New York

Perry Bard

SculptureCenter

While many artists appear to address major political and societal issues in their work, the roster of those who can manage the fluttering balance of social agendas and formal strategies remains quite small. Equilibrium is difficult to achieve; one objective usually rises to the diminishment of another. With this exhibition of powerful confrontational sculptures and installations, Perry Bard raises the standards for politically engaged artists. Bard’s particular focus in this exhibition was the interpretation of justice. Her work is concerned with how the esthetic vision can construct the dimensions of a political environment.

The exhibition included four projects. Shelter and Text from Interview, 1989, consisted of a 17-page manuscript of an interview with “Scott” (a homeless occupant of Thomas Paine Park), a stenciled quotation from the interview about the camouflage of the homeless, and a cardboard shelter shaped into a distorted, one-armed cruciform. The long, coffinlike shelter had been painstakingly constructed by Scott; the various scraps harvested from city refuse were assembled with obvious care and tied together so that the unit could be easily collapsed and transported. Most of Scott’s other shelters have been destroyed or disrupted regularly by officials trying to rid city parks and spaces of the sad, unsavory scenes of homelessness. Scott’s discursive text describes the profound discomfort of the homeless and the concealment of this profound human problem as exercised by the city.

This human shelter shared the gallery’s large central space with Here Lies, 1989–90. A low wall of cinder blocks form the rectangular perimeter of the open sarcophagus. Within its empty volume the artist placed rubble and debris. At the head of the piece sits a Plexiglas wedge, like a pillow for the deceased’s head; it is the projection surface for a series of slides documenting small shelters in city spaces. The sequence of images creates a rich context in which to gauge, emotionally and intellectually, a problem of enormous scope. Bard’s sober juxtaposition suggested the simple eloquence and proportions of Scott’s own shelter nearby. Both objects convey the magnitude of the crisis of homelessness, as well as the human spirit’s ability to ignore or cope with varying proportions of degradation.

Why Not Murder For Pay, 1987–90, provides another tough examination of the scales of justice. It includes two sandblasted, Plexiglas pillars. One stands on the floor; the other is suspended directly above it. On the front surfaces Bard inscribed so-called “mitigating factors” and “aggravating factors,” which inform the severity of the sentence issued to one convicted of a crime. Resting on the surface of the bottom pier, tightly sandwiched between the two, is a small metal bed on wheels. Three leather straps suggest the restraints of an electric chair; the bed comes to seem a final resting place. The piece demonstrates how interpretation of motivations and circumstances is often the primary instrument of fate; how presumed intentions and the evaluation of free will determine the extent of criminality and punishment.

A less grim, but no less provocative sculpture, was an ironic observation of the monument. Memorial to a Monument, 1990, uses a conventional memorial typology. A gray slab bearing a Samuel Beckett quotation sits on a plinth containing a backlit transparency. The image shows the very bottom of a statue at the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court in New York. Its inscription appeals for wisdom in the judicial process. The monument both inspired the form and becomes the subject of parody in this exposition on will and law enforcement. Bard’s work presents disturbing looks at the world, but it is never simply morose; rather, it stimulates renewed enlightenment and action. It reminds us that the exercise of justice and the quality of mercy are never simply bestowed, but are always under construction and in need of vigilant review.

Patricia C. Phillips