Tel Aviv

Wilfredo Prieto, Safe Box, 2014, mixed media, 29 1/2 × 20 1/2 × 28 3/4".

Wilfredo Prieto, Safe Box, 2014, mixed media, 29 1/2 × 20 1/2 × 28 3/4".

Wilfredo Prieto and Ariel Schlesinger

The Center for Contemporary Art (CCA)

Wilfredo Prieto, Safe Box, 2014, mixed media, 29 1/2 × 20 1/2 × 28 3/4".

Wilfredo Prieto and Ariel Schlesinger’s double billing of new sculptures and installations marked a fascinating development in the articulation of Conceptual art. Reframing the conversation surrounding the so-called dematerialization of the art object within contemporary debates on labor, the exhibition “Hiding Wood in Trees” presented works by two artists of the same generation, showing together for the first time, who strategically harness humor to decontextualize common objects or estrange an audience’s perceptions of quotidian acts.

Ascension (all works 2014) was the first work to greet the viewer. Concealed in plain sight (and easily missed), this jointly made piece consists of a cluster of used tea bags attached to the ceiling directly above the gallery’s welcome desk, leaving a sloppy-looking stain up there. The refined rituals of steeping and dipping that generally accompany tea drinking must have been transformed into a series of energetic gestures (throws? lobs? hurls?) to achieve such an eccentric installation of crusty sculptural outcroppings. Their strings dangling like animal tails, the tea bags seemed perverse indices of some ritualized gesture of consumption. Both as everyday things and as art objects, they had been definitively removed from the realm of commodities (the tea leaves were used up and the artwork would be destroyed if removed), even as the artists seemed to have positioned themselves as partisans of a form of labor that could be characterized as displaying, for lack of a better phrase, a “hard graft” against both a Fordist model of work and immaterial labor. Operative in this paradoxical conceit is a Duchampian maneuver for the twenty-first century: Prieto and Schlesinger produce (useless) things through hyperphysical gestures.

While similar strategies appear in many artists’ toolkits, Prieto and Schlesinger formalize them around the idea of inutility, or, more precisely, thwarted efficacy. Evoking the old distinction between art and tool, the artists took great delight in activating the friction between use-value and its transcendence while paradoxically rendering every object in the show somehow dysfunctional. In Schlesinger’s Inside Out Umbrella, the handle is on top; his Enjoy Your Problems is a roll of masking tape with the adhesive surface on the inside of the cardboard. Prieto’s Safe Box consists of an unlocked metal safe nested within a very flimsy cardboard box, while his Seated Chair has one plastic chair literally sitting on another. One might say that Prieto and Schlesinger fail miserably as both product designers and service providers, yet they succeed masterfully in crafting the occupation of the Conceptual maverick–cum–intellectual proletarian: a highly specialized, MFA-certified tinkerer whose reengineering of readymade objects, imbuing each with a slight hitch, doubles their potency as art objects.

It is tempting to bring “Hiding Wood in Trees”—with its elision between unreliable objects and subjective insecurity—into conversation with the wider historical pressures that have emerged in the past decade. In the face of pervasive contingency, as the creative precariat has become capitalism’s principal model for subjectivity, Prieto and Schlesinger’s skillful production of fallible goods begs the question of whether Conceptual practices can generate models of artistic labor that might counter the dominant economic order. With precariousness permeating the very structure of life, does this aesthetic performance of inefficiency really throw a wrench into a system that needs standardized tools for social coercion?

Nuit Banai