View of “Thomas Bayrle,” 2015. From left: São Paulo/church, 2015; Donezk, 2015; Brescia, 2014; Mexico City, 2014; Gerano Pavesi/church, 2015.

View of “Thomas Bayrle,” 2015. From left: São Paulo/church, 2015; Donezk, 2015; Brescia, 2014; Mexico City, 2014; Gerano Pavesi/church, 2015.

Thomas Bayrle

View of “Thomas Bayrle,” 2015. From left: São Paulo/church, 2015; Donezk, 2015; Brescia, 2014; Mexico City, 2014; Gerano Pavesi/church, 2015.

A simple tire perched on the wall of Thomas Bayrle’s recent show “Gerano/Pavesi” (Geraniums/Pavesi) recalled the elementary forms of Kazimir Malevich’s most austere Suprematist canvases: black circle, white field, end of story. But just as Malevich’s pared-down images are, in fact, richly differentiated material constructions in which, the artist claimed, one can see “the face of God,” so Bayrle’s tire—or more precisely, his Santa Maria, Madre di Dio, prega per noi peccatori, adesso e nell’ora della nostra morte, 2009—is much more than a dumb, tacked-up rubber disk. It isn’t rubber, for one thing, but impeccably carved wood, with the opening words of the rosary replacing FIRESTONE on its side as well as giving the work its title; subtly articulated crosses serve as tread. Mounted on an integrated flange mechanism, the tire is, however, still made to spin, and does so with a light tap, the visual and aural blur of its action echoing both Tibetan prayer wheels and the incantatory drone of assembled supplicants, effectively dissolving any distinction between the work’s religious and automotive symbolism.

The circular form of Santa Maria, Madre di Dio appeared to be a watchful godlike eye overlooking the rest of Bayrle’s show (whose title cites Mario Pavesi, the founder of the Autogrill chain of roadside restaurants). And this seemed appropriate, for the exhibition was a kind of showcase for symbolic transmutations and interweavings, with Christ and the road primary throughout. In the works on display—including a handful of 1987 stamp paintings as well as more recent sculptures and relief drawings—geraniums became highways, highways became the flesh of Jesus, and crystalline forms became nuns, television sets, and VW logos in turn. Altogether, Bayrle’s objects and images displayed something akin to the childhood capacity for mimetic inhabitation as described by Walter Benjamin, in which such cross-pollination lets one “wander through the world of things like the stations of a journey of whose extent we can form no conception.”

Rec-room tinkering was immediately suggested by the worktable display that opened the show: five recent sculptures made from modular cardboard elements and metal shelving materials. Each one consists of a contorted figure of the crucified Christ seemingly nailed to, and occasionally constructed from, neatly divided highway lanes—complete, in a few cases, with toy cars chugging along. The culminating work of the bunch was Gerano Pavesi/church, 2015, in which highway, church, and cross-bound Christ form a single integrated superstructure. These constructions faced off against Bayrle’s tire and VW-Kristall, 1987, on the opposite wall, an encounter flanked on both sides by images from his “Gerana” series, 2015. In these intimately rendered images, raised roadway segments cobbled together from cardboard (think homemade Hot Wheels) merge with delicate gouache flora to form highway pinwheels at once fluid and rhizomatic: the autobahn as tree of life.

Cars have been central to Bayrle’s repertoire since his earliest “super-forms”—in which a single emblem is built from thousands of pictographic cells, often of its own image—as the recent High Line billboard installation of American Dream, 1970, put on vivid display. His more recent automotive works, in moving from the simulacral force of seemingly infinite reproduction to the simple intensities of handmade organic form and Christian symbolism, betray a renewed concern with the car’s generative importance to contemporary life. The automobile, Bayrle once remarked to an interviewer, was a consequence of Christianity, “closely connected to . . . inner disengagement and what happened 800 years ago.” In his most recent work, he appears to be exploring Christianity, along with much else, as today a product of the car—its forms, processes, and structures of comfort and belief.

Graham Bader