New York

Heimo Zobernig

Andrea Rosen Gallery

Heimo Zobernig’s first exhibition in New York ran the risk of eliciting a profound “So what?” Indeed, that response may have been intentionally cultivated by the artist, but it can only serve as a prelude to the patient consideration of subtle meaning that the work ultimately demands. Though Zobernig’s tidy constructions offer a measure of immediate gratification by virtue of their straightforward presentation and construction, rewards ultimately go to those who commit to more than a fleeting glance.

Reminiscent of Minimalism’s primary structures but more suggestive of the gap between ideas and their material incarnation that Conceptual art sought to exploit, Zobernig’s uncomplicated components provide a framework for art—nothing more and nothing less. Here he presented a plain post-and-lintel construction, fabricated from Styrofoam, flanked by several arrangements of particleboard boxes—some stacked or standing upright, some painted with white or black latex paint. An ordinary, unfinished, commercial-grade door was installed between the two rooms of the gallery with the effect of creating a threshold between public and private space and closeting off, in the rear room, a foam floor mat coated with black pigment. The exhibition also included a video, showing a vista of natural scenery and an occasional person or two, where nothing much happens for some 50 minutes. For all their mute qualities, his unexceptional elements emphasize the role of the viewer in constructing meaning. Excluded are specific indications signaling narrative or expressive contents; instead, the work sets forth the possibility of meaning(s), while it raises the question of the degree to which any artist can present ideas without his or her own intentionality functioning as a qualifying presence in the work.

Zobernig’s art might be called convenient in the sense that it can be readily manipulated, both physically and conceptually. The post-and-lintel Styrofoam construction, for example, vaguely echoes the gallery’s ceiling structure and thus promotes a physical or contextual awareness on the part of the viewer. In its resemblance to a doorway or threshold, it invites entry, yet leads nowhere. It also implies a certain monumentality, albeit one achieved with a lightweight and disposable material that can be easily reconfigured or transported. This flexibility of form and meaning is literally spelled out in the billboard project—a large black vinyl letter H emblazoned on a white background—located, for the duration of the exhibition, on the corner of Sullivan and Houston Streets. Interpreted one way, the H signifies the first letter of the artist’s name; seen another way, it suggests a partial enactment of a grid pattern (perhaps a map, perhaps a reference to one of the primary structures of Modern art), and it also exists simply as three black lines on a white ground.

Zobernig’s constructions and signs don’t make absolute declarations; rather, they campaign for a recognition of art as the simultaneous existence of both representation and the thing itself. Carefully but not lovingly fabricated, unassuming but ambitious, his work acknowledges its origins in Minimalism and Conceptualism, emphasizing meaning as it is generated through viewer response, and hence relinquishing emphasis upon the artist’s intentionality. The simplicity of Zobernig’s work suggests a certain take-it-or-leave-it attitude—either we find the conditions of the work sufficient for meaning or we don’t—but it also impels us to consider what these prerequisites might be.

Jan Avgikos