New York

Merlin Carpenter

Petzel/Borgmann Gallery

Perhaps we should be grateful that Merlin Carpenter just doesn’t seem to give a shit. British-born, under 30, and a former Martin Kippenberger assistant, Carpenter makes stuff with an alternately kiss-me-I’mclever and ignore-me-I’m-just-cynical posture. His charmingly awkward, coyly provisional excursion into the realm of computer-assisted image-making raises the question, What’s the difference between the dilettante-as-artist and the artist-as-dilettante? Like certain other artists of the twenty-something generation, Carpenter assumes, rightly or wrongly, that we’re no longer interested in differentiating between the two; perhaps the difference is indeed moot. In any event, this impasse seems to have freed Carpenter to dabble away.

His attitude of choice is laissez-faire tinged with the requisite irony hangover. The works in this, his first New York solo show, are based on photographs the artist made while visiting places such as Los Angeles, Cologne, London, Hannover, Essen, and Hastings. The technical problems of computer-imaging are approached with a canny clumsiness that will endear him to some, and undoubtedly send as many others scrambling for the nearest authentic morphing-effects fix (perhaps a videotape of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, 1991, or Michael Jackson’s video for “Black or White,” 1991). Carpenter feeds his street-specific pictures into the microchip-world, tears them apart with his keyboard and mouse, then cuts and splices the disparate fragments to fashion disjunctive urban scenes that shrug off the requirement of believability.

It all sounds pretty hip, right? And, since there’s a style quota for the genuinely hip, Carpenter has taken steps to annihilate style altogether in the name of delirious visual contradiction. Disparate architectures are cloned and then illogically fused to produce hybrid cityscapes: German reconstruction houses from the ’50s mix freely with oppressive high-Modernist high-rise buildings, and streets appear to crawl up the side of skyscrapers into the stratosphere—a frozen visual melee. Carpenter’s work might be read within the context of, or as an obnoxious riposte to, the kind of “straight” street photography (an extension of Neue Sachlichkeit) practiced by someone like Thomas Struth. Whereas Struth doggedly delights in the power of the photographic apparatus to “order” vision around a specific place, Carpenter “dumbly” uses the computer as a tool to wreak havoc with that ideology of order, emphasizing irregularities of scale, composition, and perspective. Yet, paradoxically, the whimsical, postapocalyptic scene evoked within the violently molested urban sprawl of a work such as Water Mess, 1994, sets us up for a spicy techno-collage experience that it cannot deliver; there is nothing even remotely redeeming in our sense of disappointment.

As we know from Kevin Lynch’s seminal treatise on urbanism “The Image of the City,” 1960, our understanding of city space is based upon a composite of fragmented perceptions: the cartography of mind/imagination and the geography of place enter into mutually informing relations. In The Kensington Puddle, 1994, Carpenter inserts himself (twice) into the composite picture, suggesting that rituals of travel and touristic activity lead to all sorts of displacements (psychological, spatial, cultural), which can find only furtive articulation in the annals of imagination and memory. As metaphors for the capriciousness of a post-Modern, postnational flaneur, Carpenter’s works are rather fatigued, but since mediocrity has now earned its own special place in the cultural meritocracy, perhaps leveling such a criticism seems just as tired.

Joshua Decter