New York

Tony Feher

Richard Anderson Gallery

What might it mean to bear witness to the trivial, to personalize detritus, to transform the utterly generic into a kind of miniature theme park of memory? Displaying a lyricism that borders on the narcissistic, Tony Feher’s floored, piled, and scattered arrangements of both useless and once-useful quotidian objects—jars, packing materials, bits of lumber, and the like—monumentalized the apparently banal, suggesting that even the most commonplace items can be suffused with personal significance.

On the one hand, Feher’s works—discernible as such thanks only to the treasure-hunt-like “map” provided by the gallery—clearly referenced art-historical precursors from Marcel Duchamp to Richard Serra. That the phrase “Untitled Monumental Sculpture” comprises the first part of the title of several pieces is a reflection of Feher’s playful critique of the inflated, almost totemic status of the found object in contemporary art. Other works, such as A Way, 1995, a collection of purple-and-green-painted cardboard egg cartons and cup holders arranged lengthwise into a 14-foot horizontal “road” dividing the gallery floor, rerouted Minimalism’s fixation on the quiddity of the object by suggesting the possibility, however fleeting, of escape. Still other pieces invoked a degraded Romanticism: Underfoot, Oleander Seashells, 1992–95, a multicolored collection of plastic milk-carton and water-bottle tops strewn across the gallery floor, literalized litter while pointing (titularly at least) toward the “naturalness” of the artificial.

Yet to characterize Feher’s project as merely a send-up of art-historical models—the consummate insider art—would be to give it short shrift. For another aspect of Feher’s oeuvre points, albeit with a good dose of mockery—even self-mockery—toward the question of subjective agency, time and memory, and the specter of death. Blood Test, 1995, a jar filled with large red, orange, and yellow marbles perched on a windowsill, poignantly and unobtrusively suggested the passage of time: as an HIV-positive (though thus far asymptomatic) artist, working, like so many others, under the sign of destruction, Feher wants to “test” objects he has collected and re-presented for their ability to stand as testaments to his life. Consequently, pieces such as Wheel, 1995, (six empty, glass orange-juice bottles arranged in a circle, their tops displaying primary colors) and Almost There, 1993–95, (a glass jug partially filled with coins) placed the everyday in the frame of the eternal. Seen in this light, Penny Piece, 1956–1995 and Counting, 1995, a display of 39 chronologically ordered pennies (the same number as his age) lined up on a shelf in the gallery next to an olive jar that might “contain” them, sensitively grounded the found object in a narrative of survival, while allowing that narrative, like pennies and blood, to circulate metaphorically around the exhibition.

One wonders to what extent it is only this narrativization of Feher’s HIV status that makes any of this so-called scatter art at all compelling—that makes the detritus Feher has collected on a beach near his home town in Corpus Christi, Texas, resonate, or the piece he calls Dirty Pieces of Shit, 1995 (wall hangings of befouled toilet paper and plastic), emblematic of the tension between the ephemeral and waste that is at the center of Feher’s project. Although each object is somehow “mediated” by the hand of the artist, the profound slightness of much if not all of the material raises the question of whether squarely confronting the mass-produced, the throwaway, the evacuated—even bowing down to it—is all that’s left of being in the face of death.

Nico Israel