New York

Joe Scanlan

Joe Scanlan’s exhibit “Invention” dealt with the act of consumption—not only getting and spending but their secret partners, compulsion and decay. The artist has long been interested in design and fabrication, but here he went beyond such production-end concerns to the crux of the issue: what “making” does to “wanting.” Scanlan has an admirable command of how material substance shapes immaterial sense, how matter molds essence. His “Invention” put things like flowers, snowflakes, tears—even our own faces in the mirror—up for sale in a beautifully crafted boutique of the faux ephemeral.

Custom, 1998, is a coffin, made from Tasmanian blackwood in collaboration with a master cabinetmaker. An unembellished polygon, it sat isolated on the floor with its lid leaning against a wall, propped on shims of blue polystyrene, a balance of showroom bravado and workshop nonchalance. Urging attention to shape and material, the piece toyed with obvious Minimal references. But the title was un-Minimally important: Referencing both the traditions that accompany death and the cultural capital accrued around the made-to-order, Custom was the ultimate showcase. By evoking an erotics of consumption that had somehow been embalmed, the piece served as a pointed introduction to the rest of the exhibit.

In the inner gallery stood three tables of varying heights, made from dovetailed rectangles of poplar on aluminum legs. Some of the table ends had a piece missing, a random detail that drew attention both to Scanlan’s interest in modular form and his need to poke holes in seemingly seamless constructions. The first table—Counter, 1999—was arranged like a makeup display in a SoHo emporium, with sexy little chrome mirrors, packets of a product named “Catalyst,” and what looked like drops of water laid out on black felt. Reading the packaging, one learns that “Catalyst” contains “Acrylic Tears,” “waterproof, media proof, and non-hypoallergenic,” and that they should be used “any time you want to give the appearance of having feelings, or need to alter the chemistry of your surroundings.” (Boxes of six “Catalyst” tears were sold as an unlimited edition for twenty dollars each.)

A second table, called simply Table, was bare, emptiness being perhaps the ultimate product. On the third stood a lissome bunch of forsythia branches in an elegant vase, a facsimile of the inevitable bouquet decorating every gallery desk in the neighborhood. Although the object read as a cipher for luxury and taste, the “branches” turned out to be straightened wire coat hangers, the “blooms” meticulously handmade from yellow Post-It notes. Restating the basic message of all vanitas while paying homage to Bruce Nauman, the piece was called Pay Attention Motherfuckers, 1999.

Snowflakes, 1999, softened the irony of the rest of the show. A group of unframed pencil and gouache drawings of geometric shapes in white and icy blues, the piece was hung salon-style and could have been as chilly as wallpaper. But it came off more like sketchbook pages scribbled with quotes and notations, intimate and untidy. “The creative mind,” wrote Virginia Woolf, “must free itself by consuming all impediments.” Copied into a comer of one of the drawings, the line punned on price and purchase as well as promoting artistic ingenuity—a fitting caption for Scanlan’s entire project.

Frances Richard

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