New York

Dana Duff

Milford Gallery

Dana Duff’s first show in New York has been credited with virtually defining the neo-Conceptual art trend. But while Duff’s work does fit the neo-Conceptual bill—being physically variable and utilizing a self-consciously poetic stance—her concepts are actually molten; many of her “fellows” merely play with the comic possibilities of formal inbreeding. Perhaps when speaking of Duff’s show a more interesting point of comparison would be the neo-Conceptual subgenre of “brown” or “sepia” art. In this work, history, represented by the color brown, is superimposed onto sculpture and photographic imagery as a way of investing newness with an ironic antiquity (read: meaning). Whereas “brown artists” such as Annette Lemieux, Fariba Hajamadi, and Michael Zwack seem to be announcing that the act of physical decay is somehow as meaningful as history itself, Duff’s work is rather like the result of one of those surprising archaeological digs where the impeccable condition of the artifacts almost erases their context.

The mostly sculptural pieces in this show had recognizable elements—coins, the periodic table, a fishnet, floor tiles—and an eroded, almost antiart resonance. Duff builds pristine models out of everyday materials such as salt, rice, and tar—often in direct contact with “higher” substances, such as copper and sterling silver—and fills them with a parenthetical value as art objects. At the same time, these mismatched constructions signal an unusual openness to interpretation. The “coins” are particularly evocative. Carved from salt licks—those blocks of compressed salt left out for wild deer in national parks—and framed with shiny copper and chrome rims, they come in two styles: a plainer “token” entitled New Currency (all works, 1988), and a vaguely historical-looking “coin,” with a muted, Romanesque design, entitled Currency. There is a highly seductive poetry in their contradictions—oversized but compact, heavy-looking despite their lightweight material, expensive but taking as their body the most available form of money. Another piece features a wooden frame lined with slate tiles and half-filled buckshot. It becomes the exalted, gloomy Landscape of its title while referring to that oddball consumer plaything, the ant farm. A third piece, Pure, struck the casual eye as a large photograph of a Rymanesque abstract painting. On closer inspection, however, it was revealed to be a narrow stainless steel pan framed with glass and containing grease, lye, borax, and water—the traditional recipe for soap.

These sorts of internal and external tensions give the collection an almost sensual lack of intellectual resolve, while providing it with an individualized and immediately recognizable look, of the kind that often stands in for originality on the current art market. Still, Duff’s trendiness is hardly the issue. With this very promising show she displayed a refreshingly promiscuous interest in art’s larger, lunatic relationship to the stuff of life.

Dennis Cooper