Los Angeles

George Stone

Ruth Bloom Gallery

George Stone’s latest installation evoked a scene from a morgue: ten gun-metal gray latex sheets, doubled to form what looked like body bags, lay stretched out on a concrete floor. Resembling useless oxygen tubes, thin rubber hoses ran from the bags to a track fixture on the ceiling. Most macabre of all was the fact that the bags, seemingly filled with human remains, frequently stirred with uncannily lifelike movements (made by robots fabricated with PVC tubing that mimicked the articulated human joint). These figures abruptly recoiled into fetal crouches or slowly stretched out creaking limbs, rippling the latex with a fetching sensuality. You had the sense of watching something struggling to crawl out of its own skin.

Stone’s installation conjured nightmares of premature burial, or, alternately, visions of pod people being hatched (the rubber hoses suggested a high-tech umbilical cord). The undertone of oppressive isolation might in other hands have become a corny existentialist metaphor, but Stone’s labile and corrosive wit frustrated any simplistic reading. Foregrounding the latent content of Minimalism’s pristine forms, his soft, mobile rectangles brought art to “life” only to underscore the gallery’s funereal aura.

Given time, the bagged robotic figures were also surprisingly engaging. Each faceless unit had been programmed with a unique set of movements, ranging from the tentative to the purposeful, from the erotic to the restless, and if you observed them long enough, distinct “personalities” began to emerge. As independently acting “individual” units, they seemed ironically to reference the Modernist notion of the autonomous art object—only Stone’s robots were clearly dependent on an absent programmer.

The programming didn’t preclude a certain amount of randomness, however: the bags, which were originally installed in two straight rows, crawled and humped across the floor to form unprogrammed, and constantly shifting alignments. Because the installation forced you to make constant choices about where to look, you were left with a keen sense of the work of art as an ongoing event that defies control by any single agency. In a state of flux, Stone’s inhuman forms seemed, paradoxically, to echo the antimonumental agenda of ’60s performance and body art, as well as post-Minimalist sculpture and scatter art.

Rather than valorizing the humanist element of that agenda, this work emphasized both the machinelike aspects of bodily functioning, and conversely, the individual character of mechanical gesture. Curiously, the abstract anonymity of the bagged robots only heightened their visceral power: wrinkling like skin, the latex bags rose and fell in an unnerving parody of the body’s arousal and decay. Precisely by avoiding the literalness of much recent body-oriented art, Stone was able to derail our tendency toward psychological projection, not simply to throw it back in the viewer’s face, but to raise the question as to whether our readings of “personality” are far more mechanistic than we imagine. If the sterile gallery space is lugubrious by definition, this show brilliantly argued that the relations between the living and the dead—and between a host of other polar oppositions—cannot be so easily classified.

Ralph Rugoff