Los Angeles

Monica Bonvicini

West of Rome, Inc.

Monica Bonvicini’s recent exhibition in a vacated 18,000-square-foot Organized Living store on the second floor of a Pasadena shopping mall allowed the artist to push her ongoing interrogation of architectural space—specifically, the way in which constructed space defines, and is defined by, sexual politics—to its contextual limit. Featuring more than thirty sculptures, videos, drawings, collages, and installations dating from 1998 to the present, the show also served as a de facto midcareer survey.

Bonvicini’s ambitious confrontation with the viewer began well before one entered the store: A group of framed drawings occupied the display windows while two site-specific sculptures were placed on the sizable exterior balcony. On the building’s parapet, the artist installed an elegant scaffolding of stainless steel that supported large matching steel letters spelling out the word DESIRE. These were readily legible from the street and introduced one of the show’s recurring themes.

Visitors entered the sprawling exhibition by prying open the once-automated entrance doors, and there they immediately encountered Plastered, 1998, a floor-bound grid of off-the-shelf drywall sheets laid atop a spongy Styrofoam substrate. Frequently crushed in the corners where the panels abutted, the work literally undergirded the entire exhibition while heightening the viewer’s awareness of his or her own body. Adding to the uneasy atmosphere was a looping, noirish sound collage of walking bass, harpsichord, and a cymbal crash. This serves as the sound track for a two-channel video installation, Destroy She Said, 1998, which borrows its name from a novel by Marguerite Duras and takes its dueling images of sublime leading ladies—Monica Vitti, Anna Karina, Shelley Winters—from a selection of film classics. Bonvicini utilized the drywall panels, mounted on floor-to-ceiling frames of two-by-fours, as screens for the projected video, self-consciously scattering a mess of leftover lumber, hardware, and sawdust on the floor. Meaning, like the intervention in the abandoned retail space, here walked a fine line between construction and ruin.

In Kill Your Father, 2001, Bonvicini assembles sixty-three drawings in matching red frames, juxtaposing ink renderings of tangled chains with stenciled words that were charged (INCEST, DAMAGED), broken (INCOMPLET), or ambiguously reorganized (CLOSED/SO/TO/BOREDOM). In these works, and throughout the show, Bonvicini treated words like building supplies—cutting, overlapping, and overloading them until they approach collapse. Intentionally or not, she rekindled the urgent energy of a preceding generation of artists by recalling the symbolic vandalism of Christopher Wool’s stenciled wordplay, the psychosexual potency of Cady Noland’s hardware, and the short-circuit semantics of Richard Prince’s joke paintings. Still, it’s hard to tell whether the collective influence is a source of anxiety or of empowerment: The title Kill Your Father suggests that both might be true.

Bonvicini’s investigation of gender and power is similarly ambiguous despite or perhaps because of its centrality to her practice, with her metaphoric linking of the construction of building and meaning so thoroughly overdetermined. Painted in enamel on a pane of cracked glass hung in a storefront window are the words LIKE CARPENTERS THEY WANT TO KNOW WHICH TOOLS/THEY NEVER ASK WHY BUILD. One might be tempted to redirect the question of “why” to Bonvicini as she compulsively builds and unbuilds signification with architectural precision. So provocative is the body of work that was on display, and so elegant was its installation, that one was likely to ignore the show’s title, “Not For You,” even as a work of the same name—a large, ceiling-mounted steel sign densely adorned with lightbulbs, bearing the telling phrase—flashed its paradoxical message.

Michael Ned Holte