New York

Mike Nelson, Gang of Seven, 2013, mixed media. Installation view.

Mike Nelson, Gang of Seven, 2013, mixed media. Installation view.

Mike Nelson

303 Gallery

Mike Nelson, Gang of Seven, 2013, mixed media. Installation view.

Though perhaps not beautiful in the classic SoCal sense of surfably blue waters and dazzling sunsets, nor, for that matter, in the East Coast manner of the beach-plum and sand-dune William Merritt Chase picturesque, the shoreline running from Oregon to Canada—that of the Pacific Northwest—is nevertheless marked by an arrestingly despondent strangeness. It is a place of gloom and doom and endless drizzle, of creeping moss, decay, and rot. It is home to primordially large crabs and ironlike mist, and to survivalist ecotopias and motorcycle gangs. Littered with hunks of bone-white driftwood the size of old-growth trees, it quivers with the promise of a queer transcendence—an ambience of eerie, corporeal mysticism best emblematized, in the popular imagination, by Laura Palmer’s washed-up, wrapped-in-plastic corpse in Twin Peaks. Indeed, since 2007, on the banks of the Salish Sea—a part of the coastline shared by Washington State and Canada not far from where Mike Nelson sourced the flotsam and jetsam used in this show—beach visitors have made the gruesome, and still unexplained, discovery of no fewer than fifteen severed human feet.

Nelson’s gallery-filling installation Gang of Seven, 2013 (which was co-commissioned by the Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver, and the Power Plant, Toronto), takes stock of this otherworldly, water-logged shoreline, and, in so doing, conjures the figure of a particular kind of beachcomber: not the absent-minded discoverer of precious shells and sea glass, but the slightly crazed hoarder of industrial junk—which is to say, the kind of guy who might take an unsettling liking to a head-shaped buoy and then drag it, muttering, up to his truck. A partial inventory of the items in Nelson’s project would include: bulky driftwood, cast-off iron, tangled fishing nets, rusted bear traps, polystyrene-filled tires, hunks of foam, chains, water-stained plywood, rebar, feathers, stones, beer cans, discarded clothing, and massive maritime ropes—all alternately rusted, smoothed out, worn down, corroded, or coated with a brackish patina. As they were displayed here, Nelson’s finds have real power and heft. They are not so much raw as aggressive, confronting the viewer with a palpable threat. Nelson has arranged many of these items into fragmented, vaguely anthropomorphic figures: Plastic milk jugs suggest a head; bones tethered to a tire indicate eyes. Ultimately, the beachcomber evoked is the scavenger-figure of our collectively imagined Mad Max dystopian future, an amateur archaeologist sifting through the wreckage of the twenty-first-century on stinking tidal flats.

At first, the figurative elements of Nelson’s sculptures bring to mind the lurid fascinations of early modernism, when artists and writers looked to the radically and frighteningly other to make sense of the jarring social disruptions of their moment: One might think of Picasso, Gaugin, or the whole of German Expressionism. But surely Nelson is aware of such precedents, and to make too much of such affinities would be to miss the point; not every sketchily figurative assemblage is an expression of a primitivist trope. Instead, Nelson’s found-object works—which put a premium, importantly, on the inherently relatable experience of finding—speak to the inquisitiveness that drives the basic human compulsion to create, an urge that’s quotidian, even democratic. Because what’s the first thing you do during an interminable beachside holiday when the water is literally arctic? You take kelp and cast-off fishing nets and sculpt a leering face.

In the gallery’s back room, Nelson presented Untitled (Eighty Circles through Canada), 2013, a slide show consisting of pictures of fire circles. Photographed on lakesides and riverbeds, these rings of blackened rock marking former campsites suggest Paleolithic ruins. But camping as recreational leisure is absolutely a modern phenomenon, a product of the Victorian era, and the people who left these behind had access to energy bars and Gore-Tex. Perhaps there’s magic, still: Isn’t retreat from the city a way to ward off its evil? These are the apotropaic relics of our age.

Lloyd Wise