New York

Erwin Redl

Riva Gallery

Erwin Redl is a sculptor whose primary material is the light-emitting diode (or LED), deployed at a dominating and theatrical scale. He is best known in New York for having sheathed the Whitney Museum in red and blue curtains of light for the 2002 Biennial, a bravura gesture in spatial disorientation that made the massive building seem to float spaceshiplike. Redl’s recent show featured more modest architectural projects, including two light pieces, several series of drawings, and a digital video presentation of previous installations. The results varied considerably. At its best, Redl’s work blends a gossamer touch with a wonky tenacity, as if subatomic pathways were being diagrammed in wire. When the spatial balances are not exactly right, however, the artist slips into a kind of materials-based stridency, relying too heavily on the LED for magic-lantern effects.

Redl uses the title MATRIX for all his installations, but each one is different in its management of certain basic parts—the lights’ color, the formation in which their connective wires are hung—and thus the perspective created for viewers. The success of a piece depends on how ingeniously Redl exposes or explores the structure against and within which he is working. MATRIX IX, 2002, failed here for this reason. An awkward recess was strung with horizontal rows of red lights, and the piece looked like in-home Christmas-tree decor, gussying up the walls without altering their geometry. Not so in MATRIX II, 2002, which could function only in a closed and darkened white cube. Stepping behind a curtain, you entered a space that seemed to recede in all directions, as if the walls were mirrored. Floor to ceiling and wall to wall, the room was filled with grids of phosphor green LEDs, a pulsating web that enacted the amplitude and regularity—the sinister, sci-fi totality and oddly maternal sense of enfolding volume—implied by the word matrix.

The green lights also imparted a weird whiff of the natural world to the consummately technical lighting, and this science-nature blend was investigated further in Redl’s drawings. For instance, Untitled (Solder Series—Positive), 2002, presented large sheets of paper on which splashes of silver solder were laid in rows. Geometric yet imperfect, astronomic but minimal, the drawing fully extends its limited materials. Redl similarly pushed such parameters in an even simpler series consisting of fine grids cut into paper that was pierced with pinholes and occasionally woven with slender copper wire.

By contrast, the installations appearing in Redl’s self-promoting reel looked absurd. Like LED precursor Jenny Holzer (or neon exemplar Dan Flavin), the artist has to deal with his technology’s advertising pedigree. Redl (like Flavin, and in opposition to Holzer) unhooks his signage medium from any verbal message, but, already delicately balanced between its commercial connotations and formal properties, when the work is installed in a blatantly commercial context—as in Redl’s piece at the Madison Avenue Calvin Klein store—it might as well be an ad. Unlike Holzer or Flavin, Redl does not present himself as a monumental thinker; he does not foreground transcendent or transformative experience. He’s more about visual entertainment, a techno-geek gee-whiz factor. This is not necessarily a disparagement: When palm-size screens glow in every pocket, this approach is appropriate. It’s simple. But not easy.

Frances Richard