New York

Rita McBride

For almost twenty years, Rita McBride has exploited the tropes of modernist architecture and design, lately deriving maximum effect from increasingly simple interventions. Her last New York solo outings, a pair of exhibitions at Alexander and Bonin and SculptureCenter in 2003 and 2004, respectively, gave viewers the chance to acquaint themselves with McBride’s treatment of interstitial spaces and building infrastructure, which she manages to imbue with psychological resonance. By altering scale, streamlining design, or isolating objects from their contexts, McBride made the air ducts, parking structures, awnings, skylights, and other industrial forms she appropriated speak not only of tensions between art and architecture, but also of the alienation and dislocation that often characterize the urban experience.

But whereas those works, despite the muteness of their minimal forms, function as evocative, open-ended diagrams of the objects from which they are derived, the sculptures and prints in this exhibition exemplify too neatly their animating concept, leaving the viewer with little to chew on beyond their purely formal variety and polish. If other of McBride’s recent sculptures are abstractions from functional objects, here she took a representational approach, presenting oversize models of architects’ and designers’ tools. “Tools are forged from plausible lies,” the artist writes in an accompanying statement, “contrived to represent an alternate reality so convincing that we do not question their by-products.” Abstract concepts may have arbitrarily guided us to these tools’ forms and proportions, but merely pointing out this fact does little to encourage consideration of alternative ways of shaping space.

Titled “Rita McBride: Double to Watch, Triple to Help”—perhaps a humorous reference to the exorbitant fees charged by design professionals—McBride’s exhibition featured, among other objects, a group of French curves rendered in hand-cut glass, objects carved from spruce, and a series of templates rendered in various materials in both two and three dimensions. But however interesting the attempt to expose “plausible lies” must have seemed, the resultant display was, unfortunately, visually inert. The works in the main gallery, hung on or leaning against the walls, were Pop without the pop; Minimalist without the being theatrical. (Lee Lozano did so much more with her tools.) Although perhaps a logical step for McBride, these objects undercut any attempt to see beyond their exteriors.

Thus left to reach for formal comparisons, one might think of Alex Hay’s late-’60s sculptures and trompe l’oeil paintings, which possess a whimsical humor and willingly revel in the surfaces of commercial products—receipts, perhaps; flatware, or a yellow legal pad. Yet McBride’s works pale in comparison to Hay’s; they seem mere illustrations. Likewise, her templates, some cut from steel plates, might be regarded as allusions to Richard Serra’s prop pieces, but they lack the muscularity and menace that gives Serra’s works their charge. Perhaps more rewarding in this regard are three bronze sculptures, set on a slanted plane of rec-room Peg-Board in a rear gallery, that function as both templates—for Celtic designs and clouds, for example—and, at a stretch, Picassoesque profiles.

To coincide with the show, Arsenal Pulp Press, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and Printed Matter, Inc. published Myways, the concluding paperback in a four-volume series of genre books edited by McBride (this installment was co-edited by David Gray). With contributions from nearly two dozen artists, writers, and curators, the book, a compilation of advice columns by fictional artist Gina Ashcraft, is linked only tenuously to the works on display at Alexander and Bonin, but possesses all the humor and ambiguity one would have liked to encounter in the gallery.

Brian Sholis