New York

Jeff Nelson

Sculpture in the twentieth century has been perpetually threatened by those rival media that most directly make its claims to simultaneously engage aesthetic visuality and actual space outmoded: film and photography (in the realm of the image), architecture and industrial design (in the construction of space). In light of the general enthusiasm for reclaiming sculpture as the most “relevant” medium of artistic production today (in the work of any number of installation artists), it’s useful to recall the supposed atavism of the medium’s production processes, the bankruptcy of its traditional monumental logic, and the potential primitivism of its practitioners’ increasing desire for immediate apperception and site-specificity.

Jeff Nelson’s first solo exhibition, “Open Wide,” directly confronted these issues—especially the threats posed (and possibilities introduced) by cinema and architecture. The installation consisted of four relatively large sculptures, each corresponding to a specific architectural component of the gallery space: its entryway, windows, floor, and walls. Before visitors could even enter the gallery, they had to pass through Nelson’s Hallway—Tubular Cycle (all work 1996), a wooden construction of rotated circular segments that eventually came together to form a cylindrical passageway. Presumably, Nelson intended this form to be read as an analogy to the leader counting down the beginning of many early films (one of these devices was reproduced on the exhibition’s invitation card.) In a direct sense, however, the piece literally reframed the entrance area of the gallery, creating a new visual perspective onto its interior as it aggressively reoriented the viewer’s formerly neutral entrance into and through this same space. (The piece was so aggressive a transformation that it actually violated city fire codes and had to be removed.) Nelson’s strategy here—the eradication of an existing architectural frame and the transformation of a static sculptural object into a space for physical movement—was completely reversed by the second work encountered, Window-Frosted Wipe (the title again alludes to cinema, in this case to the “wipe” often used to perform a transition between scenes in a film). This piece, little more than a simulation of a section of the gallery’s large wall of windows, eradicated nothing and in fact took an existing architectural form as its very substance. At first almost unrecognizable as a sculptural object, the only changes in Nelson’s simulation were the panes themselves (here made of frosted glass) and the piece’s placement within the gallery. Hung to correspond to the actual height and position of the windows, Window-Frosted Wipe partially blocked the normally open passage between the gallery’s foyer and its main room. No longer functioning as a passageway or architectural frame, sculpture in this instance was used by Nelson to transform the sign of architectural transparency into an experience of literal opacity, to divert an aspect of the gallery’s architecture into an internalized object of artistic contemplation, and to alter a prototype of visual permeability into one of physical obstruction.

Nelson’s other works specifically thematized forms of movement and transport: Floor/Column-Back on the Blocks employed a mock racetrack; the fourth sculpture was painted with checkered patterns reminiscent of racing flags. Occupying most of the space in the gallery, these two works directed the viewer’s physical movement around and in one case through the works themselves: in the racetrack piece, the gallery’s central column was covered in a reflective material that recorded the viewer’s movement and visually sutured the spectator’s image into the work; the latter sculpture included a revolving door set into a corner of the gallery that viewers could pass through, witnessing along the way the hidden areas of the sculpture and its construction techniques before being spit back out into the gallery space. This reading of Minimalist phenomenology in the terms of a preeminent means of contemporary transport and commodity design—the automobile—seemed particularly productive; less satisfying was the way in which Nelson metaphorized this connection, employing a Pop lexicon at odds with the conceptual reduction and openness of his other interventions. At a moment when sculptors like Gabriel Orozco have dealt with these same issues in a more operative manner—such as his cut and sutured automobile La DS, 1993, or his installation in which an actual gallery space was transformed into a functioning parking garage—Nelson’s forays into similar territory suffer by comparison. For a first show, however, Nelson’s particular reconfiguration of the recent sculptural legacy was both rare and formidable; they leave one looking forward to his future tactics.

George Baker