“Real World”

There’s a strong sense of “back to the future” about “Real World,” a showcase for six contemporary sculptors, mostly in their thirties and all working in a wide variety of media. The exhibition “considers what sculpture might be at the beginning of the twenty-first century,” but its subtitle, “The Dissolving Space of Experience,” makes one wonder if anything much has changed. After all, the idea that modern sculpture is centrally concerned with dissolution or “dematerialization” has been around for decades.

First of all, let’s set the record straight. The dematerialization of the art object never happened; or rather, it has been infinitely less important than defamiliarization. The disavowal of marble and bronze and the pilgrimage to “poor” and peripheral materials has largely been an attempt to maintain the authenticity and spontaneity of the art experience. Many modern artists, including Picasso and Rauschenberg, have insisted on the importance of collaborating with, even surrendering to materials, rather than controlling them. They sought unrehearsed and chance encounters, and this not only meant seeking out new materials but also siting them in unusual places. Far from being dematerialized by virtue of being made from unconventional substances, the materiality of modern art is far more insistent.

To this end, you have to watch where you’re going in the Oxford exhibition. It opens with Los Angeles–based artist Katie Grinnan, who could be described as a loss-of-control freak. She offers us bits and pieces from a creative delirium. Wizard Brew Single, 2004, is a bottle of beer placed on a sky-blue marble tile in the middle of the floor, where we could easily trip over it. The tile is bespattered with a large, psychedelic, yellow-and-white stain. We wonder whether this is the seedy flotsam from a drug-fueled party or a magic carpet that will transport us to alcoholic heaven. Wizard, 2004, is a giant conjurer’s hat made of plastic, plunked directly on the floor, engulfed in a swirling spray of white stars. It’s the Laocoön, Harry Potter–style: Just as the Trojan priest was attacked by sea snakes as punishment for correctly predicting the future, so this wizard seems to have been hoisted by his own starry petard.

Another Angeleno, Paul Sietsema, remixes mostly modernist-style objects and interiors, polluting and primitivizing them in the process. Organic Sculpture, 2001, is a biomorph in the style of Arp or Moore, but partly by virtue of being made from plaster, paper, and ink it is transformed into a diseased pulmonary lump filled with alarming orifices. It is one of several works to be pored over at length in his voyeuristic documentary Empire, 2002, along with Clement Greenberg’s art-filled New York apartment and a Rococo interior. With his airless, predatory, faux archaeology, Sietsema seems to have sucked Robert Smithson into the age of closed-circuit TV.

London-based Christina Mackie’s room installation Xing, 2004, is a half-built road movie going nowhere in particular. A variety of planks, driftwood, and taped-up wooden slabs are casually piled from floor to ceiling, ungainly footnotes to a video loop of a ferry crossing an unidentified river. Like most of the pieces in the show, which also included work by Wade Guyton, Bojan Šarčević, and Hiroshi Sugito, it cultivates the ad hoc encounter and the low-key epiphany. The surprising conclusion that one draws from “Real World” is that whimsy and wry amusement are the best tools for surviving the new millennium.

James Hall