New York

Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler

Wolff Gallery

“Dark on That Whiteness,” a show of four related new works by the young sculptors Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler, had the fastidious tone that is virtually a prerequisite among the new generation of Conceptual artists who have come out of California Institute of the Arts. What distinguishes Ericson and Ziegler’s collaborative efforts—and, to a lesser extent, the pieces they’ve been making individually since 1980—is their unabashed continuation of deconstructive modes at a time when so many intellectually inclined artists are romancing viewers with imagery again. This duo wants it both ways, and on their own willfully modest terms, they’re succeeding.

The four works in this show (all 1987) consisted of jars of paint arranged on black metal shelves or individual brackets on the walls of a single small room, one work to a wall. The largest and most audacious piece, also entitled Dark on That Whiteness, was made up of 171 8-ounce jars of white, black, gray, yellow, red, and brown paint, of all different shades, the glass surface of each jar sandblasted with an ethereally descriptive word or two. These turned out to be the names that the paint manufacturers had come up with for the various colors: Mocha Buff, Peachy Keen, Spider Web, Croissant, etc. The jars were mounted across the length and breadth of the wall in an obscure pattern. My first response was to stand back, squint, and try to connect the dots. (I thought I could pick out a Keith Haring “dog.”) In fact, although you’d have to be a friend of the artists to know it, the pattern formed a crude aerial map of Washington, D.C.; the jars represented government buildings and monuments; and the paints were chosen to match the colors of the facades. Whisper, the title of the work just opposite, is the name of the white paint actually used for the White House exterior; here the paint was displayed in a single gallon jar with the name sandblasted on it. All this Washington business—the theme carried through all four works—fuzzily suggested a political agenda, but the show was too weighted down with trivial information to seem anything but a mind game, the art-world equivalent of Rubik’s cube.

A promising strategy that has surfaced recently in the work of numerous artists—and one that Ericson and Ziegler make at least passing use of—involves exploring poetic meaning as a way to move art beyond the failed suicide of corn-modified abstraction. For these two artists, poetry means a low-key, sentimental referencing to earthy materials, traditional values, and American icons such as the Capitol. An installation they did last year here in New York (“Time the Destroyer Is Time the Preserver”) consisted of homegrown vegetables presented in a format similar to this one—sealed in jars and arranged on shelves—and an earlier piece (“House Monument,” 1986) filled the gallery of the now defunct Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art with enough precut wood to build a small house. “Dark on That Whiteness” may have been their most refined presentation yet, but this refinement was accompanied by a troublesome ambiguity. The pristine arrangement of paint in jars on shelves had the look of a workshop readied for action, as if we, the viewers, could make something out of the paint, even if only in our minds; but the jars suggested an artwork born dead, packed in formaldehyde, and put on public display.

Dennis Cooper