New York

Phoebe Washburn, Nunderwater Nort Lab, 2011, mixed media. Installation view.

Phoebe Washburn, Nunderwater Nort Lab, 2011, mixed media. Installation view.

Phoebe Washburn

Mary Boone Gallery/Zach Feuer Gallery

Phoebe Washburn, Nunderwater Nort Lab, 2011, mixed media. Installation view.

Phoebe Washburn’s Nunderwater Nort Lab, 2011, an installation that filled the main space at Zach Feuer, looks a good deal like a fort. The wide, cylindrical structure is ragged and slipshod, built from piled-up two-by-fours that appear to have been scavenged from other, previous incarnations. Holes, placed at regular intervals, offer glimpses of the walled-off interior, but those views are blinkered by cylindrical tunnels on the interior side. What can be seen within suggests the aesthetic of a hardware store or bodega: an assemblage of extension cords in bright colors, bits of colored paint, zip ties, coolers, neon stickers, pouches of Gatorade powder, and plants under clip-on lights. Faint sounds—of a knife against a cutting board, murmured conversation, and reggae music turned down low—are audible, and one can detect the smell of food, but it recalls less a homey kitchen than an institutional cafeteria.

The structure is thus secret but not hermetic, titillating you with its interior as much as hiding it. Its vibe is friendlier than the walled-off survivalist-camp setup might suggest—a mix of biosphere experimentation, the jury-rigged aesthetic of Burning Man, Andrea Zittel’s self-sufficient systems for living, even a secret marijuana-growing bunker. Unlike Zittel’s (and probably the biosphere’s) careful and transparent parsing of particular problems of human existence (the most efficient way to eat, sleep, eliminate, and create relying on limited means), Nunderwater Nort Lab is a deliberately obscured view of an unknowable system; from a formal point of view it is an only slightly shattered monument, a teasingly cracked Torqued Ellipse. In earlier works, such as Tickle the Shitstem, 2008, Washburn set up a Rube Goldberg–style scheme that produced T-shirts bearing the gibberish word ORT and a bottled drink; the water used to rinse the former was recycled to create the (undrinkable) latter: a nonsensical but productive system. Here the result is less obvious. A sort of anti-relational aesthetics event takes place every day: Food is prepared, conversation takes place, but we the viewers, with those partial glimpses through tunnels and sounds muted by the fort’s thick walls, have only limited access to both. The installation, like Washburn’s others, can be seen as an attempt to exert control over chaos—over an unending tide of garbage—with the order it produces the product, even if the product is only lunch for a small group.

A related exhibition at Mary Boone Gallery contained small sculptures assembled on the backs of generic folding chairs and tables, each made with materials familiar from Washburn’s other works: golf balls, shells, rocks, zip ties, stickers, neon paint. The titles of the works—Skills Learned from my Hippie Orthodontist, and Solar Eclipse Viewing organized by an Ambitious Hippie (both 2011)—seem at the same time mocking but still somehow respectful: Hippies are self-reliant, after all. The sculptures are animated by a push and pull between the natural and the ordered. Some are as neatly arranged as a garden at Versailles or a laboratory taxonomy; in others, the materials seem to organically pour forth from cracks as though growing toward the light. They, too, hint at a system with absurd rules to which we are not privy—and that could very well fall apart.

Emily Hall