New York

James Nares

Michael Klein, Inc.; Fawbush Gallery

James Nares has had a varied and busy career in New York’s downtown scene since the mid ’70s. In the highwater years of punk he cofounded the artist’s collective Collaborative Projects, Inc., played guitar in a “no-wave” band called the Contortions, and worked on numerous underground film and video projects. In his own best-known Super-8 film, Rome ’78, he directed a troop of downtown celebrities (among them David McDermott, John Lurie, and Lydia Lunch), depicting them as power-crazed egomaniacs in a deliriously ignoble imperial Rome.

It’s a long way from the barely controlled hysteria of Rome ’78 to the muted poetry of Nares’ new wall-mounted sculptural tableaux, but the differences may be more of focus and media than essence and idea. At the Fawbush Gallery, Nares showed a suite of 12 woodblock prints entitled “The Golden Ladder,” 1988. The concave and convex outlines echo the abstract forms of the sculptural pieces that were on display at Michael Klein, Inc. The similarities between the artist’s work in two- and three-dimensional models underscore just how closely the latter approaches the condition of painting. Most of the sculptural works consist at least partly of molded Hydro-Stone, a kind of plaster that Nares mixes directly with powdered pigment, resulting in dusty, chalky pastels. The immediate impression of the installation is of artifacts retrieved from a recent archaeological dig. The distressed, ragged disks used in several pieces evoke Cycladic or Minoan pottery. But the acuity of the artist’s metaphoric conceit lies in his yoking together imagery that suggests past and future—archaeology and technology. Protoscope, 1988, is comprised of a row of variously sized and colored Hydro-Stone disks on a metal shelf; the title itself implies that these disks might be seen as lenses or ancient optical instruments. Nares alludes both to antiquity and to modern technologies of vision, confusing the issue of which era he wants to address. He employs a similar time warp in Scarab, 1988, in which he pairs glass wedges in the shape of TV screens with what look like aqueous blue lenses. In ancient Egyptian mythology, the scarab is a symbol of the soul and immortality. But what sort of immortality does the television ensure in the 20th century?

The ruined, antique look of these objects conjures an inevitable romantic nostalgia, as if the artist were a shaman transforming outmoded technologies into instruments of magical divination. Perhaps Nares wants to suggest some spiritual continuity in his linkage of the ancient and modern; even the simple, so-called “pure” abstract forms he employs might engender a timelessness bridging epochs. But what rescues these works from the easy trap of daydreaming is the sense that these are our urns. So we can perhaps return to Rome ’78 as a model for Nares’ practice: the actors playing out the scenarios of their own desperate times in the costume of a black-comedic Roman Empire. Appealing to the ancient past, Nares comments on how our modern age ceaselessly consumes itself, rendering the monuments of one day the weary relics of the next. His work shows how nothing looks sadder than yesterday’s modernity.

David Rimanelli