New York

“Plastic Fantastic Lover (Object A)”

Blumhelman Warehouse

Framed by its vaguely evocative, post-psychedelic/Lacanian title, this convincingly installed group show whispers the promise of a manifesto never fully articulated. The work of 21 artists, “all of whom happen to be women,” packs the gallery—slouching in corners, sprawling on the floor, dangling from the ceiling. Formally many of the pieces attest to Eva Hesse’s (and, less directly, Andy Warhol’s) continuing influence, most bluntly apparent in Asta Gröting’s Untitled, 1991, an anthropomorphic coiled mass of silicon and wood shavings. Many of these artists borrow Hesse’s repudiation of glacial formalism, her notions of “wild space,” and her use of entropy and chaos to invest the absurd or the abject with uncanny expressiveness. Attesting to the strategic failings of much of the commodity-fetish work of the late ’80s, this exhibition injects newly resuscitated Conceptualism and Minimalism with the unruly and the absurd. Most resonant in this respect are Jessica Stockholder’s accumulation of plywood, carpets, and electrical cord, and Karen Kilimnick’s pathetic, disaffected videos (with hand-drawn boxcover and bow) Emma Pelt and Nice and Introducing Tabitha (both 1991).

As with any group exhibition, imposed conceptual frameworks often crumble under scrutiny; wisely, “Plastic Fantastic Lover” attempts to trace the loose contours of a zeitgeist rather than to define a coherent polemic. Refusing the role of master narrator, curator Catherine Liu privileges ellipsis over omniscience in her catalogue essay. Martin Scorcese’s section of New York Stories, 1989, and Charles Vidor’s Gilda, 1946, as well as David’s Oath of the Horatii, 1784 (curiously read by way of thirtysomething), fuel her second take on feminist theories of the eponymous “gaze,” that elusive agent of desire. Liu’s deliberately eclectic text, while provocative, merely alludes to its Lacanian referent, swinging sloppy with her presumption of gender as fixed identity and her (heterocentric) assertion that “what makes us look across the divide between men and women is love.” (Surely the continuing redefinition of sexual politics and identities has complicated reductive formulations of object choice.) Invoking the forces of the abject and the powers of subjectivity, Liu locates these works’ refusal to translate theoretical or political conceits within an esthetic radicality she defines as “rigorous formalism combined with psychological authenticity.” Sketchily defined in the essay, however, Liu’s claims for esthetic radicality are ironically inflected with a touch of reinvented Greenbergian formalism.

Both Cathy de Monchaux’s Safe, 1991 (nine erotically charged clamped pouches with and without alabaster balls), and Rachel Lachowicz’s cast lipstick Decorum, 1991 (red breasts crowning an architectural sconce), recall the psychic undertow of Meret Oppenheim’s fur-lined teacup (consummate Surrealist icon and witty lesbian entendre); yet neither possesses the laconic poetry and uncanny intensity of Oppenheim’s domestic intervention.

Locked into the constraints of a revisionist formalism or resurrected “style,” many of these works lack the self-criticality required to escape familiar historical tropes; Sylvie Fleury’s accumulation of shopping bags, Spellbound, 1991, or Angela Bulloch’s installation of belisha beacons, Blue Four, 1991, are particularly flat in this regard. Other works, notably Beverly Semmes’ sumptuous Four Purple Velvet Bathrobes, 1991, or Rona Pondick’s hanging mass of teeth and shoes, entitled Charms, 1991, appear stranded within the more challenging context of this show, their dopey theatricality striking a cloying note.

The best works in this exploratory exhibition point to a wary, disenfranchised subjectivity, a cultural approach weary of media irony and searching for a toehold in the fissure between Modernist formal purity and post-Modernist pastiche. Recognizing the limitations of a feminism that defines itself solely in relation to language, “Plastic Fantastic Lover” embraces clutter and excess en route to an indirect and complicated articulation of the “personal as political.”

Tom Kalin