New York

Ugo Rondinone

Matthew Marks Gallery

Ugo Rondinone’s solo New York debut looked like a group show, and I suspect that’s just how he likes it. There was nothing here to suggest that the Swiss artist wants to define a single identity for himself or a common thread through his multifarious endeavors—not that he needs to. But every group show is liable to betray notable imbalances of quality from work to work, and that’s true even when the “group” happens to be one artist.

Of the five distinct Rondinones in this exhibition, one contributed three very large tondo paintings (all works 1999–2000 or 2000): concentric bands of color à la Kenneth Noland but executed with a spray gun so that the circles look blurred, out of focus. From a certain distance the works are intense and punchy and quite flat. As you get closer, they become less graspable and at the same time begin to generate the illusion of being convex. Everyone who writes about these paintings calls them “woozy,” and I will, too.

A second Rondinone showed a suite of sixty drawings, most of which consisted exclusively of handwritten text—a sort of underground comics in which the story has practically shut out the visuals. The narrator, apparently a woman, describes the breakup of a dismal love affair while ruminating on a report of another woman who as a psychological experiment spent a year alone in a cave (“actually it was a subterranean room with walls, light, and a generator”) and then committed suicide on returning to the world. Interspersed with the pages of text were seemingly unrelated images of landscapes and, oddly enough, of floating ashtrays.

The third artist presented a six-channel black-and-white video installation in a room filled with purplish light emanating from the ceiling. In the slowed-down images, reminiscent of Italian art films of the ’60s (Antonioni, Pasolini), people perform simple, repetitive actions: A man swims; another walks past a brick wall; one woman dances; a second, nude, urgently tears a big sheet of paper off a wall, etc. All this was accompanied by ethereal, druggily sluggish rock music in the manner of the Bristol-based band Flying Saucer Attack. The half-buried vocal was a single line repeated over and over, something that sounded like “Let me taste sunshine,” although I’m told it was really, more prosaically, “Every day sunshine.” Curiously, this work’s extravagantly long title (beginning with the phrase It’s late and the wind carries a faint sound) reads like an excerpt from the drawings’ diaristic narrative.

The least engaging Rondinone, number four, contributed five black-and-white photographs of S&M gear; the last and most elusive, a single work consisting of tinted plastic sheets covering the glass panes of the gallery’s garage-door facade—an effort to color the outside world with the motley tones of the show inside, perhaps.

What brings these disparate works together? A cultivation of mood for its own sake, I’d say, embodied in a strange conflation of reticence with melodrama; and the mannerism by which reminiscences of familiar stylistic tropes are reclaimed and recombined. Above all, a sort of nostalgia for alienation. The trippy feeling that permeates much of Rondinone’s output also characterizes the work of his compatriot Pipilotti Rist, but whereas she tends to throw everything together, Rondinone compartmentalizes—a strangely analytical approach to dreaminess.

Barry Schwabsky