New York

Not Vital

Sperone Westwater

With work that is simultaneously abstract and representational, mature and childlike, Not Vital mines the depths of our collective unconscious. Though initially his most recent pieces might seem to sit squarely within the Minimalist tradition, they have a personal, often sexual inflection. In his most recent exhibition it became clear that for Vital the process of making art is governed by the search for a primary, universal level of experience and identity. Upon entering the gallery we were presented with the artist’s name in 14 different languages—from Arabic to Wallachian—painted on the wall. Immediately to the left of this wall, Vital had installed an untitled work from 1992 which consisted of a pair of bronze antlers supporting a series of letters that spelled out “FUCK YOU.”

The remainder of the works in this exhibition were decidedly nonverbal, as if Vital wished to return us to our earliest memories, to a time when inanimate objects, animals, and people were scarcely differentiable. By evoking this “infantile” state, Vital’s sculptural world works more through association than direct commentary. In Heard, 1990, eight bronze camels’ heads supported on long poles leaning against the wall suggested an odd sort of community, while the swollen, fleshy sack of the plaster cast entitled Testicles, 1994, hung high above the viewer, referred obliquely to masculinity. There was nothing about the latter work to indicate that it was in fact a gigantic model of the artist’s testicles, or even of human testicles. Rather, it evoked the symbolic weight of maleness: the seeds of life and the putative powers of the absent phallus.

Vital’s simply constructed works uncannily reference the body to set up a chain of associations. In Sausage + Ears, 1994, for example, a large sausagelike form sprouts black-gray ears cast in bronze, an odd juxtaposition that evokes the sensory confusion of early life: the tactile and the auditory, the phallus and the orifice. In a work entitled Tongue, 1993, Vital presents an oversized bronze tongue on a rough wooden base, suggestive at once of the way a child first apprehends the object by putting it in its mouth and of the inevitable separation of self and object that occurs with the acquisition of language. Vital succeeds in evoking the complexity of early perceptual experience through simple, minimal works in which color never deviates from that of the materials he uses—plaster, bronze, Hydrocal, and wood.

Here, the representational—the testicles, the camel heads, the tongue—has been pared down in an attempt to arrive at what is fundamental to human experience. At the same time, the artist’s introductory repetition of his name screams of individuation. Vital’s work returns to the primary only to trace the process through which the individual comes to mark the world.

Anthony Iannacci