New York

assume vivid astro focus

John Connelly Presents

Insinuating its groovy self into every conceivable nook and cranny of the gallery, the most recent manifestation of assume vivid astro focus—the zany lowercase nom de jeu of Brazilian artist/impresario Eli Sudbrack, as well as the moniker for the shifting cohort of artists and performers with whom he collaborates in his extravagantly heterogeneous practice—once again confirmed the group’s special affinity for the surface of things.

Avaf’s methodology revolves around deconstructing a certain ravey psychedelic milieu and then recombining its stylistic and temperamental elements in an attempt to make art that resembles a party, and vice versa. The operative, if not wholly novel, conceptual drive behind this is to encourage the flow of creative capital from the exciting world of club and street culture to the traditionally more reserved space of the gallery, using the former’s tendencies toward freewheeling iconoclasm and collaboration to lubricate the latter’s well-documented inhibitions. Though notably lower on Day-Glo and glitter than usual, avaf was nevertheless after a similar effect here—even giving the space its own dress code by requiring that visitors remove their shoes and don a pair of red-and-blue glasses attached to a paper mask before entering the show. It was a move designed functionally to protect and make legible the installation’s formal centerpiece—a third-generation take on Robert Indiana/General Idea foursquare word blocks printed in 3-D on wallpaper and wrapping paper, which here had proliferated to cover every wall in the main gallery—and conceptually to initiate viewers into the kind of temporary tribe that the communitarian-minded avaf, like all party hosts, is always looking to foster.

The blunt political topicality of this architecturally inscribed “text”—BUSH, IRAQ, EVIL, IRAN, RUIN, HELL, FUEL, and numerous other similarly portentous four-letter words—was no doubt the proximate inspiration for the show’s title, “a very anxious feeling.” Yet the discourse it apparently intended to ignite was so generalized and familiar that the title functioned better at the caboose end of its double entendre, suggesting much more vividly the anxious-making horror vacui profusion on display: a basement corridor full of flashing neon synced to a looped fragment of a French techno tune; a video installation by British artist Giles Round featuring pulsing geometric patterns and shown—with a touch of genuine pathos, given avaf’s preferred métier—in a back room dominated by a window into the now-vacant hall that once housed the notoriously louche Tunnel nightclub; and a series of secreted peephole viewing stations that allowed intrepid visitors to peer into a closed space where, among the purposefully incoherent remains of a previous exhibition (at Hiromi Yoshii in Tokyo), a series of music, dance, and performance events occurred during the run of the show.

While the specifics change from show to show, avaf’s preference for quantity over quality is by now predictable, as are the questions their approach raises for skeptics: Do their riotous bursts of undifferentiated multimedia material signify a surplus, or disguise a paucity, of ideas? Are they trying too hard or not hard enough? There’s no doubt that the contemporary-art world could stand to loosen up from time to time, and there’s something charming and even commendable about avaf’s attempts to inject a little fun into its ponderous precincts. But here the collision of the concerned-citizen posture of the primary content with the calculatedly casual “What, us worry?” ambience in which it was set undercut the force of both—at once neutering the social statements and harshing the buzz of the environment’s simulated revels. Avaf may have wanted “a very anxious feeling” to demonstrate that it can be profound as well as entertaining, but instead it only confirmed that not even 3-D glasses can lend their spectacular superficiality the impression of genuine depth.

Jeffrey Kastner