New York

Matthew McCaslin

Daniel Newburg Gallery

The gallery as nonsite. From the empty exhibition space to scatter installations, the performance of a nonsite is less a matter of materials than of timing—an almost baroque prolongation of the moment directly preceding the encounter with art. There are no high stakes in this parlor game of defamiliarization, for the gallery as nonsite can only be a theatrical event concluding in the attainment of art, and we willing players in the recreational sport of pursuit. The miseen-scene that facilitates Matthew McCaslin’s version of the art chase is a construction site. Extension cords and electrical conduits—some hooked up to circuit boxes and switches or dimmers, some dangling incandescent bulbs or strutting neon tubes, some menacingly sprouting a live wire or two—lie in loose coils or tangled across the floor amidst the usual bits of trash and discarded packaging that are ubiquitous to the job site. Similar conduits, cords, bulbs, and tubes are geometrically reconfigured on the wall and provide temporary sources of light and power. It’s difficult to determine exactly which components have been imported by McCaslin and which are permanent, for all the gallery’s electrical fixtures are subject to inclusion in this situational foreplay. A pervasive sense of abandonment floods the site and uncertainty mushrooms. It’s not clear whether we have arrived before, during, or after the exhibition. Maybe the gallery really is undergoing renovations or has suddenly folded. Were electricians hired to reconvert the space for another tenant? Have we, perhaps, made a mistake and wandered into the wrong space?

Our delicious moment is just about up. The chaos of cords, live wires, and trash reveals its artifice with the discovery of the checklist that sends us back to the coils, conduits, and circuit boxes to discriminate individual sculptures amidst the environmental flotsam. Uncertainty evaporates and the performance of the nonsite comes to an end. Leftover from the construction process, the junk strewn around the gallery was an effective ploy but, alas, only a stage prop. Sweep it all away and what remains are works that replough the ground of the ’70s sculpture, with perhaps a tip of the hat to Dan Flavin and Peter Halley. The otherwise insignificant coil of BX flexible tubing and wiring, plugged into an outlet with its red light burning, entitle, Critic’s Corner, 1991, gets a second look. The wall-mounted rectangular frame of conduit accessorized with an incandescent bulb, outlet box, and extension cord, entitled Path Of Least Resistance, 1991, evinces a certain utilitarian elegance once it claims our undivided attention. In another wall piece, Time And Materials, 1991, the angular line of conduit, configured like a quick abbreviated signature, is rigged to an outlet box and switch, thus enabling its glowing neon tip to be turned on and off.

Unlike Halley’s paintings of conduit and circuit systems with their professed sociopolitical content, McCaslin’s stripped-down sculptures withhold social commentary, substituting gimmick for critique. When pronounced from the “critic’s corner,” gimmick usually has pejorative connotations indicating trivial or facile innovation. Left to his own devices, (he gives a similar title to a sagging, wall-mounted grid of outlet boxes), McCaslin sometimes goes crazy with hardware, managing, at best, a fleeting humor that pokes fun at formalism. But gimmickry can also function as disguise and if the situational deployment of a nonsite briefly de-familiarizes the art experience, then we must ask if the trick of reducing art’s function to the flick of an electrical switch might not also serve a similar purpose. When McCaslin’s work follows its own “path of least resistance,” it holds to an ambiguous ground whereby simple materials that make no other claim than as elements of an environment in which their presence makes perfect sense, simultaneously manage to suggest the condition of art. Here, the nonsite strategy still relies upon formalist devices, but the gimmick of transparency, by which works don’t announce themselves as works of art, suspends the moment of delayed recognition and the more the period of equivocation is prolonged, the more profitable the experience. When McCaslin’s sculptures work, this is how they do it.

Jan Avgikos