New York


Sara Meltzer Gallery

We all now know better than to believe in the myth of the artist working alone in her studio. But what of the supposed alternative, the idea of a collective happily plugging away on a shared project? prow, a collaborative entity whose name is a combination of the initials of the group’s primary constituents, Peter Rostovsky and Olav Westphalen, staged two separate exhibitions in New York this winter. Both shows were produced by, and dealt with, cooperative enterprise. But whether they were promoting or satirizing it remained intriguingly ambiguous.

PROW claim that they are modeled after a Hollywood production studio, but with one exception: They have no hierarchy. (To realize their projects, prow are assisted by a large cast of helpers, all of whom get credit.) The show at Sara Meltzer Gallery was titled “The Prequel” and opened with light boxes of fake movie posters advertising sequels to nonexistent films, e.g., Iceberg III: Evil From Below, 2009. A hilarious send-up of hackneyed graphic design, the posters are also an obvious comment on Hollywood’s proclivity for mindless seriality catering to the lowest common denominator. Yet the posters seemed to encourage viewers to revel in such forms of humor, condoning art as entertainment and setting the stage for the spectacle that followed. Behind a white curtain, the main room held Pyre, 2010, a sculpture made of electric fans and polyester sheeting. Its apparent drabness was promptly reversed as a mechanically rigged violin and cello struck a triumphant chord (partly inspired by the Mac startup tone), the room went suddenly dark, and the fans whirred to life, blowing the polyester flames, lit by orange and red spotlights, into the air. The convincingly lifelike instant bonfire resembled a funeral pyre, though who or what was dead (the author? Pure, unmediated experience?) remained unclear.

With the lights up, the drawings surrounding the fire seemed more in keeping with the film-production concept. Watercolors depicting wire-frame models based on found images posted on the Internet by users of Google’s 3-D modeling software often suggested movie premises: a plane crash, an obstacle course, a floating baby. The claims of the press release that the appropriation of these images means that prow are celebrating “the utopian dream of an open source ‘wiki-culture’” didn’t quite hit home. The oblique meaning of the drawings and their generic look instead seemed to refer to the general descent into mediocre blandness for which we have the culture industry to blame.

Concurrently, PROW mounted a tighter show at the nonprofit institution Art in General in New York’s Chinatown. In contrast to the work at the aforementioned commercial gallery in Chelsea, which took aim at a capitalistic, image-saturated society, this show, titled “Anti-Prow,” tackled communistic ideals. Walls papered with manifestos here surrounded the central piece (Monument, 2010), which comprised several metal ladders painted bright orange and piled together in a mass that goofily riffed on Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International. Five exquisite-corpse drawings—Rostovsky and Westphalen each drew half—depicted actual famous corpses such as Kurt Cobain, Che Guevara, and victims of the Jonestown massacre. Framed by the manifestos, the drawings highlighted the futility of radical chic. A tenet of feature filmmaking is to keep the audience guessing, and in splitting the task of rendering these icons, a surprising third element emerges—the rough, rapid hand of Westphalen complements Rostovsky’s cool dexterity, resulting in moving, strikingly human versions of the grim scenes we’ve all seen many times before.

With the work at Art in General alluding to failed leftist movements, and that at Sara Meltzer emanating an air of jaded fatigue with corporatized media, one might think the two shows would leave viewers in a state of pessimisistic despair. Not so! By embracing art as entertainment but resolving not to underestimate their audience, prow pulled off an enviable trick: Not only did they keep the audience guessing, they left them wanting more.

Claire Barliant