New York

Jon Tower

American Fine Arts Co.

Jon Tower isolates private acts to focus their refraction of public ritual; his “Solved Problems” series from 1988 framed inscrutable homework ciphers of mathematics and physics, while “Diluted Holy Water,” 1988, invented a wry self-portrait out of thieved Vatican fluid thinned with profane tap water. In Seed Piece, 1991, he installed the artifacts of an experiment in which he swallowed an apple seed made of silver and x-rayed its passage through his body. Tower’s methodical display of tools for this experiment (white casts of his mouth and asshole, the silver seed, a masticated apple in a chemical flask, illuminated X rays, and a doctor’s certification) dissects the inextricability of religious and scientific systems, temptation and surveillance, locating his body as the site of their conflicting inscriptions.

“Myths are surrogates—they fill in when the absence of an explanation is not tolerable,” states Tower, and these new works spotlight myth’s comfortable home in the simultaneously mundane and profound substance of water. The greatest component in our bodies—a scientific wonder—and, bottled, a new holy balm for the body-as-temple, water functions here as an overdetermined sign, vacillating between pragmatic substance and divine miracle. Evian and the tony new Glacier (touted in glossy ads as the purest water in the world) promise to baptize and purify our machined-body culture, countering, in the imaginary, the contamination and uncleanliness of a world not made safe by science. In his “Drinkable Water” pieces (all works 1991), which consist of water condensed from the air of the gallery, chlorinated, and bottled, Tower explicitly names this collapse of the sacred into the profane, further demonstrating the jumbled mythologies that continue to inform our allegedly rationalist culture.

These works make literal the site-specific practice of institutional critique with poetic economy; in Untitled (Six dehumidifiers with stainless-steel cases and glass flasks) Tower condenses the atmosphere of the gallery; in Untitled (cabinet) he stores the resulting water in wide-mouthed bottles and, finally, with Untitled (For re-placement at another location), a humidifier and five liters of water disperse the “essence” of the gallery. Untitled (indicators) charts the gallery’s changing atmospheric conditions with colored humidity-indicator paper, simulating the discreet systems of self-surveillance practiced by art institutions to preserve the physical integrity and value of their enshrined objects. Tower mediates these fragile yet irreducible borders, subtly foregrounding the arbitrary parameters and designations of the gallery space. Particularly with these indicators—delicate, malleable color fields sealed in Plexiglas, which breathe through small holes cut into the plastic—he implicates and challenges our desire for the self-contained esthetic object.

Tower pragmatically borrows the languages of Conceptual art, Minimalism, and, to a degree, ’70s “body art” to invoke invisible systems of control and to interrogate the cliché of seeing as believing. He recognizes, however, the historical reduction of these styles to signature gestures: they have become, in his words, “a new kind of genre painting.” So while his work assumes the reductive form of past movements—fetishizing the dematerialized object—this exhibition also seeks to push at the border between language and bodily experience, though the effort is self-consciously framed by the larger body of the exhibition space. The inclusion of several photographic stills (from The Invisible Man, 1933, and Doctor Jeckyl [sic] and Mr. Hyde, 1920), represents the least successful aspect of this otherwise tightly conceived project. While the references to invisibility or purity resonate, the objects themselves become undigested footnotes. This conceptually rich and physically slight exhibition also struggles with the practical realities and funky irregularities of this gallery. Due to their ironic overeffectiveness (the air becomes hot and bone dry), many of the dehumidifiers were turned off during the exhibition, and the gallery itself, with its uncharacteristic (for SoHo) physical irregularities, battled with the streamlined appearance of the objects. This (perhaps accidental) friction served, in the end, to point once again behind the curtain, a final emphatic reminder that the gallery remains, among other things, a stage upon which fantasy is reenacted.

Tom Kalin