New York

Jeanne Silverthorne

McKee Gallery

The most obviously, even cornily beautiful set of works in Jeanne Silverthorne’s show also neatly summed up some of the artist’s longstanding concerns. This was a group of floral still lifes from 2008, hung in ornate frames on the wall like any in the great tradition of flower paintings from Jan Breughel on down. But Silverthorne’s blossoms, in blue, white, and pink, have an overblown, sugar-candy kind of ripeness that makes them seem to overflow their frames—in fact they literally bulge outward, being three-dimensional, cast in rubber several inches thick. In this material the petals seem weird in consistency: stiff, soft, firm, turgid, and blowsy all at once. The frames are cast in the same rubber, now a dead, light-absorbent black that belies their baroque moldings. And each of the three works is dotted with feeding insects—respectively bees, ladybugs, and flies. In these “pictures” a kind of lurid vitality coexists with decay.

The themes of the still lifes—a densely compacted synthesis of life, death, and art—ran through the entire exhibition, which was something like a compendium of Silverthorne’s styles and preoccupations over the years. Everything was here: the paintings made corporal as sculptures, the rumination on the artist’s studio, the electrical systems both functioning and not, the body anxiety, the unlit lighting, the teensy portraits of artist and family, the witty morbidity. In the context of this installation, sealed rubber crates—most everything in the show involved rubber, but for a careful wall of photographs and videos—evoked coffins, and a banana peel the thing that might put you in one: accident, contingency, fate. The crates were scaled, though, for neighboring artworks, meaning both that they were signs for the studio and that the artworks were to be imagined as living, if en route to the grave. But the quality of life in Silverthorne’s objects is ambiguous, the rubber flesh clammy. In Mutant Lamp with Pears and Flies, 2007, the necks of a pair of desk lamps droop flaccidly toward a pile of halved pears, once again scattered with flies—a neat, funny meditation on sex and death. The phosphorescent pigment mixed into the rubber of some of the works means that they glow in the dark, as corpses are said to do. A pair of helical candles, superfluously hooked up to electrical cable, is studded with the GATC insignia of DNA; the work’s title claims that the letters are phrased as the sequence specifically for depression, anxiety, addiction, anger, and panic, in denial of the candles’ role as sources of light and life. Untitled (Bad Ideas), 2007, similarly, is a trash can filled with lightbulbs. The lightbulb is enshrined in our language as code for “idea,” for the process of thought; Silverthorne pushes that metaphor by giving hers more flies, as if they were organic matter—little lost brains.

Those lightbulbs may look back to Jasper Johns’s, in Sculpmetal, which famously emit no light. Other echoes in the show might include Claes Oldenburg, Eva Hesse, and, in Pneuma Machine, from 2005, the Louise Bourgeois of the cell-like cages and lairs. Here set off in its own space, which regularly went dark so the phosphorescence glowed, Pneuma Machine is a room-size installation of cables, piping, valves, gauges, and faucets, all cast in rubber the color of bone. An arrangement of these is laid out on a table, like a body waiting for surgery or in the morgue. In the middle—heart and lungs—is a pair of electrical motors, their bodies rubber but their innards working; as the motors phase on and off, they quiver like jelly. Where the head might be are a lightbulb and a candle, its flame—a piece of yellow silk—fluttering sporadically in the draft from the motor. And up on the wall, of course, is an exit sign. Ah, sweet machinery of life! Not for the first time in Silverthorne’s art, the work is Beckett in sculpture.

David Frankel