New York

Mathieu Mercier

Spencer Brownstone Gallery

Mathieu Mercier’s AAA, 2002, a backlit wall-mounted sign in which the title’s three letters become smaller from left to right, looks like the scream of a cartoon character plunging off a cliff. The text’s off-kilter font is a superimposition of two opposing styles: the hard-edged geometry characteristic of Theo van Doesburg and a flowing, fanciful script developed by New York typographer Edward Benguiat in the ’70s. A strategically contrived hybrid of design philosophies, AAA is a succinct introduction to this young Parisian’s practice and an appropriate piece to kick off his first solo show in New York.

In a looped digital video, Red and Blue Blast, 2002, the computer-generated image of a Rietvald chair glides in silently from stage right, only to burst suddenly into pieces as it nears the center of the screen. The conceit is childishly simple but immediately appealing (British viewers will be reminded of the much parodied animated logo for Channel 4 Television) and effectively emphasizes the fragility of De Stijl’s original agenda, and the way any “pure” aesthetic ideal is doomed to collapse. Mercier is unabashedly nostalgic for the utopian foundations of early modernism: A gesture that would have been gleefully anarchic applied to a contemporary object seems here, after inducing an initial chuckle of surprise, oddly mournful. Sprouting in the center of the main gallery is Folding Lamp, 2002, an adjustable steel palm tree reaching from floor to ceiling and hooked up to a portable air compressor; the tree’s five branches are attached to a series of fluorescent light tubes. Styled after a prop from a movie set or operating theater, the work is a heavyweight piece of equipment haunted by the ghost of Malibu kitsch. Drum and Bass 2, 2002, is a three-dimensional Mondrian constructed from red plastic binders, blue storage bins, and yellow utility lights, all filed neatly away on a black shelving unit. That Mercier frequently employs the materials and methods of bricolage is reflected in his physical remodeling of supposedly exhausted utopian ideologies. This drift toward superficiality both repels and seduces such that, despite his apparent theoretical disapproval, Mercier can’t stop himself from repeatedly exploiting its residual visual cool.

In Plastic Anchors Wall, 2002, a repeated constellation of primary-color widgets covering the entire right side of the gallery, and Hi/Lo/No-tech, 2002, a collection of blank prototypes for vinyl and digital discs rendered in black and gray Plexiglas, Mercier comes off like Jim Lambie minus the indie cred. Both artists share an attraction to found materials of a certain pop-domestic stripe, but where Lambie cuts loose and rocks out, Mercier prefers to keep his decorative impulse under strict control. In Euro Palette, 2000, he approaches the light-but-stylish sculptural touch of Liam Gillick but skips the senior artist’s labyrinthine anecdotal and theoretical explanations in favor of a more cut-and-dried routine of comparison and contrast. The eerie flawlessness of chipboard support is at odds with its quotidian design, a veneer of smooth white melamine reproducing the functional/functionless, five-minutes-into-the-future look to perfection. Still, the sculpture is a one-liner: clever but airless, and a little too easy.

If Mercier’s approach veers at times toward glibness, he is unquestionably traveling a road lined with interesting sights. A drawing behind the gallery’s front desk indicated a gap between two unidentified sketched surfaces, and a note beneath asked, “Which science could help me understand this space?” Like all the best questions, this one is deceptively open-ended, appearing to give nothing away until considered in context, when it becomes loaded with provocative hints toward possible solutions——or other questions.

Michael Wilson