New York

Rob Fischer

Cohan and Leslie

Despite the widespread reverence among younger artists for Robert Smithson’s art and writing, it’s rare to encounter someone who wears his mantle as snugly as Rob Fischer. The notion of entropy (technically a measure of the disorder that exists in a system), a Smithson buzzword, is used frequently in descriptions of Fischer’s project. But in this show the artist hewed even closer to another Smithsonian concept, that of excavation.

Visitors to Cohan and Leslie were greeted by Altar (all works 2004–2005), a twenty-four-foot rusted fabricated dumpster turned on its end to create a threshold or portal. Panels from the sides of the dumpster were removed and replaced with mirrors, a favorite Smithson material. Beyond this was Summary (Goodyear Ecology), an irrigated steel trough containing a tire track in wet dirt, complete with delicate blades of grass “excavated” from the artist’s studio’s yard. Greenhouse No. 4 (Repetitive Cycles) is the closest Fischer has yet come to a signature structure. This greenhouse, your classic glass-walled, pitched-roof affair, contains a watering system and flats filled with logs and moss. Nearby were the four “Chapters,” mazelike architectural assemblages that resemble fragments of a cramped tenement hallway, linked together by crude plumbing. They recall both fragments of work by Gordon Matta-Clark and Smithson’s smaller Enantiomorpic Chambers, 1965, of which the angular composition was inspired by the symmetrical molecular structures of crystalline compounds.

Lining the walls of the gallery were two series of painted photographs that transformed Smithson’s sci-fi-tinged entropy trope into a kind of rural survivalism. Recalling Smithson’s The Monuments of Passaic, 1967—the famed photo-essay in which the artist audaciously compared the industrial ruins of his hometown to the remains of ancient Rome—Fischer has mined the rural landscape of his native Minnesota. “Unity Road No. 1–5” and “Highway 71 No. 1–3” feature lone, battered campers parked in the rural wasteland. Here, they become the new “monuments” of the forgotten heartland, engulfed by painted trompe l’oeil flames.

Despite the eclectic nature of the show, the works played well against each other: the rusted dumpster next to the trough; one of the fragmentary “Chapters” concealing a pile of wood flooring and steel-and-glass scrap in the corner bearing the tongue-in-cheek title Abstract Sculpture. Combining the archeological with the poetic, Fischer confronts transience and longevity, issues that have haunted art for much of the past half-century, from Rauschenberg’s rotted, mud-covered canvases and the Earthworks of Nancy Holt (incidentally Smithson’s wife), to Meg Webster’s plant works and Mark Dion’s Vivarium, 2002–2003 (an homage to Smithson’s Dead Tree, 1969).

The works in this show might not function as well individually. Together, however, they poignantly evoke a world of decay and regeneration, nurture and neglect. The one misstep was a series of small canvases titled “The Ballad of Easy Rider,” inspired by the closing scenes of the titular film in which Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s bikers meet a fiery end. The flames in these paintings mirror those in the camper photographs, but here—unlike elsewhere in the show—Fischer’s subject seems hackneyed, referencing a notion of ’60s cool worlds away from Smithson’s.

Martha Schwendener