New York

Jason Simon

Pat Hearn Gallery

To enter the slightly claustrophobic gallery—its windows and doors had been blackened to block out all external light—was to step into a scene of catastrophe. The centerpiece of Jason Simon’s most recent exhibition was a single sculpture, provocatively entitled Public Address: Collapsed, 1998. Two immense, jet-black speaker horns—brute, definitively outmoded mechanisms of the type once found in public arenas or sports stadiums—lay precariously on the gallery floor. Judging by the limp rigging and cracked ceiling tiles strewn around the horns, the work’s conceit was that the speakers had ripped free of an imaginary ceiling, destroying in their fall everything—and presumably everyone—gathered below. All that remained of this gathering was its detritus, spread out in every direction. There were wooden chairs (also old-fashioned), variously shattered, as well as splintered wood beams, with nuts and bolts still in evidence. On the day I visited, there were food containers and plastic cups, paper bags and a paper plate, water bottles and drink holders. There were rolled posters, and the torn comer of a dollar bill. There were sneakers, two, a pair. There was even a barrette.

As sculpture, Public Address: Collapsed could only be read as a direct evocation of the “scatter” pieces of post-Minimalism, from Robert Morris’s use of felt, rubber, wood, and metal to Barry Le Va’s broken glass. Of course, other artists, such as Rona Pondick, have recently returned to and reinflected this procedural legacy. But Simon’s piece was less a reinflection than a negation of the post-Minimalist tradition. It shared none of distribution sculpture’s faith in sheer matter, nor its antisubjective reliance on random composition. Instead, Simon presented a carefully arranged, completely staged tableau. A corrosive simulation of destruction replaced the truth once thought to reside in process; a narrative scene replaced the literalist theatricality of the Minimal object, as well as the sculptural response that followed in its wake.

What does it mean to submit the procedures and morphologies of the art of the ’60s and ’70s to a logic of citation, even pastiche? For better or worse, this seems to be one of the great questions of the art of the ’90s. Often the project does not seem so far removed from the pastiches of earlier appropriation artists like Sherrie Levine, who tested Modernist conventions of authenticity, so that now we witness not so much a “return” to the art of the ’60s and ’70s as much as an ironic testing of that works conventional limits. Simon’s turn here to such a strategy opened up a surprising number of reflections on contemporary sculptural production in general. Confronted with this scene and with the references to post-Minimalism, one thought of the contradiction between the individualistic phenomenological experience called up by the Minimalist project and the forms of mass social life characteristic of its era; one thought of the stark refusal of such sculpture to engage in a communicative project; one thought, even more literally, of the increasing poverty of public space in contemporary culture, of the loss of its material ground and thus of the very arena in which traditional sculpture was supposed to act. As a citation, Simon’s sculpture became allegorical. And if all allegories are procedures if mortification, speech in a dead language, Public Address: Collapsed turned reflexive, not of its medium or essential physical properties, but of the lost conditions in this century for a mass, public experience of sculptural language, a loss in which the sculptural avant-garde was all too implicated. In a profoundly pessimistic move—but also a materialist one—Simon seemed to say that sculpture can yet be made, but only if it is produced stillborn. After some time in the gallery, one realized that the speaker horns were still “on,” but from them came no words, no music, nothing intelligible—just residual noise, echoes, and feedback.

George Baker