New York

“Black Acid Co-op”

Deitch Projects

This summer at Deitch Projects, Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe transformed the gallery’s Wooster Street space beyond recognition. Constructing a main line into the contemporary American imaginary, the artists fabricated a multilevel compound housing a dense network of replicated spaces that, while known to exist within society, typically operate out of sight and beyond the law. Linked by a series of waiting areas and corridors and overseen by jerry-rigged surveillance equipment, the rooms were evocative of such places as a bare-shelved drug-front store, a dropout commune, meth labs, an underground Chinatown bazaar, and a Met-like gallery space, neatly wainscoted, displaying debris from all of the aforementioned areas as precious relics. An installation so confusingly dense that it appears as the product of its own amphetamine high, Black Acid Co-op, 2009, was (according to the press release) envisioned as a “spatial collage” where passing from trailer-home kitchen to bathroom and up to a wood-paneled geodesic dome would generate a psychedelic form of “cinematic montage.”

While sharing a conceptual structure with such immersive, architecture-based works as Mike Nelson’s 2007 Psychic Vacuum, any number of Christoph Büchel’s sprawling installations, and the unnerving interiors of Gregor Schneider, this project—the third iteration following Hello Meth Lab with a View last December at Art Basel Miami Beach and, earlier that year, Hello Meth Lab in the Sun at Ballroom Marfa in Texas (both created in collaboration with artist Alexandre Singh)—is a natural outgrowth of Freeman and Lowe’s own earlier independent projects. Freeman’s Sixteen Scenarios, 2002, is a disorienting maze of reflective passageways and doors that was installed in the entrance hall of Brooklyn’s Central Public Library; Lowe’s 2006 “Helter Swelter” exhibition at Oliver Kamm/5BE in New York involved re-creating an entire bodega in the gallery that led, through a back passage, into a Ken Kesey–style converted Kool Man ice cream truck.

From burned-out couches to bags of kitty litter to untold quantities of Sudafed, much of the material that constituted Freeman and Lowe’s installation was “found” and ready-made. To get past the dominant reading of the Meth Lab/Black Acid Co-op series as hyperrealist installation, however, it may be useful to compare its approach with some art-historical precursors: Its use of the pop vernacular brings to mind Rob Pruitt and Jack Early’s 1988–92 collaborative projects, which incorporated head-shop stickers, six-packs, and a bathtub filled with plastic ice cubes; and its implication of performativity in the foregrounding of the everyday consumer objects and abject realities of the street seems connected to the early 1960s work of Jim Dine, Robert Rauschenberg, and Claes Oldenburg. Yet the emotional and psychological qualities for which “reality” was employed in the work of these earlier artists have here been taken past the limits of their conventional sign value. The upshot is that walking through the trailer bedroom, the meth-lab kitchen, and the Chinatown basement felt akin to visiting a theme-park recreation of a Hollywood set.

Rather than hyperrealism or some sort of magical realism, then, perhaps Black Acid Co-op can best be interpreted as “hysterical realism.” As literary critic James Wood put it in his 2001 essay introducing this term, in examples of such work “the conventions of realism are not being abolished but, on the contrary, exhausted, and overworked,” so that the result “seems evasive of reality while borrowing from realism itself.” No matter how impressively constructed, Freeman and Lowe’s installation was ultimately a collection of boilerplate settings for high-level corruption and the contemporary underground. Consequently, visitors to the show, no matter how engaged, could only be passive consumers of spectacle, onlookers left outside the fantasy.

Caroline Busta