New York

Clemens Weiss

Clemens Weiss’ installation showed a peculiar sensibility at work—some kind of catalytic action seems to have occurred between the critical mind and the sensual being, between private vision and ecumenical cultural language, between contemporary issues and timeless inquiries. These dialectical concerns overlapped noisily. Weiss appears to seek some union of cerebral and visceral traditions in art precisely because of the unease it generates. His iconography is neither excessively personal nor intentionally arcane; it suggests an archetypal intuition based on materials and sensations rather than forms.

In this first ever exhibition of his work, Weiss constructed a series of altarlike installations. At the entrance to the gallery, two stacks of green-tinted glass were leaned against the wall. The random shapes and rough edges had been irregularly coated with a white, viscous substance, confirming the primary material and arbitrary forms of Weiss’ critical vocabulary as both humble and somewhat raw.

The two freestanding installations and five wall arrangements were also formed and shaped by glass, which was cut or broken and assembled in irregular shapes. One large piece, 2.2, 1980–88, sat on pallets of white-washed wooden strips and had raised glass walls. But this was no hermetically sealed enclosure: its wooden joists were uneven, the pieces of glass did not fit, and were either sloppily caulked or missing altogether. Inside the shaky structure stood glass pedestals containing small common objects. Many of these artifacts had something to do with the process of painting and most were either crimson or red. Behind these pedestals stood an easel that, like everything else, seemed hastily assembled. It supported a painting of a pig and a bust; this, too, was a study in red.

This piece, like many of the others, was a laboratory of obsession. Glass covered glass that covered glass, containers contained other containers. All of this compulsive enclosure and delineation was applied to the most ordinary objects. Many artists have used the objects of art—frames, canvases, pedestals—to propose observations and ideas about the system of display and value, but few have used the apparatus and materials to evoke such ambivalent ideas. The naive, impulsive quality of this work provided an accessible but uncompromised critique of arbitrary value and ambiguous purpose. Weiss set up a small laboratory, filled with things to inspect and to study—a place where the artifacts assembled in vitrines are meant to lead to knowledge or revelation. But the illumination that Weiss’ work suggests is the inevitability of mystery itself. The tactile and unskilled quality of the constructions provided direct access to the intellectual ironies in a fetishistic world—to the dubious correlation between objects of perceived value and ideas of genuine significance.

Patricia C. Phillips