New York

Jeffrey Wisniewski


Maybe the art world is hopelessly jaded, maybe entrenched recession malaise has sent us in search of diversions of any sort, maybe the cyclical revival of interest in ’70s-style radical art has opened long-closed doors. Whatever the reason, it’s been a season of stunts and provocations. Jeffrey Wisniewski’s recent dismantling of an entire suburban house in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y.. which he then had fed through a portable stump recycler—reducing the entire edifice to wood chips—and transported to a gallery for exhibition, offers the novelty of an outrageous act strategically reinforced as a recycling of ’70s precedents.

The dismembering of an unassuming suburban dwelling echoes Gordon Matta-Clark’s Splitting: Four Corners, 1974, in which the artist chain-sawed a house in half, though Wisniewski’s kamikaze demolition contrasts with Matta-Clark’s sensitivity to the poetics of the original spaces (Matta-Clark cut corner holes in the house in a purely esthetic enhancement of the existing structure). The heap of wood chips (which filled the gallery about halfway to the ceiling) recalls Walter De Maria’s Earth Rooms, but whereas De Maria brought a natural material—earth—into the man-made white cube, Wisniewski brings the remnants of a man-made structure inside on a brief stopover before sending them back out into the (natural) landscape. The site blueprints and photos of the demolition displayed in the gallery’s back room meet the documentation conventions developed by the early Conceptual artists.

What Wisniewski has done is clear. The human mind in the grips of absurdity grasps at straws, and in this case the most reachable straws are statistics, which the artist willingly supplies: how big the stump recycler is (40 feet long), how long it took to shred the house (14 hours), how big a truck was required to transport the wood chips (44 feet long), how long it took to unload them into the gallery (9 hours). Such figures impress us with the scale of the undertaking, and it’s easy to equate effort with artistic seriousness.

But what Wisniewski has accomplished—what he has contributed to the stock of so-called cultural knowledge in executing this act and proclaiming it art—is another matter. Does the project have a place on the already crowded bandwagon of works about the breakdown of the American family, our hallowed domestic unit? Does it attack the traditional values associated with that unit, or the extravagant ideal of individual home-ownership in a country plagued by homelessness? Does it symbolize the artist as unmaker, as disassembler of received social values (and of received art-historical conventions)?

Wisniewski’s act, presented without title or commentary, is one of the brashest, most out-there, and presumably most expensive of recent artistic gestures. But beyond the obvious return of dust unto dust (a previous project by the artist involved hauling feed corn up in an airplane and dumping it back on the ground), this work leaves too many questions unanswered—the kind that can’t be appeased by statistical data.

Lois Nesbitt