Los Angeles

Michael Coughlan

Tri Gallery

Michael Coughlan combines nylon cords, plywood, a volcano, and some rubber worms to create formally enticing and conceptually complex sculptures that take cheerful jabs at both Minimalist sculpture and traditional painting.

A gnarly sheet of mid-grade plywood, Still Life (all works 1994) is adorned with black nylon spider webs. Squiggly black rubber worms nestle in the carefully drilled holes. This artificial infestation turns this piece into a parodic still life: premature, manufactured decrepitude coupled with well-fed, fake vermin. The taut webs are unadorned by their real-life counterparts, while the worms, still supple, oily, and new looking, are free of the dust that will inevitably settle and stick. Similarly, An Uncertain Problem is a comic send-up of the nonfunctional art object. A white pedestal is covered with a nylon spider web. Neatly knotted, of a neon orange that could attract a color-blind fly, the web is occupied by the white rectangular pedestal, as if the Minimalist cube had grown cobwebs, or maybe just needed to be enlivened with Halloween decor.

Coughlan’s work has more in common with the early sculpture of Bruce Nauman than with that of his contemporaries. Like Nauman, Coughlan constructs a poetic rationalism that seemingly makes no sense. Annelidic Cycle beautifully illustrates this endearing logic. In this drawing, a worm is depicted biting its own tail, losing at its own game. Sure, it will regenerate a tail, but only to digest it again and again, until the nutrients are gone and exhaustion takes over.

Though for the most part not kinetic, much of the work in this show could barely hold still. Like the worm eating its tail, the ideas formulated here continually churned and mutated. Coughlan’s work enveloped the space, inviting the viewer to take the changing conditions of its environment into account. In Self-Portrait as a Small Volcano, the white peak of a smallish, chocolate-milk-colored volcano erupted in a torrent of bubbles. Depending on the state of the air conditioning unit, fans, and heating in the gallery, the bubbles trailed in different directions. A thin residue of the bubbles coated the sides of the volcano, making the otherwise matte surface shiny and slick, in this way leaving a record of the air currents. To trick a fish, it is enough to flash a cloudy representation of its favorite snack, but to catch a fly, a wilier subterfuge is necessary. Coughlan’s octagonal knotted webs were ineffective in diminishing the fly population, but they proved adequate to entrapping and entangling fussy art viewers, often the most elusive of prey.

Lisa Anne Auerbach