New York

Michael Phelan

Michael Phelan’s exhibition “Bel-Aqua” invited us to contemplate a range of products that might best be described as implacably middlebrow: concentric flowerpots, a faux-granite water cooler, and a wall of blue spring-water bottles. These were interspersed in the coolly elegant installation among freestanding structures made of synthetic materials (Styrofoam planks, tubular shelving, plastic two-by-fours) that evoked swimming pools and exercise equipment, all amplifying the aquatic motif.

Several sculptures incorporate pale turquoise panels reminiscent of John McCracken’s flawless fiberglass slabs. A glance underneath, however, reveals that they’re lightweight, factory-stamped pieces of Styrofoam frosted with Envirotex, a synthetic resin, and fringed with oozy drips. In Bel Aqua Deluxe (all works 1997), these planks perch on metal legs, suggesting a pair (adult- and child-size) of stubby diving boards; in Rack-Master, they bask under fluorescent lights in a contraption resembling a portable tanning booth. Looking more like found objects, but actually built by the artist, are sculptures of plastic lumber with a simulated wood grain, suggesting fixtures you might encounter at a cash-strapped municipal swimming pool: a planter-cum-parkbench, Tree-Mate, complete with artificial tree, and a section of a boardwalk with steps leading nowhere, Forever Deck (Model No. 101).

Combining classic tropes of Minimalism (Carl Andre’s tiling, Sol LeWitt’s open cube) with a vision of modules and stackables straight out of IKEA or the Container Store is by now a familiar strategy, but Phelan’s agenda is as unforthcoming as the products he works with. In contrast to Haim Steinbach’s shelves of lumpen tchotchkes or Dan Peterman’s cryptlike bins made of recycled plastic, “Bel Aqua” conveys no sense of pathos, nor much at all in the way of critique. It tracks a shift from what might be considered utopian to post-utopian consciousness in so-called commodity art. The utopian offers up for contemplation the meretricious junk filling up the world and expects you to join in passing judgment on the mass-produced object (or at least to start buying recycled). The post-utopian accepts that bad-faith products will be around as long as someone keeps thinking of new ones to sell, and would rather just do something interesting with them. The plastic boards Phelan used in Forever Deck (Model No. 207)—resembling a cross between one of Andre’s floor pieces and a prefab pool deck—are both ridiculous and intriguing: you can be offended by them if you want, or you can study their faintly oily surfaces and “sawed-off” edges (just like real wood!) and marvel at capitalism’s weird, unbridled creativity.

Tom Moody