New York

“Curious Crystals of Unusual Purity”

P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center

Gratuitous references to the seventeenth-century wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, are a recent curatorial and art-historical touchstone, so Bob Nickas and Steve Lafreniere’s decision to build an exhibition around the idea hardly came from left field, and promised, well, nothing in particular. So it was fortunate that their title, borrowed from a song by English folk balladeer Bridget St. John, was considerably more evocative, augmenting this most open-ended of structural models by suggesting a methodology—formally investigative—and a mood—awestruck—well suited to what emerged as a rangy collection of eccentric images and objects.

That St. John’s song was recorded in 1969 provided another clue to the organizing principle of Nickas and Lafreniere’s summer offering; there was an overt psychedelic cast to many of their hundred-plus selections that implied a steady diet of mind-expanding substances (on the part of the artists if not also the curators). As evinced by works ranging from Adrian Piper’s LSD Third Eye, 1965, (a turbulent acrylic of a soaring phoenix) to Fred Tomaselli’s Mandala Rebellion Acid, 1990 (a sheet of [acid-free?] tabs) many of the exhibition’s thirty-five participants may well have flung the doors of perception wide open at some point in their careers.

Complementing these freak-outs was a host of abstract and semi-abstract works that suggest a similar inspiration but—judiciously—make no such explicit reference to it. A group of kaleidoscopic designs from the ’60s and ’70s by visionary polymath Harry Smith (best remembered for compiling the Anthology of American Folk Music) exudes a period spirituality reminiscent of the work of Scots mystic Alan Davie, while the intricate webs of white dots spun on top of the murky photographs of Sebastian Bremer and dark monochrome canvases of Alex Brown recall Yayoi Kusama’s obsessive repetitions.

Pattern making, an activity with ties to the persistently fashionable handcrafted “kidult” aesthetic, is everywhere right now. Perhaps a generation raised on Altair Design coloring books now finds geometric abstraction the most comfortably nostalgic way to spend its lazy Sunday afternoons? Devastating cultural critique or sophisticated conceptual proposition it may not be, but the retinal magic of Lisa Beck’s transcendent installation Glimmerer and John Tremblay’s amiably labyrinthine painting Rock Crystal Antlers (both 2004) is undeniably enjoyable. Even Barbara Sullivan’s Rorschach-like acrylics seem to succeed more as simple riffs on visual symmetry than as cerebral psychological inquiries.

It follows that collage is popular again too. At P.S. 1, Bruce Conner conjured the spirit of Max Ernst’s collage novels in his elegant cut-ups of vintage wood engravings, while Bjorn Copeland arranged more recent bits and bobs into wild ’n’ crazy—but nonetheless clean and balanced—compositions. Stephen Sprott’s Absoluteness of Feeling, 2004, represented a more refined approach; over an image of a sunlit lily pond floats an evocative fragment of text: “‘BEAUTY’ I said and broke off in a fit of stuttering. It was a limitless thought.” Modest, dreamy works such as these risk burial in large exhibitions, so it was to the credit of both the artists and curators that they seemed to thrive here.

Inevitably there were a few bad trips among the bliss-outs—Matthew Brannon’s short video The Unending Horrible, 2004, struck a sardonic note that seemed awkwardly at odds with its neighbors, while Christopher Myers’s surreal combinations of materials and objects are too formulaic, despite his light touch. But bearing in mind the loose-limbed (one might call it recreational) conceit, the percentage of hits was sky high.

Michael Wilson