New York

Mike Bouchet

Maccarone | 630 Greenwich Street

The press release for Mike Bouchet’s The New York Dirty Room (all works 2005) mimics the information sheet for Walter De Maria’s The New York Earth Room, 1977, that the Dia Foundation, which maintains it, makes available. It’s a brief tract that intones, in the same font, layout, and stately manner, the title of the work and its dimensions, provenance, and pedigree. Of course, with Bouchet’s brand-new work as its subject, much of this information feels cheekily presumptuous, but this is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the project.

Dirty Room was a rank installation made entirely of dirt: fifty thousand pounds of topsoil from Home Depot and twenty-five thousand pounds of compost from Rikers Island. At Maccarone, the dirt was piled into a waist-high container that filled most of the gallery’s first-floor space. A narrow pathway allowed visitors to walk alongside the work and examine it closely. But Dirty Room’s makeup was such that it elided the metaphorically pure associations of earth, loam, and soil; “Look, there’s a screw,” exclaimed my companion, staring at a dark mass that, far from being top quality, was filled with off-color clumps, sticks, and god knows what else.

Rather, the meaning of the work resided, as it does with other art that appropriates from historical sources, in comparison. De Maria’s work is “an interior earth sculpture”; Bouchet’s is “an interior dirt sculpture.” De Maria’s is dirt; Bouchet’s is dirty. Land art, as practiced by De Maria and Robert Smithson, investigated notions of “inside” and “outside,” and Earth Room contributes to this process by bringing the outside in. Bouchet bypassed the loftier interpretations applied to De Maria’s work by using material of both corporate and “low” origins (“interior dirt” suggests hidden malevolence and untold secrets), and further confounded things by using dirt from a prison—i.e. from “inside.”

Comparing Dirty Room to Earth Room also has the unexpected effect of locating a buried romanticism in the original. Although Land artists didn’t generally traffic in sentimental notions about nature and earth—Smithson for instance was less moved by scenic beauty than by compromised landscapes—next to Bouchet’s far baser work, Earth Room seems downright mystical in its reliance on ancient symbolism. But was Dirty Room more than an elaborate “inside” joke? It doesn’t really encourage us to see its source anew in the way that, for example, Vik Muniz’s reassembled masterpieces do. Ultimately, its primary effectiveness may have been as a bitter commentary on the evolution of the New York art world, its grungy Chinatown location harking back to an earlier incarnation of SoHo, home to Earth Room.

The other works here display a similar sense of humor. Top Cruise, a set of one thousand portrait busts of Tom Cruise, provokes speculation on Cruise’s current ubiquity and oddball behavior: Perhaps he isn’t human after all, just a cheaply mass-produced product? And in America’s Next Top Cruise, a fish tank bubbles with store-bought diet cola. Bouchet’s own version of the drink, My Cola Light, is the medium for a set of paintings (classified by the press release as “an interior cola sculpture”) titled Long & Skinny, one of which is an enlargement of the nutritional information (riddled with zeros) found on the side of a diet cola can; the others depict logos complete with test-marketed names that convey no concrete information. Clearly, Bouchet is sensitive to frustrating paradoxes—one painting, instead of a logo, features the instruction BANG HEAD HERE—but there’s little evidence of the more trenchant observation that makes Dirty Room a satisfying tweak.

Emily Hall