Siah Armajani

Storm King Art Center

Both this exhibition and a concurrent one at Max Protetch gallery in New York were filled with continuities, as well as departures, from Siah Armajani’s earlier work. While his interest in the political structure of American public spaces remains, two recent series (entitled “Streets,” 1992–93 and “Notations on Streets,” 1992) condense the artist’s familiar examinations of architecture and artifacts in small tableaux of corrugated cardboard, props for model-train sets and doll houses, and found materials. These diminutive studies manipulated conventions of presentation (combining and confusing plan, section, diagram, and perspective) and the relationship between representational models and actual objects. Armajani uses the poetry of Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams as a basis for his collagelike structures and constructions. In his exploration of the regional peculiarities of small towns, industrial and agricultural sites, and domestic environments, these texts serve to suggest the melancholic, idiosyncratic quality of American life.

In contrast to Armajani’s meticulous sculptures and public art projects, “Streets” was deliberately rough and inconclusive, memorable as a series of investigations rather than as a grouping of singular works. That the elements lacked visual resonance and resolution did not affect Armajani’s skepticism toward the themes and strategies that have served him so well for the past twenty years. “Streets” was an homage to ordinary landscapes presented with the flamboyant richness of Persian miniatures (an influence that Armajani now generously acknowledges).

In addition to this series (shown predominantly at Protetch), the summer-long exhibition at Storm King included Armajani’s more familiar large indoor and outdoor sculptures. Streets #49, 1992, was a room-sized, sprawling construction. Threaded through a trestle bridge that spanned 20 feet was a line with laundry supported by thick poles that formed the boundaries of the piece. Beneath the bridge stood a small blue building, a green table and chair, and a large vitrine enclosing a model of a small village. With a vertiginous range in scale and flawless fabrication, Armajani wildly mixed domestic and industrial typologies.

On a small knoll, the artist installed Gazebo For Two Anarchists: Gabriella Antolini and Alberto Antolini, 1992. This fiercely didactic piece raised disquieting questions about the role of dissent and demonstration in contemporary democracies. A white bridge spanned two small, blue-green steel pavilions, each containing a straight, wooden chair with a white cage projecting behind it. As in so much of Armajani’s work, the bridge was a negotiable channel—or barrier—to direct communication.

For many years Armajani has explored ways to construct formal analogues to democratic concepts. Gazebo’s spacious bridge and gracious site figured a sweep of ideas, while the cagelike chambers evoked an imminent threat to freedom of speech. By creating functional spaces, he makes vigilance into a sustained, conscious, and physical task. The most powerful conceptual strategy in Armajani’s work is the connections he forges among ideas, actions, and forms as they engage in the construction of knowledge: he uses the lexicons of architecture and material culture to build lessons in democracy.

Patricia C. Phillips