New York

Ragna Berlin and Michelle Segre

Lauren Wittels

It’s rare to find a two-person gallery show that seems more like a collaboration than a pair of solo exhibitions. This show of works by Swedish artist Ragna Berlin and New Yorker Michelle Segre was such an exception. Not only did the pieces fit together visually, almost becoming a single large installation, but seeing them in this context supplied a narrative dimension to their work that might have been lacking otherwise. Berlin’s installation was in two parts— Spot, 1996, an enormous brown dot painted on much of the gallery floor and two walls, and Mlob, 1996, an accompanying audio piece that consisted of a repeated crunching sound. On Berlin’s dot, Segre exhibited three giant beeswax and foam slices of white bread pockmarked with large holes, torn corners, nibbled crusts, and scattered crumbs. The juxtaposition transformed the work of both artists: the otherwise abstract Spot suddenly resembled a giant mouse hole and Segre’s mangled bread seemed like the remains of an interrupted rodent feast. Unfortunately for Berlin, in this amalgam her installation seemed to serve mainly as a stage setting for Segre’s far more alluring sculpture.

Segre’s work in this show was the culmination of a significant shift in her vocabulary that began about two years ago. Her earlier work—tentacle-like protrusions extending from a central blob, hanging arrays of interlaced claws, spindly spider-leg reliefs—formally recalled Charles Long’s abstract, freestanding masses, but with a far different overtone than Long’s cartoonish whimsy. More akin to the creatures that burst out of their hosts’ stomachs in Alien, Segre’s previous works were almost all marked by a thick, alimentary, wax paste. While continuing to work primarily in foam, wax, and acrylic, Segre moved into a Pop-inspired iconography beginning with Big Cheese, 1995, an enormous hunk of Jarlsberg. Blown up to this scale, the work’s hyperrealism (the construction owed more to Robert Gober than to Duane Hanson) was less striking than the fact that cheese is made from the action of a bacterial culture on milk, leaving wormlike traces in holes, fissures, and discolorations throughout the surface.

The companion pieces in this exhibition confirmed that in Segre’s hands common-image iconography has more to do with an aesthetic of putrefaction than of commodification. The bread slices were certainly Pop-inspired, but the attention to surface, the fine gradations of color in each of the numerous nooks and crannies, more readily evoked Jasper Johns’ painstaking application of encaustic to his newspaper-drenched canvases than early Claes Oldenburg. Nor did Segre’s installation conjure images of Wonder Bread in brightly colored polka-dot packaging; instead, it invoked the onset of foulness in processed food as chemical preservatives begin to fail and natural processes of rotting and discoloration set in. In addition, the small crumbs, randomly strewn about the floor like a waxy scatter piece, had an almost abstract quality. And this is perhaps Segre’s most interesting achievement, the connection she effects between the banal and all-pervasive imagery of Pop and the entropic processes of disorder and decay that are the legacy of Robert Smithson and post-Minimalism.

Andrew Perchuk