New York

View of “Claudia Comte,” 2015.

View of “Claudia Comte,” 2015.

Claudia Comte

Gladstone Gallery | West 21st St

View of “Claudia Comte,” 2015.

On a frigid day in March, Claudia Comte’s exhibition “NO MELON NO LEMON” provided a welcome respite from the gray of overcast skies and concrete construction. The yellow-and-white-striped paintings hanging on yellow-and-white-striped walls made the room feel sun blasted, the burnout effect pleasingly tempered by charred plywood panels banded by vertical cuts. Lustrous wood totems à la Jean Arp and Brancusi stood on plinths that seemed to have folded out from the panels, revealing the white wall beneath. These plinths, the strongest component of the exhibition, reinforced the tactility of both the smooth sculptures and their rough bases, even as they lent the installation a provisional character, as if the entire structure could have been flat-packed for shipping. They also drew attention to the artist’s commanding sense of scale: Their proportions made the cavernous gallery space feel refreshingly domestic. (Beware the description of Comte’s work as “site-specific,” however. Though technically accurate, it is misleading: The forms here were tailored to Gladstone’s site but they are not inherent to it—Comte has made similar installations since 2009.)

To be sure, with Comte’s work, the references come fast and heavy; there is something for everyone, whether your point of entry is Constructivism or cartoons, Op art or pop music, Frank Stella or fashion. Her use of installation as form, as opposed to environment, entertainment, or pedagogical exercise, has its roots in twentieth-century avant-garde practices and recalls El Lissitzky’s Demonstrationsräume (Demonstration Spaces) in particular. In Lissitzky’s Room for Constructivist Art, 1926, and Abstract Cabinet, 1927, museum walls were lined with thin vertical slats, each painted white on one side, gray on the front edge, and black on the other side, so that as one moved from left to right, the color of the support wall itself changed. Comte’s alternation of black and white functions similarly to Lissitzky’s lattice relief, shifting the perceptual backdrop for the paintings and sculptures on view and encouraging the viewer to notice the ways in which such shifts differentiate the exhibited works.

Where Comte’s project is most resonant in form, however, is also where it falters most in concept. Lissitzky aimed to create a revolutionary mode of display by which to activate the viewer through phenomenological and physical means. Comte’s aim, by contrast, seems more prosaic: to create a seductive backdrop in order to prime the viewer for easy consumption. It is good enough to recognize that the point is to walk around the room; you are not actually compelled to do so. Any potential for criticality is occluded by our resolute ability to remain passive in the gallery. The sense of humor key to Comte’s illustrated comic book Welcome to Colorful, 2010, or her sculpture on ice for “Elevation 1049,” a 2014 group exhibition in Gstaad, Switzerland, have been less apparent in this show, but hints of it emerged in the dissonant juxtapositions of time and place her allusions suggest. Such hints do little, though, to dispel a gloomy hint of aesthetic foreclosure, sun-drenched though it may be.

Rachel Churner