New York

Sarah Sze

The charm of miniature landscape is control plus infinitude, the dollhouse promise of replicating everything at an easily manageable size. Both architects and landscape painters rely on this model-maker’s skill of swallowing whole the world’s ten thousand things and enframing them in a perfect spatial fantasy, so it is unsurprising that Sarah Sze counts among her influences an architect father and a collegiate stint in the painting department. She is now, of course, an installation artist whose accumulative mechanisms work by filling a room with five-dollars-a-gross bits of mass-produced ephemera. Deployed in poised, eccentric combinations, each paper clip or power cord helps to delimit the vectors and textures of a given area.

The “characters” in Sze’s dollhouses might be named inexpensiveness, urbanism, proliferation, plastic, edge-to-edge composition, color, motion, precision, humor, and emptiness. With these protagonists, she spins endless variations on the same scenario. Thus, her recent show—just the second solo gallery entry on a résumé that includes a host of major international contemporary art museums—delivered few surprises but much satisfaction. This interlocking trio of assemblages was as intimately related to Sze’s previous work as a spore to its fungus and as variably related to her themes as a mutation to its virus. Further departure would break the rules of her game.

Once such foundations are established, the primary challenge of reviewing Sze is cataloguing her materials and their placement. To wit: The largest piece here consisted of an airy grid of orange and blue threads spread through the main space at an oblique angle to the floor, anchored between a column, a wall, and a concatenation of what looked like toy ladders. Nestled under the implied plane of the grid like a city under a web of flight paths was the usual beguiling distribution of exactingly selected junk—a delta of red pushpins set upside down on their flat heads; a colony of small white gift boxes; a pair of jeans turned halfway inside out and balanced on their waistline, so that the upturned legs looked like twin cooling towers. Smears of red and blue pigment on the floor implied bloodstains and lagoons, “natural” touches that rhymed with a scatter of fake lichen and a live plant in a pot.

Open and expansively horizontal, Proportioned to the Groove (all works 2005) contrasted with the more diminutive Still Life with Fish, even as the two blurred rhizomatically. Cutting into the wall of the gallery’s storage space, Sze filled a closetlike niche with stacks of cardboard boxes, creating a cliff dweller’s pueblo to the larger work’s plains—or a Hollywood Hills to its Valley, or a shantytown to its downtown. The revealed metal studs vertically segmented one’s view of the sculpture, as if the thread-grid had been simplified, silvered, and spun 180 degrees. Behind this structural device, more white gift boxes perched among brown cardboard cartons, accompanied by plastic grasses, mini-stairways, and (among other things) two casually accurate carved-Styrofoam objects: a life-size orchid and the titular fish.

In the back room, a doorway exposed another view of Still Life with Fish, while Unravel hung from the ceiling, a spiraling cloud-city mainly composed of the peeled rims of Styrofoam plates and the metallic skeletons of Japanese lanterns stripped of rice paper. There were also tree branches, a carpenter’s level, plastic bags of water (sans fish), lengths of blue tape, a juddering motor, desk lamps, and two holes cut right through the gallery’s back wall, through which arms of the sculpture reached to the outdoors.

Whitmanic paean to office supplies, child’s garden of synthetic detritus, a model universe in which no scrap of notebook paper goes unloved: Sze has made a play-space in which toxicity, overcrowding, and obsolescence are harmonized. No wonder we love her.

Frances Richard