New York

Yuri Masnyj

Metro Pictures

“Are you decorating a room? Building a library? Designing a theater or film set?” The Strand bookstore’s website offers to help you assemble collections—overnight!—of books by the foot, arranged by binding material (antique leather or the winsome “leather looking”), subject (art monographs, cookbooks, biographies, or contemporary fiction), or color (also a subset of the subject option, as in law books in “green, black, red, maroon, and blue”). That such a service is utilized in Manhattan is unsurprising. Nonetheless, its viability is but a telling instance of a persistent, broader repackaging of culture.

It happens to be a salient example, too, in relation to New York–based artist Yuri Masnyj, whose work engages the recycling of cultural material, whether of a Géricault painting, a Cubist assemblage, or an Eames stool. Masnyj’s deftly recontextualized appropriations invariably domesticate their sources and often render them plainly as decor or anodyne trademark. For instance, some drawings are crisscrossed by heavy black lines, grids, squares, crosses, and spheres, symbols of avant-gardism that have been drained of historical meaning only to be recouped as a kind of play on corporate graphic design. Others are detailed renderings of storage spaces, furniture, and generic modernist interiors. For his second solo show in New York, however, the artist expanded on his installation at the 2006 Whitney Biennial by again working in three dimensions, at room size, tautologically (and somewhat humorously) filling the space with sculptures of bound pages alongside diminutive drawings of them.

Lining the gallery were scores of graphite-and-watercolor images of books, posters, rooms, and cabinets in various states of splendor or decrepitude. With their workings-over of recurring forms and titles like There Is a Lot to Read to Understand What the Fuck Is Going On, Trying to Understand Your Logic, and Revisionist History (all works 2007), their precision quickly becomes obsessive repetition. Dotting the rest of the gallery were blocky bookshelves filled with books pieced together from fabric and cardboard, decorated, more often than not, in shades of red, pink, and black, and marked with vaguely Russian Constructivist–looking elements and Cyrillic letters on the spines. Similar books are piled on slender white pedestals and long, low tables, together with cast-wax beer bottles and guitars (an homage to Picasso here as well). Despite their backward-looking references, these sculptures also insist on their anticipatory, not quite fixed status.

Perhaps Masnyj’s show, which was titled “The Night’s Still Young,” was as such an attempt at revisionism, a rejoinder to waning historicist art history—a position as dire in its conclusions about the determination of modernism as it is punctual about the irrevocable temporality of past revolutionary episodes. (Hal Foster, for one, has written that “today the canon appears less as a barricade to storm than as a ruin to pick through.”) In his allusions to the ways in which twentieth-century art has been repurposed—utopian banners as record covers and the like—Masnyj risks coyness as much as the obverse. The challenge for his work, then, is to embody an operation as opposed to merely an aesthetic inert in its formal and conceptual reiterations. The night’s still young, right?

Suzanne Hudson