Basel

Magali Reus, Offshore, 2011, HD video, color, sound, 5 minutes 14 seconds.

Magali Reus, Offshore, 2011, HD video, color, sound, 5 minutes 14 seconds.

Nicola Martini, Virginia Overton, Magali Reus

Freymond-Guth Fine Arts

Magali Reus, Offshore, 2011, HD video, color, sound, 5 minutes 14 seconds.

“Shiftings, displacings . . . sets of membranes, one inside the other, dense bodies, soft, thin, rigid.” Nicola Martini’s recent artist statement evokes an undeniable corporality, though no figures occur overtly in his work. The Italian sculptor is thus both naming the specter that hovers above his abstract practice (and those of so many of his contemporaries) and personifying his works so that the inanimate materials he uses—tangible sheets of sandstone and wax, among them—suddenly take on human attributes. After all, there is a certain ambiguity to adjectives such as soft, thin, and rigid, an ambiguity that could apply equally well to human or nonhuman forms. And there’s the rub, one might say.

I began reading Martini’s writings after seeing the three-person show “Heavy duty, silent haze, racing hearts,” which juxtaposed his works with equally Minimalist and coolly accurate ones by Virginia Overton and Magali Reus. The exhibition investigated ideas of metamorphosis, detritus, and reduction, as well as the tension between form and narrative. Consider Martini’s Untitled, 2013, in which a small, rectangular cavity has been excised from a large, thin sheet of stone and replaced with a piece of microcrystalline wax. The work rose off the floor like a fence, emerging from a corner. The sandstone’s surface is expected to alter over time due to its treatment with acid and bitumen of Judea (a light-sensitive material used in the first recorded photograph, that blurry nineteenth-century roof by Nicéphore Niépce). If the chemical alterations to the surface are as yet unknown, the gesture patently evokes experiments with photographic processes as well as poignant issues of temporality.

Though Martini’s painfully beautiful work possesses a deep historical resonance, it reminded me most of Tony Conrad’s 1973 “Yellow Movies,” those cinematic canvases slowly yellowing with age. Two moving-image works by Reus and Overton echoed this comparison, leavening Martini’s austerity with wit. Reus’s video Offshore, 2011, features men swimming in the sea and pushing huge blue oilcans toward the shore. Blue water fills the frame, punctuated by blue cans; the near monochromy of the work (counterpointed only by the bodies) has an acidic affect. Overton’s Tennessee Trash, 2012, meanwhile, is a sixtysecond loop of a 1970s TV infomercial about littering run in reverse: A man throws trash out of his convertible, which skids across the highway backward as the trash hurtles back into his car with slapstick virtuosity.

Overton’s video provided a kind of antic context for the more sedate sculptures on display nearby, which also employed waste as material while toeing a deceptively clean and formalist party line. Reus’s Absolute Zero (Clear, Vertical), 2012, offered a silver-steel chain, partly encased in blue polyester resin, hanging stick-straight from the ceiling. His Encounter, 2012, presented another clean line, this one streaking (or sleeping) across the floor in brushed aluminum, with two cast, polished soda cans crushed against it. Overton’s Untitled (hashmark), 2012, featured slanted, progressively widening lines of white adhesive vinyl stuck to a wall, conjuring both traffic marks on a highway and Donald Judd’s famous “progressions.” In each work, the body was invoked either in corporeal-tinged lineation—lying down or standing up, driving or swimming—or in those ghostly bodies’ trash (see those crushed cans), putting the purely formal concerns of the art in the backseat. Up front was the human condition, driving fast and furious.

Quinn Latimer