John Wood and Paul Harrison, Semi-Automatic Painting Machine, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 19 minutes.

John Wood and Paul Harrison, Semi-Automatic Painting Machine, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 19 minutes.

John Wood and Paul Harrison

Carroll / Fletcher

John Wood and Paul Harrison, Semi-Automatic Painting Machine, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 19 minutes.

A 2006 essay by artist Ian White gently chided what he saw as the default critical approach to John Wood and Paul Harrison’s short, epigrammatic films and sculptures: a rush to immediate, endless comparison with historical examples of Minimalism, Conceptualism, process art, philosophy, absurdism, slapstick, and more. However, White (having his cake and eating it) also listed a few dozen of the usual comparators, including Donald Judd, Bruce Nauman, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Yvonne Rainer, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Samuel Beckett. He thought this contextual “stickiness” was mere reading-in, but that’s debatable. Wood and Harrison might not intend each and every one of these comparisons, but the availability of their work for multiple art-historical (and other) associations seems entirely strategic.

White’s list overlooked Roman Signer—oddly, since the artists themselves are admirers and Signer’s influence seems clear. Included in their recent exhibition “An Almost Identical Copy” was Semi-Automatic Painting Machine, 2014, a video featuring some classic Signeriana (white shirts, rubber Wellingtons, a push-bike, an umbrella, and so on) among its props. Batteries of mechanized sprays bombard the objects with black, white, or brightly colored paint, bringing them into relief, making them disappear, or treating them as stencils (this last tactic has been employed several times by Signer). On one level, the video seems to be an homage—but the comparison highlights the differing trajectories of the two practices. While Signer’s work has become increasingly tolerant of “contaminants”—history, biography, pathos, sense of place—this show revealed Wood and Harrison to be steering toward a subtly unsettling, rather clinical abstraction.

Semi-Automatic Painting Machine takes place in a white cube stocked with flawless, generic, imperishable objects; even the hapless houseplant that gets sprayed first white then leaf-green looks synthetic. The handmade devices and physical risk-taking of the pair’s early work have gone—in a transition away from the bodily real—toward the hypothetical and the propositional. All the objects in this show were either actual models or suggestive of design prototypes, and, like the videos, very sleekly fabricated.

In the endlessly looping video 100 Falls, 2013, a locked-off camera is trained on the bottom end of a ladder within another white-cube setting. One of the artists ascends, disappearing from view. An identically clad dummy flops to the floor. An edit allows for the substitution of live artist for dummy. He picks himself up and climbs again; again, the dummy falls, in a different position—over and over, a hundred times. This piece must have been an utter grind to make, but that’s incidental: The point is the viewer’s exhaustion, not the artists’. The work’s inexorable, absurdist cycle turns the viewer (desirous of affect, variety, resolution) into the key fall guy.

Another barbed offering was the first piece in the show. A Film about a City, 2015, belying its title, is a tabletop assembly of (at first glance) charming little architectural models. Here, Wood and Harrison seem to be channeling Étienne-Louis Boullée, Le Corbusier, Giorgio de Chirico, and Aldo Rossi. One structure is a vast blank-walled shed with a tiny door at one end and an even tinier window at the other: a thoroughly dystopian conception. Elsewhere, miniature model citizens crowd the roofs of skyscrapers and vertiginous bleachers and perch on suicidally high ledges. Mass ornamentation, they serve the city, rather than vice versa. The shift to a less friendly, subtly grimmer register may not please fans of Wood and Harrison’s earliest works, but the progression’s logic is clear, and it will be interesting to see where it leads.

—Rachel Withers