New York

Amy O'Neill

Spencer Brownstone Gallery

Installation art is in a precarious state. It has been criticized in recent years of cultivating a kind of blasé site-specificity that caters to the demands of large-scale exhibition organizers needing to fill space and provide a temporary spectacle—for being what Peter Schjeldahl calls “festival art.” At the same time, it’s been around long enough to be open to parody at the hands of a younger generation. Specifically ripe for analysis is the strain of installation that deals with historical reenactment in that deals with historical reenactment in the manner of Ilya Kabakov. Amy O’Neill’s latest project seems designed to comment on such work, but it’s hard to say where she stands in the debate.

The show’s title, “LOKN4U,” taken from a customized license plate O’Neill once spotted, suggests a distinctly American vernacular sensibility. As if to counter Kabakov’s variations on Soviet-era bureaucratic interiors, O’Neill presented two new installations that trade on easily recognizable icons of Americana: carnival midway games and basement rec rooms. In a group of three works, here collectively titled Break a Record *Paradice City* Space Wars, 2001, she combines disparate elements from try-your-luck contests in a setup that does little to tip off the viewer that it isn’t simply a faithful rendition of fairground hucksterism. Of course you notice that the targets are easy-to-hit vinyl records, and that the prizes are an awkward mélange of inflatable medieval weapons, grinning skulls with machine guns, and pictures of Native Americans with bald eagles. But it is this very eclecticism that gives the impression of carnie-style authenticity.

In a second room was another paean to populism, this time of a more domestic variety. Smoking-Basement Bar, 1999, recalls a cozy Midwestern cellar in which one can hole up during tornado season. This particular bar consists of the usual countertop and collection of gaudy liquor signs and gleaming bottles, but it also has an added feature: It emits stage smoke to approximate a late-night boozy atmosphere. More colored lights and clashing decorative objects continue the theme of kitsch abundance.

Both works look back nostalgically to those sites in the American cultural landscape that leave a deep-fried residue on one’s childhood memories. Despite O’Neill’s gentle tweaking of convention, they come across as celebratory. The mediation is too subtle to allow them to be read as satire, with the result that her appropriation of familiar idioms falls more into the category of pastiche. This is somewhat disappointing, since Kabakovian installation is due for a critical reappraisal. O’Neill’s work is still very much beholden to its referents, which raises the usual question: How could an installation in an art gallery ever match the real thing—here, the thrills of the carnival and the creepiness of the neighbor’s party basement?

Interestingly, the works in “LOKN4U” that stood out most were the least flashy, In the “Slum Paintings,” 2001, dusty arcade prizes are carefully arranged by color into quasi-painterly groupings on pegboards. Many of the objects are sill in their wrappers, complete with the “Made in Hong Kong” stamp. While the “slum” in the title is a bit heavy-handed in its evocation of “low” culture, standing in front of these displays offers an intimate route of reentry to old-school fun at the amusement park. The items conjure a potent set of recollections that are determined not by resorting to retro chic but by taking the source material in an unanticipated direction.

Gregory Williams