New York

Jeanne Silverthorne

The Whitney Museum of American Art at Philip Morris is a peculiar exhibition site, challenging both physically and socially. It begins with an outsize anteroom, the Sculpture Court, one of those lofty office-lobby atria—glass-walled, granite-floored, greeneried—that have grown up in response to zoning laws rewarding corporations that devote some of their acreage to public use. Like many such rooms, this one is scattered with tables where you can bring your lunch. In one corner is a glass door leading to a small gallery. Artists working here may use both spaces, but in either case they can expect that a lot of their viewers will be here not to visit an art destination but to eat a sandwich, read the paper, or just kill time.

The large outer hall might seem to call for large space-filling work, but Jeanne Silverthorne took the opposite route: Her installation here, titled The Studio Stripped Bare, Again, was about as attenuated as it could be, for it took the form of what seemed to be electrical cables, hanging in loops from the forty-two-foot ceiling and strung in thin ranks along the walls, where they hooked up in places with junction boxes and other fittings. In a couple of spots the suspended cords came to an end in a light fixture without a bulb and with a dangling pull-chain too high for anyone to reach. And even if you could, the cables carried no juice: These were casts of wiring and electrical gear, not the real thing. In fact, since they were cast in rubber, an insulator, the wires weren’t even conductive: A tool of flow and power was converted into a sign of stymied blockage.

This could have been what moved one viewer of the show to write in the visitor’s book: “This all looks like an abortion clinic!!” It is a shocking, hostile remark, but it shows a certain horrid insight. Silverthorne’s work is hypersensitive to the body: The soft rubber is fleshy in consistency, and the wires and junction boxes stand in for circulatory systems and organic nodes and pumps. She herself has written of the artist’s studio, the subject of much of her artmaking as well as its site, “We are the space. The wall of the studio becomes covered with our skin. Its guts are our entrails, dangling wires our ganglia, plumbing is intestines.” The visitor’s-book writer may have been cued to this slippage among body, space, and art object by the continuation of the installation in the small gallery, which included, along with more coiling and hanging cords (one of them suspending a dead-looking rubber lightbulb), three tawny wall-based painting-like objects that turned out to be rubber casts of skin pores and sweat (greatly enlarged) set in black casts of ornate salon-style frames. Also here were works reflecting another aspect of Silverthorne’s art: on a shelf, two scraps of Styrofoam—junk from the casting process, each about as long as a finger joint, elevated on black sponges; and on the floor, copies of these forms, again enlarged, on sponge-shaped pedestals of their own. In their suggestion of the body’s extrusions and excretions, these objects too may have subliminally prompted the abortion-clinic simile.

Silverthorne’s work is a haunted meditation on artmaking and productivity, body and thought, inspiration and inertia, her solid rubber lightbulb spelling both “idea” and black opacity. Seeing her show and reading the visitor’s book at the same time as the “Sensation” controversy was ruling the local papers, one thought about the sad distance between the languages of contemporary art and those of public discourse, a distance that allows for absurd, dubiously motivated distortions of artists’ intentions and thinking. Yet it also seems that the public is capable of somehow getting the message, even if it is a message they resent. Meanwhile, for those familiar with Silverthorne’s sculpture, there was the reward of seeing it command an enormous space, a space that only emphasized the work’s Giacometti-like compression of bodily form, as if the large room around it were scraping and squeezing its surface into the narrowest possible compass.

David Frankel