New York

Jack Risley

The only thing more gratuitous than making art is talking about it, and there’s something beautiful in that. In a recent Vogue memoir of his friend Francis Bacon, John Russell expressed dismay at the meager attention Bacon paid to his commentary: “‘It’s very good,’ he [Bacon] would say when one had knocked oneself out over this exhibition or that . . . ‘but, after all, what is there to say?’” When the work is working, it evokes silence, when it doesn’t, words can’t fix it. “There is no sexual relation,” according to Jacques Lacan, and there is no relation between art and art writing.

By persisting in his focus on the cardboard carton, Jack Risley is evolving a rich, expressive, nonverbal language. I’ll omit interpretation of the carton as statement about the object as empty container and cipher reflecting the spectator’s meaning or meaninglessness, Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes, fear of commitment, etc. By using throwaway and damageable materials like cartons, Risley spares us the petty trauma of feeling less settled and more dented than our objets—at least in a gallery context.

Risley’s recent cartons strike a familiar note of vagrancy tempered by coziness: the cartons are arranged in various configurations and covered with happy colored electric blankets in blue, orange, and pink. The control cords are folded up neatly, poised not to be used. If someone took control here, it would be stupid, or at least a fire hazard. Nevertheless, you want to know that there is a control switch, anyway, even if it is just for show. Coziness is held out as a tease: if you make the boxes warmer, you threaten to blow things up, just as all too often the warm fuzziness of the family unit incubates sinister elements. Maybe it’s because I’ve just gotten around to reading My Mother, My Self, but everywhere I look I’m seeing unhygienic interpersonal symbiosis.

Combinations of boxes form a skeletal structure, encased by blankets that have been cut up and sewn together again, as ifthey are communicating in some kind of family box network. A multisectioned piece evokes some kind of hastily evolved master insect, but its endoskeletal box structure seems so shoddily made that it looks as if it had to be retroactively protected with a blanket (Hi-Lo with Multiple Controls, 1992). Only two of Risley’s bigger thingies are included in this show, a pink one and a blue one. Compared to the show last year, when the boxes were in no-nonsense disposable paper blankets, it’s amazing to see the much more expressive effect he gets out of using the more literal and “loaded” domestic electric blankets. While I’m probably projecting this, the reference to sexual difference was charming, as effective as the difference between pink and blue blankets. Gender is indicated as something you can buy at K-Mart that can then be customized and activated with its own control switch. Pink and blue blankets always evoke parents trying to graft sex roles onto babies.

As opposed to the “toughness” of hard-ass corporate minimalism (in which the object is always “purer,” shinier, and more “honest” and orderly than you are), Risley, like many of his contemporaries, locates vulnerability in the object instead of the spectator. While they are clean and pastel, rather than schmutzy or done in ultraserious Joseph Beuysian neutrals, the blankets supplied the least nauseating allusion to homelessness that I’ve seen in a gallery context. These blanketed anthropomorphic cartons were a balm to my ego, assaulted by one too many shows of a-quarter-of-a-million-dollar pieces that are “about” fetishism and meaninglessness, wedging you in a stranglehold between cynical philistines who reduce all art to investments and batty dandies who get giddy and wax spiritual over two-thousand-dollar “destroyed” suits by Comme des Garçons.

Rhonda Lieberman