New York

Ken Lum

Nature Morte

For at least the past six years Ken Lum has concerned himself with a meditation on closure. His installations have consistently featured arrangements of modular sofas that look for all the world like the work of a paranoid interior decorator who’s decided to “circle the wagons”—that is, the seating is arranged in a perfect square, permitting no point of access. More recently Lum has been making signs out of nonsense words (wordlike letter combinations that belong to no language). In these, the graphic stylization cries out for a response that the absent “text” frustrates.

With its brusque collision of paranormal styles, Lum’s recent installation here could have passed for the display room of an eccentric but blasé signmaker. This time, the artist arranged his familiar modular seating in a U shape facing and abutting a large, wall-mounted mirror. While a mirror might ordinarily afford a provisional (if redundant) view, and serve as an emblem of introspection, here, by completing the formation, it does just the opposite, underscoring the discrepancy between the subject and its representation. The legible but incomprehensible posterlike signs affixed to the surrounding walls span a stylistic range from Constructivism to kitsch. By deliberately displacing images, they recall Edward Ruscha’s textual works; as a “medium” stripped of a “message,” they approximate Julie Wachtel’s muted cartoon figures or Paul McMahon’s photo of a lower Manhattan street scene in which all the signs are blanked out. But Lum differs from these in his pursuit of a screaming anonymity that is achieved through the mediated presence of words rather than through their absence.

What kind of poetic might this bespeak? Writing about Mallarmé’s “insane game of writing,” Maurice Blanchot speculates that, “the first person who ever wrote, who cut into stone and wood under ancient skies, . . . far from responding to the demands of a view that required a reference point and gave it meaning, changed all relations between seeing and the visible.” Both Lum’s furniture arrangements and his signs engage the public in a theater of passive aggression, where langue is pitted against parole, esthetics against utility, and—more critically—in which even the differential logic that governs such oppositions is called into question.

John Miller