New York

Lucy Skaer, Harlequin’s Ingots (detail), 2012, copper, twenty-four parts, dimensions variable.

Lucy Skaer, Harlequin’s Ingots (detail), 2012, copper, twenty-four parts, dimensions variable.

Lucy Skaer

Murray Guy

Lucy Skaer, Harlequin’s Ingots (detail), 2012, copper, twenty-four parts, dimensions variable.

The jesterlike Harlequin has been a favorite subject for artists since his creation in sixteenth-century Italy. An ungovernable character often responsible for derailing the drama’s plot, the Harlequin sports a multicolored geometric uniform that also makes him an attractively graphic visual icon. But the character’s role changed over time; originally a cowardly fool whose patchwork outfit signified poverty, he became, by the late-eighteenth century, a cunning prankster, the same outfit now a symbol of physical agility and a mercurial nature. Something of this shifting emphasis can be traced through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries via well-known paintings by Cézanne, Degas, Manet, and Picasso. In “Harlequin Is as Harlequin Does,” British artist Lucy Skaer attempted a further revitalization of the time-honored subject by incorporating elements of his look into a set of sculptures and modified photographs, all made this year.

One room of the gallery was hung with small panels, each of which incorporates the Harlequin’s diamond-pattern motif. Most have an eight-sided outline with additionally faceted front sides, giving them a jewel-like appearance. Rendered in a variety of materials—dark wood is used most—these variations on a theme also suggest an array of dark mirrors in which Skaer aims to catch a reflection of the Harlequin’s mutable spirit. But the materials, which also include clear resin studded with bits of cine film, old coins set in silvery tin, and massed brass miniatures of Brancusi’s egglike sculpture Newborn, 1920, feel too dull and heavy to prompt the lively speculation around narrative and its rerouting for which the artist is presumably angling. Even learning that the wood is hundred-year-old salvaged mahogany fails to help the viewer make a connection beyond the hermetically self-referential (Skaer has incorporated Victorian furniture into previous works).

In the second room were three large color photographs over which Skaer has screenprinted large fragments of the Harlequin pattern in translucent pale gray ink. The images depict parts of the exterior of a house that turns out to be late Surrealist painter Leonora Carrington’s humble abode in Mexico City. Again, the reference is to Skaer’s previous work—she made a film with the artist in 2006—and again the motivation for the viewer to delve deeper is rather difficult to locate. The shots themselves are unremarkable, the overprinting too tentative to really interrupt our reading thereof. Much as I abhor art that hits the viewer over the head, sometimes it helps to take a stand, even when the suggestion of a destabilizing presence is consciously mild.

Finally, Harlequin’s Ingots is a scatter of stacked and polished copper bars sliced to form groups of triangular shapes in another take on the familiar design. This at least presents something to grab hold of, a form that interacts with its surroundings and chimes with Skaer’s veneration of the Harlequin as an icon of mischief. Ranged diagonally across the floor’s half-and-half surface of mottled concrete and dark wooden boards, the angular chunks of metal seemed to point a literal and metaphorical third way. Like Walter De Maria’s The Broken Kilometer, 1979, gone wildly askew, the work solidifies a cue to redirection. While it still feels odd that a playful, pratfalling figure of fun should have inspired such an arid show, here at least there was a glimmer of hope for his continued survival.

Michael Wilson