New York

Phoebe Washburn

LFL Gallery

Phoebe Washburn’s undulating, room-sized sculptural installation, Nothing’s Cutie, 2004, looks at first like a colorful topographic model of a densely populated futuristic urban metropolis plunked down on a desert island: Rio meets Las Vegas meets Cancun, or maybe Kuala Lumpur. Hundreds of vertically inclined wooden planks of different lengths and dimensions, each briskly handpainted a pastel hue, have been screwed together, forming clusters (or neighborhoods) that open into little clearings of sawdust. Daintily punctuated with unsharpened pencils, packing tape, thumbtacks, and other stuff procured from office-supply stores, the installation stands on stilts and creeps up to the gallery’s removed ceiling.

Like the Minimalist sculpture to which it alludes, the work provokes a particular kind of encounter with the viewer: It is both static object and unfolding environment. Nothing’s Cutie involves readymade materials—found, scavenged, and store-bought—but (unlike much of Minimalism) is massively, even obsessively, intricate. It is literal and, with its profusion of two-by-fours, in some ways geometrically based, but it is anything but inert: Pulsating, organic, and improvisational, it combines a whooshing painterly gesturality with blocky, quasi-institutional forms.

Washburn’s installation bears the unusual distinction of connecting the otherwise obverse practices of Jessica Stockholder and Sarah Sze. As with Stockholder there’s an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink quality to Washburn’s work—Nothing’s Cutie contains an apparently incidental box of screws that might have been left over from a recent gallery reconstruction—but each component seems carefully placed. Her use of construction materials, the way the work occupies the gallery’s corners, and especially the element of color seem indebted to Sze, though, title aside, there’s nothing particularly precious or “cute” about Washburn’s much heavier-feeling sculpture. And yet the topographical sensibility in Washburn’s practice, the way it seems to push and pull space, points to affinities with painting and drawing: Julie Mehretu’s colorful, organic, but somehow cartographic work comes to mind. Even though Washburn’s colors (of the Benjamin Moore interior type) seem hastily, almost serially added, they enliven the work and add dimension, calling attention to this piece of wood, that pool of sawdust.

In other recent exhibitions Washburn has demonstrated a fascination with reusable materials—her Second to Something installation at P.S. 1 this summer was a wooden ramplike structure paired with found newspaper formed into organic, celllike shapes, displayed along with shipping crates and custom-made cardboard boxes. And for Between Sweet and Low at LFL in 2002, she created a giant whirlpool—colored an institutional light brown with sections in pink, green, and other pastel tints—made from thousands of flattened cardboard boxes. But her attachment to the recycling ethos (pace some still-practicing “Earth artists”) seems less ideological critique and more simply a response to the mundane reality of life as a city-dwelling artist. Hers is the kind of material you might find behind a U-Haul lot or artist-supply store, or on a building site awaiting a permit. The rudimentary architectural structures that she fashions from those materials may not have much street cred, but in their own way they are undeniably a product of the streets.

Nico Israel