New York

Michael Brown

Yvon Lambert New York

Michael Brown’s apparently unassuming show looked at first like the contents of your kitchen closet, but on second glance was more corporate than that—you might well own the dustpan and brush, the brooms, or the mop, but you probably wouldn’t do your mopping with so large a bucket, and the desk chairs were strictly office-storeroom. What else? An electric floor fan, smacking of Home Depot; a well- used paintbrush, its handle smeared with white paint . . . nothing handsome or new, everything ostensibly not just store-bought and worn but low-functioning in the first place. Wondering what was interesting about these things, the viewer consulted the checklist and found that the paintbrush is titled Marvin Gaye (paint brush) (all works 2009); one of the chairs is Bob Dylan (chair), the other Neil Young (chair); one of the mops is named after Aretha Franklin, the other after David Bowie; and so on through a roster of rock and soul favorites, from Elvis and Johnny Cash up to punk, with the Ramones, and pretty much stopping there in time. What does Dylan share with a desk chair, the viewer wondered, and turned back to the checklist, to find, as the medium, “plastic (Bob Dylan records), found object chair.” The mop, similarly: “plastic (Aretha Franklin records), mop head.” Most of us some time ago found our LPs replaced by CDs, and then had to decide what to do with our old vinyl. Brown’s choice is drastic: He has melted it down and recast it as objects of use.

Except for an oddity you might notice when you see Brown’s works together—that all of them feature black plastic—they’re pretty much indistinguishable from the real thing. I would assume that Brown took a cast from an actual mop handle and filled it with molten vinyl, producing an object effectively identical to the original. The vinyl of records must have a certain soft impressionability, a capacity to take and keep a very fine imprint, and looking carefully at, for example, Brown’s chair backs, I thought I saw a kind of gentleness of outline that spoke of careful handwork rather than mass production. But at that point I already knew their medium, and whether I was reading in, I cannot say. I know that without the checklist I would have walked right by them.

The Swiss artists Fischli & Weiss have cast everyday studio gear in installations that feel something like Brown’s, and another obvious reference is the well-known work that Robert Gober began to exhibit in the 1980s—sculptures that look like sinks but are actually carefully crafted in painted plaster. Brown’s show also reminded me of works he may not have had in mind: the “Letter Paintings” made in the ’60s and ’70s by the New York painter Archie Rand, who treated the names of jazz, doo-wop, and R&B musicians as gorgeous decorative motifs, transferring the affective properties of their sound into visual objects. And the deliberate poverty of Brown’s work in comparison with these others— less original, less tempting to the eye— suggests yet another precedent in the “abject art” of the ’90s.

At the same time, Brown’s work cut strikingly to the moment. Most clearly it spoke of transitions of technologies—specifically the supersession of the LP after a glittering career of just forty years or so, but metaphorically the countless methods of production that have come and gone, the pace of their passage only heightening in the digital era. Brown knows that the experience wrapped up in transitory media can be intense, and that that experience alters, and can be lost, with the methods used to produce it. More generally, the empty, office-building-basement air of Brown’s installation had an after-the-party atmosphere that harmonized with the corporate and financial debacles of the past year. In the turning of petroleum-based objects of consumption into objects of use, one might even find a reference to global warming and the green revolution our culture so desperately needs. Does the burying of Aretha’s voice in a mop handle signal a kind of entombment, a vanishing? Or, as we try to clean up the mess we have both inherited and made, does it give us a way to keep that richness with us, as life goes on more humbly than before? These are some of the questions embedded in the density of Brown’s modest objects.

David Frankel