Buffalo

Gary Nickard

Burchfield Penney Art Center

Gary Nickard successfully courts two seemingly opposed mistresses in his exhibition entitled “Science as Spectacle.” Indeed, the show’s pristine sterility seems attuned to both the temper of the art market and the imperatives of the laboratory. Not a lab rat is out of place, including the audience.

Some of the more delicate or dangerous apparatuses in the exhibition are labeled with the words “Please do not touch,” a warning that no one is likely to ignore. Who would dare tamper with these careful displays of tubing, circuitry, and filaments? Ripped out of context, the equipment looks more formidable than it is; the only real danger is that of mild electrical shock. Function is very much a mystery here; even though some of the work is activated by the viewer’s foot pedal, the resulting sparks and buzzes amount to little more than a minor and anticlimactic sound and light show. Their presentation is the real spectacle, using carefully balanced interpolations of color and texture to play back Nickard’s keynote of empty homage.

At the Threshold, 1987, is surrounded by a handsome background of painted board and silver print panes, that embeds the workaday equipment within an austere shrine. Nickard repeatedly employs copper panels as well as red, cobalt blue, and oxidized green coloring—beautiful decorative touches that suggest alchemic symbolism. A Day in the Life of a Lab Rat, 1987, employs such accents to increase the sense of stunned bewilderment emanating from the painted rats. They stare as blankly at us as we do at them, bereft of the context that would explain their presence. Nickard’s careful placement of his artifacts and representations dares the viewer to consider the political charges of exploitation and environmental damage that they implicitly level.

When the mad scientist steps forward, as in Van De Graff Generator, 1986, he glows within the woven circle of his accoutrements. This work’s weird elegance seems to exempt it from commentary, except that technology framed and hung is always problematic. In another, more recent series included here, Nickard has continued in this vein, exploring the possibilities of making ironic bibelots out of the detritus resulting from various scientific research projects. Nickard exploits the parallels between studied abstraction and naturally produced forms, so that a pretty Fujichrome print of blue and red squiggles is called by the imposing name of Electronic Particle Detector’s Computer Display of Proton Antiproton Collision (Annihilation) Resulting in the Decay of a Z Particle into an Electron and a Positron, 1990. There are several sets of prints in the exhibition that juxtapose harmless decorative effects with ominous metaphorical titles. Large Galaxy Capturing and Assimilating Smaller Neighbors in a Galactic Cluster, 1990, is one such grouping; the images are of the sort one might expect to illustrate a book by Carl Sagan.

Ultimately, this work lives in a sterile twilight world of its own, offering a backhanded homage to both of its mismatched progenitors, but withholding any final allegiance. Whether Nickard’s dichotomous spectacle is a shotgun wedding or a heavyweight bout remains to be seen.

Elizabeth Licata