New York

Mat Collishaw

Cohen Gallery

As far as can be told from these shores, the recent wave of young phenoms from Goldsmith’s College in London has consisted mostly of practitioners of a remote, formal, yet quirky abstraction that somehow turns out to derive from quotidian forms and materials: Angela Bulloch and her pulsing light fixtures; Gary Hume of the door paintings; Marcus Taylor with his frosty Plexiglas boxes based on appliance packaging; and Rachel Whiteread and her plaster casts of rooms. As his first American exhibition attests, Mat Collishaw is clearly up to something else.

Called In The Old Fashioned Way, 1992, his installation is simple enough to describe. You emerged from the elevator to the sound of a loud, rhythmical mechanical-clanking like something out of an industrial-age factory. As an undertone to that sound, there was some kind of cheesy “easy-listening” music that turned out to be Mantovani. What you saw as you looked into the dimly lit space (the shades were pulled down) was a largish structure, perhaps seven feet tall, built out of plywood and two-by-fours, with an electrical motor attached to it. By means of a little metal humanoid figure—reminiscent of Ernest Trova’s Falling Man (that great dystopian emblem of the ’60s) and of Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, 1936—the motor turned a rod that extended through a hole to the other side of the wooden construction. On the other side you found that the construction served as a kind of stage flat, supporting a life-size blow-up of a turn-of-the-century pornographic image depicting a woman being mounted by a zebra. As the motor turned, the zebra’s thigh and lower body swung toward and away from the woman’s rear end. Not exactly a revelation, the piece seemed more like a coarse joke, the frustration of significance.

Somehow, though, the installation’s clunky, abject, obsolete quality made the whole experience naggingly memorable. The notion of sex as mechanistic—familiar from such Dada artists as Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp—is pointedly demystifying and antiromantic, but the notion of sex as animalistic, while subject to the same rhetoric of disenchantment, is more a topos of popular culture than of avant-garde art: it tends to be used to exoticize and romanticize. In this piece the two came together: transgression was discipline, pleasure was productivity. Or, rather, one was the image and the other was the mechanism that set it in motion, though the former never camouflaged the latter. Collishaw’s work implies a hidden interdependence between these two notions of sexuality. Tinged as it is, however, with a kind of unsentimental nostalgia, redolent of ancient myths in which gods assume animal form to mate with humans, the work’s irony is less political than it is esthetic. While Collishaw seems to be pointing to the ubiquity of these fictions—no matter how “critical”—at all levels of culture the implication here is not that they engage belief, but simply that they can’t be shaken. Instead, there is the curious detachment with which, dreaming, one notes that one’s experience is an illusion.

Barry Schwabsky