New York

Richard Artschwager

Leo Castelli

Richard Artschwager has been making Formica sing for years, not only since materials with no “integrity” were deemed classy. As usual, in this recent show the enigmatic and elegantly geeky Artschwager message was uttered through a wide variety of formats: a “mirror,” a “window” (both opaque Formica), and various pictures. An amputee cellolike “instrument,” leaning against a corner for support, was a true Beckett object; it was so round and bottom heavy it looked incapable of supporting itself and impossible to move. Another work consisted of a very heavy wooden door leaning back at a dangerous angle; built to suggest a perspectival vanishing point, it needed the support of the corner it rested in. Neither functional nor free-standing, the door seemed to invite entry to some dysfunctional wonderland. In the midst of this droll synthetic milieu of Formica and fiber bits, the repressed animal element surfaced in a pair of truly uncanny horsehair-covered chairs (edition of 100). A ridge down the middle of each half-moon seat evoked the posterior of a weird flat mammal. Two large corner reliefs, splayed out in Formica and fake wood grain, entitled Journal I and Journal II (both 1991), looked like Frank Stellas for the congenitally tacky.

Artschwager knows how to take something everyday and make it look ever so slightly demented, like a bit of weave or a knot in two little fiber paintings. Across from these innocuous and ultrasterile pieces, a war tank done in the same technique takes on an appropriately sinister blandness. In this sense, Artschwager’s work anticipated and resonates in affect with the work of younger artists today who are into degraded or anonymous objects, with neither character nor minimalist purity, but who still want to make things rather than find them.

I like to imagine Artschwager pieces in dynamic corporate settings. His relentless use of synthetic fibers evokes sick building syndrome, microwave cuisine, and the emotional range of Donna Reed—in short, the real, the repeated nonencounter between the mortal and the canned. In one picture, entitled Running Man, 1991, a fiber-textured running figure is paralyzed on a ground of faux-canvas Formica. The figure is trapped in a stagnant gesture of motion, in total nonrelation with the trompe l’oeil ground. That was the moving part.

While the installation felt a bit crowded, the various objects in the show informed each other beautifully and combined to make poignant sensations about the places between the weird and the stale, the fluid and the stuck.

Rhonda Lieberman