New York

Mike Bidlo

Tony Shafrazi Gallery

For almost two decades, Mike Bidlo has engaged in a strict simulation of the work and practices of iconic figures of twentieth-century art. Pollock and Picasso in the ’80s, de Chirico, Léger, and Warhol in the ’90s—these august precursors have served as models for Bidlo to muse about and make mischief with the modernist canon. Far from being mere acts of discipleship, Bidlo’s tactics were self-consciously strategic: The exact copy putatively rendered the notion of the original suspect, thereby (again putatively) undermining the axiological system that makes “great” art great. Sherrie Levine mined a similar vein with her series of works “After” Matisse, Weston, etc., but her copies seemed to be commenting on the imbrication of gender and belatedness—what it means to come after—that extended the critique of simulacra launched by the then-worshiped Jean Baudrillard. Significantly, Bidlo titled his shows “Not de Chirico,” “Not Léger,” and “Not Warhol,” thereby invoking the language of Magritte and suggesting a latent relation between the project of Surrealism and the conditions under which his own work was forged.

Bidlo’s latest series, “The Fountain Drawings,” shown simultaneously in New York and at Galerie Bruno Bischofberger in Zurich, at once exhibit the same slyly obsessive repetitiveness found in his earlier work and mark a break in his enterprise. These drawings of urinals, dated between 1993 and 1998, hark back (where else?) to Duchamp’s own break with craft, gesture, and the very notion of value in his (and R. Mutt’s) famously rejected entry for the Society of Independent Artists’ 1917 exhibition in New York. How then to simulate and appropriate what was already a prefabricated, appropriated simulation? While Levine responded by recasting the urinal in bronze, Bidlo answers by returning to the handmade, to “craft.” In black and white, he draws and occasionally paints the fountain in all shapes and sizes, thickly outlined and thin, on drawing paper, on a page out of a telephone book, on a notepad, etc. In all, there were over three thousand urinals, each venue exhibiting half of the series, bearing serial titles Fountain no. 841, Fountain no. 3121, and so on. (As if to emphasize the arbitrariness of the collection, New York got the odd-numbered pieces, Zurich the even-numbered ones.)

You might think this would be a tiresome exercise. But something approaching conviction inflects these executions. By limiting his attention to one serially repeated object, albeit one almost overflowing with associations, Bidlo opens a prism to visual variation. Immediately striking is the association between the shape of the urinal and that of the human body. Quickly jotted, delicately rendered, or slapped down in gouache, Bidlo’s fountains have a portraitlike quality. Stuck on the gallery wall in a haphazard salon style, the drawings at first glance look like head shots in a poorly planned yearbook or even “wanted” posters in a post office. Viewed individually, they appear as body parts: phallus and testicles, of course, but also vaginas, fallopian tubes, assholes, noses, mouths, lungs, even hearts. One hesitates to rehearse the tired poststructuralist formula, but there really is a play here between presence and absence: We stare at a hole, make it into a (body) part, and will a whole out of it, only to reverse the process.

Bidlo has succeeded—if success is the right word—in making explicit what was implicit in Duchamp’s work (which “gave birth” not only to Conceptual art, but perhaps also to Minimalism): our narcissistic desire to see ourselves even in and as a piss pot—and to find our reflection there momentarily beautiful or at least interesting.

Nico Israel