New York

Leandro Erlich, Stuck Elevator, 2011, mixed media, 109 1/2 x 68 1/4 x 66 1/2".

Leandro Erlich, Stuck Elevator, 2011, mixed media, 109 1/2 x 68 1/4 x 66 1/2".

Leandro Erlich

Sean Kelly Gallery

Leandro Erlich, Stuck Elevator, 2011, mixed media, 109 1/2 x 68 1/4 x 66 1/2".

A friend groused to me after completing the new season’s rounds that Leandro Erlich’s most recent show was simply another in what has been a career-long series of technically adroit one-liners. I suppose that’s fair enough. But it’s also true that they have frequently been charming, memorable one-liners, with surprisingly lingering effects. Rain, 1999, for example, Erlich’s contribution to the 2000 Whitney Biennial, was in practical terms an elementary bit of stage-set F/X (a “thunderstorm” glimpsed through the windows of a domestic space) relocated to a museum setting, but it had a distinctive appeal, one grounded in the artist’s mastery of a certain mode of finely engineered spationarrative spectacle. The same held true for his Swimming Pool, the crowd-pleasing installation that held court at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center (now MoMA PS1) for nearly a year and a half between 2008 and 2010. A satisfyingly credible bit of 3-D trompe l’oeil, the work disarmed the steady stream of viewers-cum-participants who alternatively gazed down into and up from the “depths” of the befuddling azure rectangle, offering a chance to experience that rare sensation (in an art gallery) technically known as having fun.

Given this, the artist’s newest project had, on the face of it, much to recommend it: “Two Different Tomorrows” was inspired by a quintessentially Erlichian contraption—the elevator. Spatially liminal in a manner unique among built environments, the elevator offers a tailor-made opportunity for Erlich to indulge his interest in both architectural/technological simulacra and the fundamental dialectics (open/closed, inside/outside, up/down, public/private) that can be staged through them. Oddly for the usually meticulous artist, however, several works on view here were undermined by unpersuasive formal decisions and puzzling glitches.

This was not a problem in Elevator Maze (all works 2011), a bank of six lovingly re-created elevators whose stainless steel, dark wood, and mirrors would have been at home in any Midtown high-rise, notwithstanding the disorientingly absent back mirrors that subtly but crucially destabilized the familiarity of the space. More ambitious was the fifty-foot-long Elevator Shaft, an evocative re-creation of unseen infrastructural space, here tipped onto its horizontal axis and navigated by visitors along one of the side walls “down” toward the top of the waiting car. But the other two elevator works in the exhibition (which also included, somewhat haphazardly, one of the projected skylight pieces Erlich has been producing recently) both suffered from critical gaps in technique. The opening piece, Stuck Elevator—a freestanding block that held the malfunctioning apparatus of the title, which appeared to drop down below the level of the gallery floor—invited viewers to peer in through a gap to catch a glimpse of the interior, but a rather amateurish airbrush rendition of the rope-and-pulley mechanics added to the face of the construction was a nearly fatal distraction.

Stranger still were the hiccups that plagued Elevator Pitch, a multimedia piece that promised but failed to deliver on the full-blown Unheimlichkeit of the elevator as subject and object. Set off on its own in the quiet back of the gallery, it seemed initially to be a simple elevator entrance, perhaps one used by the gallery staff to move between floors. Suddenly, a bell rang, announcing its “arrival,” and the doors slid open to reveal a video screen onto which Erlich projected an image of an elevator’s interior, in this case from what appeared to be a Japanese department store. It was a startling illusion the first few times it occurred, until it became clear that the artist had for some reason decided to show looped footage within the various sequences, the stuttered, repeating movements of the characters crucially weakening the cogency of the mirage. And it hardly helped matters when, during one visit, the whole thing slowly began to come out of sync, with the bell errantly ringing between floors and the crowd from the previous sequence rather forlornly stuck in the doorway as it opened for what was supposed to be the beginning of the next scene. If this unintentionally slapstick breakdown was the exception that proved the rule of Erlich’s characteristic scrupulousness, it also demonstrated how extraordinarily fragile the spell cast by his simulations is—and confirmed how little else they actually have recourse to when their typical showstopping mimesis falls short.

Jeffrey Kastner