful calibration of effect, a sharply honed sense of the power of the slightest visual variation.

As indicated by the title of the series—“together naturally (tri-part Scandinavian Ash),” 1986—Steinbach is playing on the recurrent fashion in design for pale, “natural” materials. And, like Levine, he crafts a complex commentary on the dialectic of nature versus artifice. His use of “natural”-finish Formica to surface the shelves, when juxtaposed with the wood of the platters, hints at the contingency of the two terms; it is the major axiom of design that the artificial is the support of the natural. Yet his initiative joins most forcefully with Levine’s in the criticism they voice of the domination of the consumer environment by repetition. For the question that confronts any buyer, whether of functional objects or of art, is: Why choose this form or shape over any other when the individual distinctions are muffled by repetition? The variation, this exhibition indicates, lies in programmed similitude, the ever-so-slight, just-barely-perceptible shift that reads as fundamentally the same. And in that insinuation of difference—a near-fantasy of singularity—these artists locate the source of the consumer’s desire.

Kate Linker