New York

Olav Westphalen


A onetime comedy writer and political cartoonist known for his absurdist disruptions—e.g., presenting the props from a remote-controlled dirigible race as an art installation—Olav Westphalen should be an artist we can count on in such harrowingly benumbing days as these. And, indeed, his brand of low-tech gallows humor was recently on view at Maccarone, in the form of two related series (both 2007–2008): “Waiting for the Barbarians”—whose title, presumably appropriated from J. M. Coetzee’s 1980 novel, was also shared by the exhibition itself—and “One Day.” Although dubbed a “twinned elegy for art and journalism” by Karen Rosenberg in the New York Times, Westphalen’s installation, composed of a sculpture and two suites of washy drawings, registered, to me anyway, as less an elegy than a coolly dispassionate admonition.

Ever the showman, Westphalen began his exhibition on the street—or in the gallery, but with a sculpture posed to beguile passersby. One could spy, from outside the glass entry doors, the back of a cameraman ostensibly filming a journalist reporting on-site. As in the manner of Westphalen’s earlier, ham-fisted sculptures of shamed corporate executives from the likes of Enron, the pair revealed itself to be a well-executed, if still clumsy, Styrofoam hoax: Untitled (statues), 2007–2008. Part of the “Waiting for the Barbarians” series, the correspondents nevertheless (and perhaps inevitably, thanks to their uncanny lifelike presence and patinated surfaces) stood apart from the other, wall-bound works, occupying space in such an insistent way as to lay claim to it. Yet soon the there-is-no-there-there factor crept in: What is newsworthy here?

Perhaps we were meant to read the surrounding drawings as the broadcast otherwise absent from the mise-en-scène, in which case the five large-scale, black-and-white sketches of toppled monuments—the two-dimensional portion of the “Waiting for the Barbarians” series—fit the bill. Their fallen icons, ranging from busted Roman columns to a statue of Columbus being toppled by state-sponsored rioters in Caracas, telegraph the worst. The casual acrylic-and-ink drawings in the adjacent gallery, those constituting “One Day,” likewise portend something they do not picture, despite their being faithful (if varyingly engaged, since they were often executed in one sitting) renderings of images plucked from the International Herald Tribune (the May 18, 2007, edition). While Tony Blair and Vladimir Putin cropped up in Westphalen’s picture gallery, more often the scenes were surprisingly anonymous and illegible, as registered in their titles: Untitled (dark-haired woman), 2007–2008, Untitled (landscape), 2007–2008, and so on.

But through a coy, scavenger hunt–like act redolent of Luc Tuymans, who displaces and appends meaning to his otherwise seemingly unremarkable scenes, Westphalen printed the front page of that same edition of the International Herald Tribune for the gallery mailer. The layout, in the context of the announcement, seemed loaded, including as it did an image of a South Korean soldier watching a North Korean train pass a demilitarized zone for the first time since the 1950s, a report on Blair’s last White House press conference, and, finally, an article on the Christie’s auction where Warhol brought in around $137 million. This last notice appeared not on the front but on the twentieth page, which Westphalen reproduced on the back of the mailer, giving the game away. This show was, to be sure, about art and journalism and their unseemly interdependence and ultimate disposability. As the paper said in response to the Warhol prices: “Contemporary art, fragile as it often seems, is in for a long haul.”

Suzanne Hudson