New York

Jack Risley

Previously, Jack Risley’s work could reasonably be described as Donald Judd-by-way-of-Richard-Tuttle Minimalism. He used (among other things) stacked cardboard boxes and cheapo blankets in various pastels to create objects that simultaneously evoked Judd’s bottom-line corporate aesthetic and Tuttle’s obsessive fragility. Along the way, he also managed to load a good deal more affect into his empties than did either of these artists: Risley’s work was more about psychological states than philosophical ones. This time out, he’s turned his hand to the construction of elegantly half-baked mechanisms: his recent show featured machines apparently designed to do absolutely nothing over and over again. So, for Threefold (all works 1997), Risley took a camera tripod onto which he grafted an armature of six silver one-gallon cans on one end, and some fifty white paper coffee cups (each in its own holder) on the other, to create a precariously balanced whole, held in equally precarious suspension. In Twice Removed two pink Styrofoam slabs supported by tubular steel racks, counterbalancing three fairly big steel containers mounted on another rack, the whole thing delicately perched on a steel sawhorse. A third piece (there are six in all), Two Ton Jack, features more industrial containers, hung up in a tubular steel rack; this time, there are two portable movie screens on the other end of the armature. The whole thing is stuck on a tiny little jack, extended well beyond what OSHA probably had in mind when they determined the safety parameters for that particular device.

Of course, the mechanisms here actually do more than nothing: they just don’t do anything physical. Risley’s machines are all affect and no effect. All those containers hanging poised for motion (it’s impossible, in most cases, to tell whether they’re empty or full) suggest various apparently antithetical states. States like emptiness and saturation; surfeit and starvation; filling up and emptying out. And while all these conditions and/or activities (take your pick) have seemingly been captured at a moment of stasis, you never get the feeling there’s anything like completion in sight. The implication is that everything just keeps going. Maybe ad infinitum. And probably ad nauseum, too. Which gives the work a kind of sad-sack quality that belies its clean, industrial materials. All that potential and none of it much matters. Mostly though, with all their implied comings and goings and delicate balancing acts, what Risley’s not-quite-machines recall is the ultimate sad-sack psychic mechanism—desire. The constant circulation around a gap, the ongoing, but ultimately futile, attempt to fill emptiness, the flurry of activity that simply masks the fact that nothing ever really happens—that’s the essence of Risley’s machines.

Which is, of course, not to imply that any of these vicious circles, any of this poor circulation, is optional. All of it is a matter of dire necessity; after all, desire makes all the variously frozen and nightmarish systems go—language, representation, law, the whole Kafkaesque hell. Consequently, there’s something oddly comforting in Risley’s pathetic machines: even though according to the show’s title “any resemblance to actual events is purely coincidental,” these devices seem like they understand, trapped as they are in states just like yours.

Mark Van de Walle