New York

Joe Scanlan, Idée Fixe, 2009, wool, polystyrene, dimensions variable.

Joe Scanlan, Idée Fixe, 2009, wool, polystyrene, dimensions variable.

Joe Scanlan


Joe Scanlan, Idée Fixe, 2009, wool, polystyrene, dimensions variable.

The day that I visited Joe Scanlan’s “Three Works” at Wallspace—the artist’s first solo show at a New York gallery in a decade—he was there, bag of food in hand, clearly digging in for an afternoon’s work. It wasn’t a performance (though I wondered) or even one of the scheduled moments to change the “round robin” configuration of works on view. Instead, it seemed, he was there to tweak some element that had him unsatisfied, to refine, mid-exhibition, a stray aesthetic element or imperfect detail.

The impulse seemed incongruous enough with the work on view. While material exactitude or even aesthetic pleasure are hardly of minor consequence to Scanlan, the pieces here were relatively modest, and, indeed, two were always presented in a disassembled form. In the rear of the gallery was Empire, 2005, a flag made, according to the press release, of “remnant fabric,” whose wood scaffolding was, when I visited, taken apart, its various parts leaning against the wall. Sitting on the floor in another corner was Idée Fixe, 2009; having been “on view” the previous week, it consisted partly of a box filled with Styrofoam balls and seemed like a stand-in for (as opposed to a tribute to) David Hammons’s Bliz-aard Ball Sale, 1983. And near the entrance was The Massachusetts Wedding Bed, 2004, the only fully assembled piece on my visit, a wooden bed frame bookended by floor rugs, with an unplugged spotlight nearby, its electrical cord dangling pathetically by its side. These pieces had previously been exhibited by Scanlan in Europe during the past ten years, and the artist’s statement for this show indicated he planned to exchange their places over the course of the show; each one would have its moment of fully assembled prominence here at some point during the cycle. But in any constellation, they seemed not so much the stuff of any finished project as an exhibition by approximation, more a deconstruction than reconstruction of Scanlan’s earlier efforts abroad.

Yet deconstruction can be a style, too, and, in fact, such a tension seemed very much Scanlan’s focus, as it has been in the past. A folded broadsheet, Free Speech, 2011, reprinted various essays by the artist, including the short text “Entropy for Sale”(2005), in which he maps Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of “creative destruction”—whereby capitalism “need[s] to perpetually destroy itself in order to profit from its own regeneration”—onto the ideas of Robert Smithson. Similarly, in an essay for Artforum in April 2008, Scanlan praised conceptual artists for creating new markets even as they eschewed old ones, and for underlining the ways in which ideas and finance are intertwined so that work can be an end unto itself, always creating the potential for more work in turn. In this regard, it comes as little surprise that Scanlan should have been puttering around the gallery space when I was there, preparing to break things down and/or set other things up. What gets produced in this scene is, in other words, the act of production.

As if to suggest more was to come, Scanlan’s checklist mentions six pieces, though the exhibition’s title was “Three Works.” But the issue of shifting terms seemed more consequential in light of Scanlan’s decision to highlight particular political contexts in relation to the machinations of more ostensibly general kinds of commercial production. The first appearance of the tongue-in-cheek, “made to order” Massachusetts Wedding Bed, for instance, coincided with the fiery Bush-era debates around gay marriage; and a number of texts reprinted or works re-presented here were also steeped in issues that, however resonant, have the discomfiting effect of the just-past. It could be that Scanlan, in finally bringing these pieces back home as so many remnants of pieces executed abroad, has made the New York gallery his “non-site.” Or, as likely, the artist is operating as a sort of expat in his own country, maintaining his own unique provisionality within the ever-provisional operations of American economics, suggesting that free speech always has its price.

Johanna Burton