Robin Collyer

Carmen Lamanna Gallery

As time goes by, it’s the scale of Robin Collyer’s sculpture that seems contentious. His work is strangely “between size” in the conventional sense: too big to be anything other than awkward, yet too small to seem really ambitious. It tries hard—but not too hard—in realizing itself as a “presence” in the room. It’s as if the scale, treading between this little thing and that grand thing, incorporated a lazy yawn.

This lazy yawn is a masterful touch. Careless and indulgent, self-deprecating, even humble, it sets exactly the right mood for engaging Collyer’s subject matter, which extends to consumerism, the media kingdom, and readymade art. Such a list imputes a touch more coherence than the work itself possesses, but then this is just another masterful touch. Almost since his first show in the early ’70s, it seems that his point has been to make art that is on the other side of “coherence” and “presence.” His work incorporates a kind of slothful casualness joined with a broken-down structural complexity. Although this theme of debilitation is common in much recent art, Collyer’s is distinguished by its tone of address: there is no regret, no mourning, no tears. Its scale, materials, and worked-up, false surfaces pursue normalcy with a vengeance. In context, his work looks almost chipper. It’s easy to think of it as akin to a science-fiction scenario in which the setting would be a world just about like ours, only a bit smaller, a bit less energetic—a world that seemed as if a little piece of the brain in everything had been cut away.

Sometimes Collyer can make this feel poignant. Hearth, 1988, one of three new sculptures shown here, presents a kind of roofless house made out of a gray concrete panel, some aluminum molding, and a lightbox showing what appears to be a found sign. There’s something comical about the piece—it resembles a child’s playhouse, with aluminum flames licking one side and aluminum bars bounding the other, and a façade that looks like a face (the concrete panel, with its cutouts in the shape of a “fireplace” and two “windows”). Yet the materials are straightforward, even prosaic. The lightbox shows an enlargement of the “small print” copyright information for something called “Party-time,” distributed by “Randim Marketing Inc.” with copyright by “Alchemy II, Inc., 1985.” The word play is clever—whether it is found or made up by Collyer (in fact, Collyer took it from the back of a child’s party invitation)—but it only adds to the good, gray demeanor of the piece. Hearth is a sum of surfaces, a prop-structure bound up with the concepts of money and ownership. Its material life is indisputably that of the “real” world of commerce, and yet its childish quality exists apart, like some pathetic yet irrepressible other life.

In some works—for example, Stadium and What Affects, both 1987—Collyer’s comic touch can be abrasive. He takes such familiar subjects as spectacle, public space, the mass media, and the iconography of leadership and, playing with their discursiveness, empties them of apparent meaning. The strong, monumental profile of a sports arena in Stadium turns into a joke scaled down to a sandwich of two slanted steel supermarket shelves, a light-box, and three stacked aluminum benches. Its mystique ebbs away into a congestion of “dumb” forms. The same leveling occurs in What Affects. From a distance, the piece looks like two tables, one rectangular and the other a slightly lower square, pushed together into an L shape. Around the bottom of the smaller one—actually a Plexiglas cube—Collyer presents backlit images of a Persian Gulf oil rig and five news photos of world leaders (Reagan, Thatcher, Mulroney, Khomeini, and Gorbachev). The images, which are from advertisements promoting a local newspaper, include the slogan “Sooner or later, all news becomes business news” and “What affects the world affects business.” The piece is about the inversion of values inherent in these statements. Collyer makes this explicit in the lightbox at the end of the larger table, which shows upside-down ad images on both its front and its back. The front surface shows a barechested man zipping up his jeans and is captioned “All Men Are Not Created Equal.” The image on the inner, hidden side is a crude picture of a nude woman holding a hand mirror; along the side of the picture runs the slogan “Do not touch this vehicle unless you are completely nude.” All of this starts to make sense interpreted in conjunction with the floor-tile surface that Collyer has used to cover the tops of both tables. The broad, gray grid of the tile seems overbuilt in a way that the supporting structures seem underbuilt. The tiled surface, on top instead of beneath the tables, thus becomes an ironic culmination for the ad imagery—a sort of tabula rasa of the media world—which Collyer presents as the sturdiest of false floors.

This clever, debunking modus operandi seems a handicap at times. It underscores the entropic nature of Collyer’s works, which it is possible to mistake for inertness and passivity. But this implosion of energy is intentional. The works’ “in-between” scale catches diminution in motion and projects it as a psychic as well as social condition. Monumentality and traditions of high art and culture are held in abeyance while the more familiar heft of cash-’n’-carry goods is shown in the forefront, taking over.

Richard Rhodes