New York

Sarah Sze

Five years have passed since Sarah Sze’s last New York gallery show, and she took her most recent exhibition as an opportunity to fill Tanya Bonakdar’s bilevel space, including the stairwell, office, and foyer. Her nine installations (all works 2010) were titled separately but fit together to create the laboratory-playhouse-boutique-archive of commodity that we expect from her, incorporating, among other items, a bottle of Windex, plastic fans, live plants, C-clamps, balsa wood, white gift boxes, water bottles, clip lights, paint chips, plastic buckets, twigs, yarn, blue painter’s tape, a pair of jeans, flip-flops, feathers, and a power strip made of paper. As always, her poised architectures of clutter were absorbing. Yet such predictability, in art, is problematic nonetheless.

Complaining about creative repetition is critically tricky. To nurture obsession is one definition of the artist’s task, and if the expression of that obsession is interesting, it is worth looking at in various iterations. Sze’s subject, after all, is the sprawl of a culture whose plastic parts threaten to bury us as we extrude them; how can she make her point without replication? Her mood here, as usual, was curious rather than censorious, but her fixation remains what is sometimes called Nature 2—the eco-techno system we inhabit and produce. In Szean “nature,” dead moss and the orange pill bottles into which the moss is stuffed occupy a continuum. The stars appear as patterns of shadow and light cast on a wall by perforated black paper on overhead projectors rigged from the ceiling; a river-polished stone and a smooth lump of plaster are twins; trees and two-by-fours, air and fans, fire and electric cords, water and water bottles, are synonymous. The pill bottles—part of The Uncountables (Encyclopedia), here the central installation—are labeled as containing prescriptions for Judith Sze and Chia M. Sze, the artist’s parents; embedded in this piece and prominent in Never Enough (Projector), the smaller installation adjacent to it, are Coleman camping cots, not unlike field-hospital stretchers. Their black nylon webbing has been burned to lace. So aging, injury, and bivouacs appear to be on Sze’s mind, all themes that dovetail with the photographs of what look like melting glaciers wrapped around milk cartons in The Uncountables. Parents, refugees, big-box stores, and the planet are likewise on the Nature 2 continuum.

Art-historical games could be played too. The spherical, hardwarestore-baroque 360 (Portable Planetarium)—with the star projections—reminded me that Sze has been compared to Bernini. Squares of mirror on the floor (again in The Uncountables) winked at Robert Smithson’s “Mirror Displacements”; there were glimpses of Allan McCollum and Rachel Whiteread in the “Plaster Surrogate”–like cast-plaster bottles stacked on office shelves in Imposters, Fillers and Editors (Liquid to Solid), and under an entryway shelf in Vices and Various Defects (Liquid to Solid). Comparisons to consumer Maximalists Jason Rhoades and Jessica Stockholder—or to connoisseurs of indoor natural-history display such as Mark Dion and Olafur Eliasson—were, as in the past, useful primarily as demonstrations of different sensibilities navigating related concepts differently. And behind it all hovered thoughts of Alexander Calder and Marcel Duchamp—the latter of whom coined the term mobiles for the former’s kinetic sculptures, and first made art by selecting things from shops.

To move, speedily, from Windex to the Baroque, Dadaist modernism to climate change: Is this kind of viewing experience not enough to reinvigorate interest in the refined sameness of Sze’s practice? Is it perverse to want more? One’s answer might depend on which artists among the comparisons are favorites. Viewers who love Smithson and Duchamp (i.e., viewers like me) will root for Sze—who has a brilliant eye and a dexterous hand, is in her early forties, is already a MacArthur Fellow, and has nothing to lose—to change, abandon, experiment. A strong artist who takes big risks becomes, inevitably, even more herself.

Frances Richard