New York

Adam Rolston

Wessel O'Connor Gallery

Adam Rolston’s installation Trojans, 1991, is not about The Iliad; it’s about condoms, or rather the boxes that they are shipped in. The show consisted quite simply of 1,000 cardboard containers printed by the artist with a vinyl and rubber stamp. The stamp was also presented on the wall—a sole “painting” in a sculpture show, as it were. The gallery became a theatrical venue, suggesting a warehouse with packages stacked and strewn throughout the space. The lighting was a bit dim, and the ambiance a little mysterious.

As you may have guessed, Rolston’s installation depends rather heavily on some familiar references to the art of the ’60s and ’70s. The box itself is the ur-Minimalist form, especially favored by nuts-and-bolts curmudgeon Donald. Judd. The fuzzy mise-en-scène evokes Minimalism’s vaunted theatricality, so brilliantly condemned by Michael Fried. The most pointed reference, however, is to Andy Warhol’s famous installation of painted wooden Brillo boxes. With his handy rubber stamp, however, Rolston didn’t have to go to nearly as much trouble as did Warhol, who looks like an old-fashioned craftsman by contrast.

Of course there is a bit more to Rolston’s exhibition than retro-chic, as he takes these patented forms and strategies and weds them to a very contemporary content. Obviously this installation intends to address the AIDS crisis, although it does so only in a rather abbreviated fashion. The installation asserts, in order to negate, the equation of sex and disease. Yet its blunt agitprop agenda cannot offer much relief from the massive material and psychological repressions built into the Minimalist object.

Rolston’s installation is affiliated with the recent trend among artists concerned with critiques of gender and sexuality to recuperate Minimalist and post-Minimalist paradigms by reinvigorating them with putatively subversive sociopolitical contents. His work belongs to a spectrum that includes that of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Marlene McCarty, John Lindell, and Donald Moffett. But the varying qualities of these artists are determined less by the message or content than by their relationship to artistic predecessors. In certain instances artists attempt to work out the buried implications of institutionalized artistic models; in others they simply manipulate established practices as a form of secondary image repertoire—that is, as pastiche. Rolston’s installation belongs to the latter group. If his project looked a little thin, that very meagerness represents the difficulties facing artists eager to don the masks of history but seemingly unaware that there was ever anything behind them.

David Rimanelli