Middletown, CT

Andrei Roiter

Center for the Arts, Wesleyan University

A Russian artist who divides his time between Amsterdam and New York, Andrei Roiter seems to have cultivated a talent for making himself at home. In his recent show, he inhabited the institutional architecture of the Zilkha Gallery with the resourcefulness of a castaway on a desert island, transforming the inhospitable concrete and carpeted spaces into an art-friendly environment. The installation, Potato Head, 1995, consisted of a series of drawings and photographs encircling the main gallery, and a selection of paintings and sculpture hung in the smaller, chapellike rotunda. A number of works suggested that, in fact, Roiter hoped to escape or be rescued from the cozy nest he had built. Along with a pile of driftwood that might prove useful for sending smoke signals, and a small wooden airplane, there was a heap of mangled cardboard boxes, spackled in drab-green concrete and perforated with holes—representations of ham radios familiar from Roiter’s previous work.

The work hanging on the walls focused on communication as a survival strategy. For Roiter—who notes in one drawing, "I can speak English! (Sometimes)”—the mastery of language comes via many embarrassing incidents, escapist fantasies, and much interpretive license. The cycle of drawings reads like a mazy travelogue with a potato as protagonist who, much like an overeager tourist intent on absorbing local customs, finds himself undergoing all kinds of transformations. There’s a Claes Oldenburg-esque watercolor of the potato as public monument, a Sputnik pomme de terre, photographs of the potato riddled with nails in which it resembles a molecular model or perhaps a martyr, and a potato-cum-turd. As the rate of metamorphosis increases, the potato changes form, becoming a magnifying glass, a meatball, a tent, a crown of thorns. In the end, though, it returns to its original vegetal incarnation, little affected by its journey.

Like his compatriot, Ilya Kabakov, Roiter has a fantastic appetite for detail, no matter how insignificant. The exhibition was supplemented by a small pamphlet and an artist’s book, based on a pocket-sized sketchbook full of pictures, that included blank pages on which to make notes. Out of a drawing, Potato World Unlimited, that diagrams his iconography comes the revelation that in Russian “head” and “chapter” are the same word. At that moment, one is seduced into believing that this whole encyclopedic installation makes perfect sense. Establishing a connection among the intricately conceived layers of his work, however, is no easy task. Any illusion of an overall pattern quickly dissolves, as one returns to the inventive realm of uncanny associations—the place where Roiter hones his skills as a tourist and an artist.

Ingrid Schaffner