New York

“The Subverted Object”

Ubu Gallery

Most of the forty-eight pieces in this survey of Dada- and Surrealist-derived sculpture (generally from the ’60s to the ’90s) represent everyday objects and are made largely out of the objects themselves: a mirror coated with silver paint (Bertrand Lavier, Mirror, 1986); a pair of worn high heels partly wrapped in plastic and tied together with twine (Christo, Wrapped Shoes of Jeanne-Claude, 1962); a globe coated with gray soil (Vik Muniz, Terra Incognita, 1996); a red dial phone whose earpiece is a hand drill (Richard Tipping, Drill-a-Phone, 1990); two furled umbrellas covered with shiny, brightly colored, thumbnail-size tin insects and set in a green-velvet-lined clarinet case (Jurgen O. Olbrich’s Damenselbst-falter [Ladies’ self-folder], 1990). Sculptures, then, in which everyday objects become images of themselves within their respective works’ field of imagery and are thus “transformed,” as the gallery’s press release puts it, into objects of “emotional rather than practical utility.” Adding “imaginative” and “moral” to “emotional” sums up the nature of common objects as represented and made arresting and numerous by art in any medium. We can no more see ourselves in Van Eyck’s mirror than we can wear van Gogh’s shoes or plot a course by Vermeer’s globe. But this exhibition highlights three aspects of the artistry of sculpture necessary for turning common objects into aesthetic representations of themselves:

First is an act of recognition. Christo’s shoes might have begun as we see them, one upside-down and resting, toe-to-heel, on its upright mate, abruptly abandoned thus by the eponymous Jeanne-Claude. But the artist saw latent in them a still life metaphoric of aesthetic qualities in accidental arrangements of objects in domestic use. Donald Lipski’s Man’s Hat, 1996, began as, in the artist’s word, an “antique” sports helmet. Covered with stainless-steel, double-edged razor blades and mounted on the wall, face to floor, crown to viewer, it becomes its visual allusion: armor from an antique past.

Next is theater, created by the dramatic contrast, visual and associative, among the original object, its materials, and the materials added to it. In this respect, the cloudy plastic around Christo’s shoes works magic. Those parts of the shoes seen through its folds are roughly defined, sketches of shoes, recalling the rough modeling of nineteenth-century bronzes; by contrast, the unwrapped parts, with their smooth leather and pinpoint tooling, recall finely chiseled, highly polished Rococo marble portrait busts. In Wrapped Shoes, recollections of dissimilar emotional responses specific to conflicting historic styles are put into play.

The exemplary dramatic piece here is Man Ray’s Cadeau (Gift, 1921/1974): the upright flat iron, a column of copper tacks up the middle of its face. As an iron it’s useless and sinister, as sculpture excellent—its subtle transitions sure, its lines elegant, endings final, base strong. But as theater it’s miraculous. Its antagonists are the line of small, thin, sharp, soft reddish tacks and the broad, hard, flat gray face of the heavy, bulky iron; its chorus is the handle (resembling a beaux arts stone balustrade on its end), posts (like short Doric columns on their sides), and face (a Gothic arch). Taken as a whole, Cadeau presents an irreverent, abbreviated history of art, the tack’s futile, comic assault on the iron’s Olympian monumentality.

Finally comes a necessary brevity and speed. Cadeau’s brio is in its virtuosic creation of a sweeping epic drama on a miniature stage with only two quick-change actors, each in several roles at once. All the works here show the same economy of means, and most arc small. Rare indeed are works of such extreme playfulness and generosity in so small a compass, discharging their wit in a flash and holding us long afterward by their art.

Ben Lifson