New York

Fernanda Gomes

Baumgartner Gallery

On entering Fernanda Gomes’s second New York solo show, the viewer was immediately confronted by a large metal scaffold on which the artist had placed various found objects. By far the most physically imposing work on display, this structure (all works untitled, 2001) nonetheless epitomizes Gomes’s concerns—the most obvious and important of these being the way works of art engage with their surroundings. Standing under a skylight whose rectangular shape it reiterated, the scaffold rhymed perfectly with the beams of the gallery’s exposed wooden ceiling. Moreover, situated as it was directly across from the entrance, the piece conditioned the viewer’s movements: to walk into the gallery was to approach the scaffold, to walk along the wall was to circumnavigate it. In just the same way, the work itself was clearly conceived in response to the gallery space.

The same is true of everything one encountered in Gomes’s show—from the razor blade stuck in the middle of a wall to the brown paper bags perched atop a column to the specks of dirt and broken glass scattered on the floor. And “encounter” is very much the operative term. Made almost exclusively from urban detritus collected on the streets of Chelsea during the six weeks leading up to the show’s opening, the works were a record, or trace, of the artist’s encounter with a particular site: the gallery and its immediate environs. The found objects included on the scaffold—two briefcases and two drinking glasses, one shattered, the other Ned with water—attest to this fact. They also speak to Gomes’s recasting of the artist qua itinerant scavenger of transitory materials. But while composed of lowly stuff, Gomes’s art is extremely elegant visually. It’s also often easy to miss. Craning one’s neck, bending to the ground, peering into comers, one did not so much “look” at the pieces in this show as “discover” them (again, following the logic of the encounter). One work, a piece of Plexiglas placed flush on the floor, bordered on the imperceptible. But once noticed, the formal appeal of its streamlined simplicity was impossible to deny—as was its sly reference to monochrome painting.

In fact, quite a few pieces here resembled monochromes. Two—a mattress stripped down to its wooden support and a small picture frame, both covered on one side with sheets of white paper—are described by the artist as peinture. As Aleksandr Rodchenko observed as early as 1921, the monochrome’s collapsing of figure and ground serves as a reminder that life inevitably forms the ground against which works of art are perceived. In this sense, it is a fitting emblem of Gomes’s project, which so resolutely seeks to shift art’s emphasis from the production of self-contained works to the creation of heightened states of awareness. But the figure ground equation can also run the other way, with art becoming ground to life’s figure. Indeed, insofar as it invites the viewer to solemnly contemplate the beauty of everyday objects, this is precisely the risk that Gomes’s work runs.

Margaret Sundell