New York

Brian Tolle

Basilico Fine Arts

In Brian Tolle’s exhibition “Common Consent,” the gallery was occupied by an encampment of six simulated-stone structures configured to resemble fragments of rocky walls and enclosures, all built to human scale and augmented with light projections. The overwhelming physical presence of the works conveys exactly the sort of theatricality Michael Fried objected to in his criticism of “literalist” art’s control and consumption of space meant for the viewer. Literal as the sculptures appear to be, their suggestions of function are ambiguous; we’re meant to open the wooden picket gate of Safe (all works 1998) and step inside, but the walls create a space as much holding pen as haven.

There's yet another sort of theatricality built into Tolle’s structures, though, that has to do with their obvious artificiality. Fried attributed the impact of Minimalism as much to its scale as to its look of “non-art.” What non-art looks like, of course, has changed considerably over the years, but it plays contentiously at the borders of “Common Consent.” Think of Carl Andre’s Rock Pile, 1968, or Robert Smithson’s gallery-situated “Non-Site” and “Displacement” works, which pushed at then-current limits of sculpture by invoking the real. In contrast, Tolle’s installation problematizes values associated with authenticity by striking overtly theatrical chords. The arresting presence of the stone structures is in the way that they scream “fake.” And yet, in a virtuoso display of technique, they are “real” sculptures—each “stone” meticulously cut and painted by hand—his hand—and therefore unique. Likewise, the walls and enclosures are assembled according to traditional methods, and no two are exactly alike: in this sense, too, they are “real.”

The interplay of real and fake in “Common Consent” gives rise to a narrative resonance with theme-park architecture—a theme park, specifically, dedicated to Olde New England. Tolle’s walls are patterned after those that once marked property lines and that stand today as picturesque reminders of the region’s rural past. A series of projections on the walls and floor highlights the association. These depict, in simple line drawings, a pilgrim-style hat with a bird perched on its brim, a musket with a finger stuck up its barrel, a book and key, and a sieve and scissors. Other images are more oblique: the floor of A Long Deep Furrow shows a backlit Durotran image of newly planted corn sprouts, and a Liquid Light projection playing on the surface of Common Place’s capped-off well is a dead ringer for the psychedelic light shows beloved of acid-rock bands. Tolle’s interest in a gothic New England points us in the direction of the witch trials, and sure enough, the emblems that animate his sculptures were once signs associated with possession by Puritan inquisitors. The link between Salem and electric Kool-Aid might be found in one of the theories advanced to explain this peculiar historical chapter, which holds that an ergot fungus attacking crops led to poisoning and mass hallucinations—and from there to a social order imploding.

While “Common Consent” anticipates the viewer’s bodily engagement with the work as a form of completion, and points in the direction of closure in its match of visual and narrative dimensions, it is also resolutely committed to partiality and fragmentariness. It’s in the implication of a subtly titillating horror that the expressiveness of Tolle’s work blossoms. This is not to say that the artist doesn’t initiate an investigation of the shifting mores that regulate social practice and behavior, but we sense Tolle’s appreciation that analysis alone is insufficient to penetrate our own millennial preoccupations with the fantastic and the pathological.

Jan Avgikos