New York

John Gerrard

Simon Preston Gallery/Knoedler Project Space

I never did get to see the pigs in John Gerrard’s Grow Finish Unit (near Elkhart, Kansas) 2008. Nor will I likely ever witness the culmination of the artist’s Oil Stick Work (Angelo Martinez/Richfield, Kansas) 2008. The animations’ respective climaxes and denouements will escape most viewers; indeed, that’s part of their charm.

“Oil Stick Work,” Gerrard’s first New York solo show, was held at Simon Preston Gallery in conjunction with a small presentation uptown at Knoedler Project Space. The principal works, three interactive computer animations, offer the sort of virtual environments found in popular video games. Each work depicts a picturesque landscape in the rural Midwestern United States and features a building or piece of machinery; in two of them, the viewer can steer the perspectives by turning the monitors, while the third can be navigated by standing to the left or right of a narrow beam of light, the vantage points in all three variable within paths circling the central subjects. Gerrard’s technologically sophisticated projects test our patience, frustrating scopophilia even as they enable a sort of detached visual omniscience. (The content can be viewed from numerous angles, but unlike, say, Cao Fei’s RMB City in the virtual community Second Life, extensive interactivity seems relatively beside the point.)

At Simon Preston, Oil Stick Work (Angelo Martinez/Richfield, Kansas) 2008 was projected onto a large wall in the center of the main gallery. The title character is shown painting a large aluminum corn silo black, applying the color with an oil stick, working six days a week from dawn to dusk. (The program’s sunrises and sunsets are synchronized with those of Richfield, though the weather remains placidly unchanging.) The labor could be considered Sisyphean if it didn’t have a scripted terminus, albeit one that is far in the future: In thirty years, the strictly virtual Martinez will complete his task and leave the scene; the silo will continue to exist in perpetuity (or until the computer dies or some extradiegetic factor intervenes), though he will never return. The work brings into uneasy alliance some of the more fraught issues of our day: US dependence on oil, migrant labor, and unsustainable agricultural policies, to name a few. The tropes are quiet but insistent underpinnings, a boilerplate list of points to be addressed (or avoided) during a political campaign.

Reliance on stock concerns also besets Grow Finish Unit (near Elkhart, Kansas) 2008, which depicts the exterior view of a pig farm. Approximately every eight months, trucks arrive to pick up the pigs and cart them off to their apparent demise; except for these rare incursions, the scene is ominously still. Sentry (Kit Carlson, Colorado) 2008, exhibited at Knoedler, showed an even more pared-down scene: an oil pump jack, facing east, nodding up and down in silent genuflection. (These last two works were presented on LCD monitors set in minimalist iMac-like casings.)

If occasionally pedantic, Gerrard’s work is conceptually rich, opening onto a new body of questions concerning a relatively young medium. While much of the recent art in the field of “new media” has tended toward naive, deconstructive, or nostalgic approaches to technology, Gerrard seems less critical of advances in computing than excited by them. The irony of virtual reality is that it aspires to a particularly conservative mode of realism; the more our imaginations are left to run free, apparently, the more they gravitate toward naturalistic tropes of representation. The very surface-preciousness of Gerrard’s animations, their genuinely seductive rendering, may strike some as sentimental. But his environments are also a compelling ground for conceptual play—a novel use of computers’ limitless temporal possibilities in the service of time-based art.

David Velasco