New York

John Lekay

Cohen Gallery

John LeKay’s recent two-part exhibition “The Separation of Church and State” tried to make the viewer confront issues that are either taboo or “socially embarrassing”: religion, homelessness, race, disability, bodily functions, and domestic violence. His sculptural amalgamations are self-contained tableaux composed of objects that are either useless, broken, or just plain garbage.

The two sculptures, shown in the first part of the exhibition, appropriate Christian iconography. The Separation of Church and State, 1991–93, takes the shape of a cruciform over a stained piece of carpeting. At the center a wheelchair sits on top of a Raggedy Ann & Andy mattress with Guns N’ Roses playing from a tape recorder on the seat. Mops, brooms, curtain rods, and a charred piece of wood form the axis of the cross connecting the central image to four collections of household junk: an open and filthy kitchen cabinet topped by a teetering stainless-steel sink; the bowl of a leaning toilet, its seat sporting an ornate basin held up by putti, on top of which sits an old black and white TV crowned by a headless Madonna-and-child sculpture; an open, beat-up trunk with a box fan blowing; and a glass vase duct taped together, containing silk flowers waving in the breeze, that rests on a table missing one leg. In the corner of the room, away from the crucifixion scene, the heads of the Madonna and child lie upside down on a pillar.

This piece and its companion Lazyboy Jesus, 1991–92, in which a dime-store image of Christ sits on a Naugahyde La-Z-Boy armchair, suggest psychological disablement, the inability to experience the spiritual amidst the noise of materialism, kitsch, television, and our own laziness. At the same time we feel the oppressive nature of much organized religion, which holds out the promise of spiritual solace to those willing to pay up.

There is a certain formal elegance to all these works. All five are still lifes but they exist in an extremely precarious position. They are all balance, an attempt to contain or negotiate anomalous elements. Momentarily frozen, they seem ready to topple or implode at the least provocation. They could be Rube Goldberg machines for the severely mechanically challenged, and in fact the artist describes These Colors Don’t Run, 1991–93, (which includes an American flag flying over a garbage can hiding exposed wiring) as a suicide machine.

The question inherent in this exhibition is, When is the pathetic a valid esthetic strategy? LeKay attempts to shock, revelling in his obvious poor taste, especially in Zipperdeedudazipperdeeday, 1991–92, which ironically appropriates the voices of homeless black men. These pieces seem to want to provoke a visceral reaction and quite literally to extend the discomfiting mise-en-scène of the tableaux. Instead they are quite polite—the air freshener in Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue?, 1992–93, had no smell, the fan in The Separation of Church and State barely kicked up a breeze, and the soundtracks were as loud as background noise at the mall. LeKay has said that he works “on the fine line where something can be really awful or really beautiful,” a statement reminiscent of Nigel Tufnell’s wisdom in This Is Spinal Tap (1984): “there’s a fine line between being clever and being really stupid.”

Andrew Perchuk