New York

Justen Ladda

Jay Gorney Modern Art

Depending on your perspective, Justen Ladda’s technically virtuosic fusion of a classical image of horsepower with its modern incarnation either simply rehashes the all-too-familiar relationship of art and commodity culture, or attempts to synthesize elements he has been exploring for the last decade. It was precisely perspective that continued to unite Ladda’s earlier efforts—the enormous rendering of the comic-book character the Thing in an abandoned school, 1981, and his many trompe l’oeil recreations of art-historical icons over found objects—with the installation that dominated this exhibition.

After negotiating the black, mazelike entrance of ride, 1992, the viewer was confronted by monumental Cheez, a Day-Glo Ford monster tractor bathed in ultraviolet light and red fluorescence. From a single vantage point on the extreme left of the space, the installation seemed to consist of a three-dimensional, free-standing sculpture on which an image of the centaur Chiron and the love-child Eros had been projected and then painted. Though these mythic figures appeared to hover over the tractor, their genitals straddling the engine, they were actually painted on the wall, the tractor itself, and the floor. At every other point the illusion of three-dimensionality was lost; the sculpture became a flat cardboard cutout, the figures unconnected body parts, the front merely one of a myriad of vantage points, no more privileged than the rest.

Seen from the side, the tractor dissolved into its constituent parts: detergent and cereal boxes, film and cigarette packaging, every manner of empty cardboard container, the spent detritus of consumption. From behind, even this semblance of order faded, and one was left with a toxic waste dump. (The revelation here was that when exposed to ultraviolet light, Tide and Fab boxes glow magnificently in the dark.) In this process of unveiling, Ladda rejected the coolness inherent in so much “consumer art” and made a direct comment on the ugliness, the suffocating waste, the garbage subtending commodity culture.

The work, however, went beyond a critique of art-historical conventions and the rapacity of late capitalism to question the nature of perspective itself. As viewers, we were characters in an elaborately choreographed dumbshow, moving around the installation and discovering a seemingly different reality at each turn. It was as if Ladda were mimicking (mocking?) our attempt to comprehend commodity culture, our search for a point of reference from which to view the whole and gain some understanding.

In breaking the illusion created by artistic tricks of perspective and dimensionality, Ladda followed his fellow German Bertolt Brecht by presenting a disjunctive spectacle, forcing the viewer into a consciously distanced, alienated, relationship to the art object. But by encircling both classical figures and monster tractor in a giant clock-face, Ladda acknowledged the passage of time—the untenability of the avant-garde’s belief in the power of art to reveal fissures in a reified system of production, given the capacity of capital to reclaim and systematically commodify resistance. In a more cynical age, art, whether classical or contemporary, is accepted as a consumer good, and artists are willing participants in their works’ commodification.

The other works in the exhibition were smaller points in Ladda’s argument about perspective, positionality, and consumerism. And while the exhibition raised a great many issues, perhaps the most compelling one was unwittingly posed: How relevant is this type of commodity critique at a time when the people who might be getting their kicks at the combustive orgy of a tractor pull are just as likely to be waiting on an unemployment line?

Andrew Perchuk