New York

Chris Hanson and Hendrika Sonnenberg

Cohan and Leslie

Systems of social activity and interpersonal communication and the breakdowns that plague them provided the organizing principles for the recent exhibition by the New York–based artist team of Chris Hanson and Hendrika Sonnenberg. Profuse and appealingly offhanded, the show by the Canadian-born duo featured some fifty jointly produced works that ranged from a sprawl of technically brilliant pale blue and green freestanding polystyrene sculptures to cryptic wall-based arrangements of photos and text-covered drawings. With a taste for collisions between unlikely subject matter—a head-scratching new artist’s book is devoted entirely to alternating images of hockey fights and pieces of fruit, the latter set in strange, Franz West–like lumpy masses of white plaster—Hanson and Sonnenberg have developed an approach that, in its specifics, can occasionally feel like a confoundingly elusive inside joke. Yet taken as a whole, their work demonstrates a willingness to take chances in their pursuit of new hybrid forms, especially those that evoke the complex arrays of conditions and negotiations through which individuals interact.

In spite of a description in the gallery statement likening the team’s chaotically schematic, flowchartlike drawings to a Rosetta stone, these maps of everything from daily errands to astronomical bodies to the pair’s own working process, mostly displayed on the wall in constellations with both found and original photographs of people in group settings, did little to help solve the mysteries of the sometimes puzzling exhibition. For most viewers, however, these will have been little more than background for the duo’s more or less life-size sculptures of equipment from communal settings like sporting events, concerts, and political rallies. Two works titled Soap Box, 2003–2004, featured clumps of seafoam-colored microphones arranged on a pair of press conference–style stands, their long electrical cords trailing uselessly down to the floor; nearby, Third Party, 2003–2004, implied a sort of spent rock-show setting, complete with loudspeakers, an amp, and empty beer coolers, all in pale pastel. Foamcore lights were strung above the room like it was a fairground dance hall, while the centerpiece of the entire arrangement was a colossal pile of wreckage—a sculpture of a sports scoreboard that seemed to have crashed to the ground. Modeled on an actual fallen scoreboard from a hockey arena pictured in a photograph in the show’s back room, Hanson and Sonnenberg’s Scoreboard, 2003–2004, is a piece of sheer bravura, a tangle of tilted planes and sprung wires that made a thing, unremarkable when intact, into a ruin rich with lyrical fascination.

Hanson and Sonnenberg’s objects and scenarios are all obviously suggestive of transmission, exchange, and the crowd, yet works like Scoreboard make it clear they remain skeptical toward the systems that facilitate and govern interaction among people. For them, the technological furnishings of modern community signify potential but also the consistent failure to connect—hence all the tropes of disruption and disconnection interwoven into their scenarios, in which the equipment, most of which is conspicuously unplugged, evokes absence and impediment rather than social dynamism. It’s hardly unprecedented for collaborative projects to foreground the mechanisms of teamwork and cooperation. Yet Hanson and Sonnenberg’s willingness to problematize these mechanisms, to embrace their flaws and to seek new forms of narrative in them, suggests that their promising communal enterprise, at least, is fully functional.

Jeffrey Kastner