New York

Diana Al-Hadid

Perry Rubenstein Gallery

Diana Al-Hadid’s sculptures read as folkloric, narrative, even literary. Deftly handmade amalgamations of materials (including polystyrene, steel, cardboard, and wax), these hulking, unfinished-looking towers masquerade equally as medium-scale models for monumental contemporary buildings and as timeless, placeless ruins. While always sufficiently finessed, Al-Hadid’s work is curiously antiaesthetic. Learning that her impressively menacing sculptures are intended as references (to the Tower of Babel, for example, or the Chartres Cathedral) saps a little of their magic; it would be astounding if Al-Hadid’s lumbering and seemingly illogical architecture sprang entirely from mental improvisation.

The centerpiece of this show housed in two of Perry Rubenstein’s three Chelsea venues was unequivocally Tower of Infinite Problems (all works 2008), an architectural peak, spire and all, felled to the floor and snapped in two, imperiously impeding foot traffic within the gallery’s diminutive Twenty-fourth Street location. The seemingly incompatible marriage between the man-made and the organic is distinctly apparent in this piece. Although its toppled appearance and stained skin suggest a forgotten ruin—something decayed, junked, and scavenged—Al-Hadid fabricated the entire thing; all of its components were birthed in her studio, which is true of all her sculptures. A broken honeycomb pattern forms the exoskeleton of the fallen tower, as if an outer layer had rotted away, revealing this fragile interior. A repeated octagonal motif—apparently a nod to the labyrinthine pattern on the floor of the Chartres Cathedral—snakes toward the peak. The shape recurs in two other pieces in the show, notably in The Path of Diminishing Returns, for which Al-Hadid worked an octagon directly into the wall, making a section of the plaster convincingly mimic the look of crumbling brickwork, with a painted black hole in the center—a dead end.

Al-Hadid’s amorphous structures and site-specific black holes don’t exactly carry a “negative” vibe, but there’s no whiff of the colorful quasi utopianism that defines the practice of, say, Phoebe Washburn; Al-Hadid’s work is more punk than funk, utopianism trumped by nihilism. Self-Melt looks as if Al-Hadid dropped a viscous blob, its syrupy treacle frozen in drips, atop a heap of shards shaped like an inverted and nonsensical Tower of Babel. For The Problems of Infinite Towers, she erected eight vertical towers of plywood and white cardboard tubing. Each tower is stained with the pervasive, molasses-like syrup that sullies the surfaces of so many of her sculptures, and has a gnarled, formless base with tubing splayed across the floor, the cumulative effect being that of an absurdist pipe organ. The same complex, multi-tiered octagonal pattern connects the exterior of the hollow structure to the interior, and a stack of rectangular shapes at the top of the piece ascends toward an anticlimactic summit, inches from the ceiling.

Several handsome works on paper showing foreboding facades obscured by an angry Giacometti scrawl were also included, and while they convey monumental architecture’s potential for psychological domination (beginning with the race to build the most massive Medieval European cathedrals, and consummated by Albert Speer’s, and, later, European Brutalist, buildings), the structures themselves are the main events. They’re confusing and illogical—anti-architecture. Chartres references be damned; if Al-Hadid’s bewildering towers gesture toward anything of this world, it’s the labyrinths of visible bureaucracy: perpetually delayed construction and baffling dead ends in downtown Manhattan, and the forlornly unfinished and uninhabited architecture that now dots the American landscape.

Nick Stillman