New York

View of “Pieter Schoolwerth,” 2015.

View of “Pieter Schoolwerth,” 2015.

Pieter Schoolwerth

Miguel Abreu Gallery | Orchard Street

View of “Pieter Schoolwerth,” 2015.

Pieter Schoolwerth knows how to paint. In recent years, he turned his hand to no less daunting a task than the subjective reinvention of old-master iconography, which he deftly reconstituted via digital and analog overlays and abstractions—a contemporary remastering, if you will, of the compositional mainstays of Western figuration. Yet for his latest show, Schoolwerth put his considerable skills in the service of a throwaway gag: The press release informed us that while using a cheap, ineffectual vacuum cleaner, the artist blurted out, “This vacuum sucks!” and was so amused by the unintended wordplay, he built an exhibition around it.

Despite its origins in that humble parapraxis, the show, titled “Your Vacuum Blows, which Sucks,” was hugely ambitious in scope and scale, comprising a meandering thirty-nine-minute video (produced in collaboration with Alexandra Lerman and screened at Miguel Abreu’s Orchard Street space) and (at the gallery’s capacious Eldridge Street location) a mazelike concatenation of walls, both fixed and demountable, supporting, framing, or containing paintings, collages, and an assortment of readymades consisting mostly of hardware and household appliances—electrical cable, vacuum cleaners, a leaf blower, a sewing machine, a ladder, and so on. Bound together by a compelling formal consonance within and between elements, the multifarious components hinged and segued on double meanings and associative leaps.

Such semantic shape-shifting was especially apparent in the video, whose psychedelic, quasi-quotidian narrative is propelled by comical misapprehensions and slips of the tongue. At Eldridge Street, various figures and props appearing in the video were re-presented as subject matter for two-dimensional works or as store-bought sculptural objects, all adroitly hung or positioned on walls and floors of adjoining rooms, some of which were merely implied by the careful placement of stud-and-plywood partitions. Many of these walls were painted rich, seductive colors and bore large rectangular apertures—of a scale proportionate to the paintings—framing cryptic configurations of objects and providing views onto other installations. It was an effective armature that persistently beckoned with enticing glimpses and rewarding sight lines. And everything was just so. The demountable wall studs, for instance, were fir; no cold, metal-frame, Michael Asher–style critique here. This was aestheticized display, an agreeable repository for objets d’art.

Which brings us to the pictures: most notably, the large paintings dispersed throughout that, in conjunction with the objects, provided the core content of the show. Dexterous ink-jet and acrylic mash-ups that simultaneously reveal and conceal their referents—mostly distorted body and commodity fragments—these paintings are, in their dynamism, humor, and expert Rauschenbergian fusion of form, facture, and content, profoundly likable. They were generally counterposed within their enclosures by clusters of animated readymades—e.g., a humidifier blowing steam up a leaf blower’s trunk. As a facet of the artist’s expanded collage, these Home Depot– and Best Buy–esque accoutrements anchored the show in the everyday while supplying a riot of shiny color and oddball design, which, in addition to supercharging the content and appeal of the paintings, added to the exhibition’s generally festive atmosphere.

A virtuosic orchestration of disparate material, Schoolwerth’s poetic amalgamations were consistently satisfying. Indeed, a tractor beam of pleasurable intrigue pulled—or better, sucked—the viewer through the self-contained yet interconnected chambers of the installation, each host to an entertainingly harmonious set of relations. Schoolwerth is a seasoned pro at spatial and aesthetic accommodation. In addition to being a visual artist, he was also, famously, the impresario of New York’s now-defunct Wierd parties, which, throughout the aughts, championed largely obscure, old-school DIY synth music, a form that, like his paintings, weds the artificial to the organic, the machinic to the corporeal. A master of ceremonies (and the craft of painting), Schoolwerth here presented an idiosyncratically congenial environment through which one’s passage was akin to a tipsy drift through the rooms of a pop-surrealist house party.

Jeff Gibson