New York

Rita McBride, Middle East, 2015, water-jet-cut brass plate with silver nitrate patina and Renaissance wax, three parts, overall 20 1/2 × 29 × 1/4".

Rita McBride, Middle East, 2015, water-jet-cut brass plate with silver nitrate patina and Renaissance wax, three parts, overall 20 1/2 × 29 × 1/4".

Rita McBride

Rita McBride, Middle East, 2015, water-jet-cut brass plate with silver nitrate patina and Renaissance wax, three parts, overall 20 1/2 × 29 × 1/4".

Rita McBride’s recent exhibition “Access” displayed a number of new sculptures in the shape of keys, keyholes, knockers, and locks, as well as a variety of large metal sheets out of which at least some of the works in the show had been cut. McBride individually designed each work on a computer and then sent her drawings out to a shop where they were sliced out of a variety of metals. The surprise is that the results do not betray the somewhat high-tech process by which these works were made. Rather, they look crude and basic, almost handmade and certainly aged, their various edges displaying inconsistencies and aberrations. This effect is due in large part to the fact that McBride patinated her objects much as a forger would age a coin, applying chemicals and treatments so as to transform them into real fakes, things both weighty and brittle, inelegant with sharp edges. For all their folkish associations, however, there was something slightly off about these works—shifted out of scale, they hovered somewhere between actual objects and their flattened silhouettes. Variously hung alone, as well as in collections, they felt familiar and decorative, like things brought together through obsession rather than curatorial cleverness.

There might be a precedent to McBride’s work in some of Allan McCollum’s endless series of sculptures, but her pieces resonated in other, and, I would argue, more profound ways. In an age vaunted for both the facility of access and the integrity of firewalls—think not only of the ubiquity of the key card, the password, and the thumbprint, but also of the words invalid and protected—McBride’s work reminds us of different histories and traditions of entering: knocking on a neighbor’s door or picking a lock. That most of these works recall the vernacular language of some territory or nation-state simultaneously conjured the traditions of place as well as the harsh reality of the world’s ever more stringently policed borders. A set of three silver keys designated Middle East (all works 2015) were dressed in silver nitrate patina, while a set of four brass plates scumbled in Renaissance wax were identified as Ontario. Four copper cutouts depicting door knockers comprised Eastern Europe and three oversize locks bore the weight of the name Central Africa. The almost museological diversity of the show evoked an increasingly bygone era in which different parts of the world look different (though not in a glib, National Geographic sort of way), while also bringing home the point that not all parts of the globe are easily accessible, that we are not free to knock anywhere we like. (One felt this again after stepping out the gallery door and gazing up at the high walls of brushed-steel-and-glass condos.)

If these works trade in a certain kind of resistance, then, it is tied to their emphasis on the decorative, which has the effect of linking them to a time both before and different from our own. The simultaneous simplicity and profundity of these works remind one that art today need not stage spectacles, or trade in irony, in order to enter into a dialogue with the contemporary moment. Indeed, it was refreshing to see a show in which no laser or 3-D printers had been damaged, nothing had been purchased off eBay, and not one object had been crafted from spirulina. To reflect profoundly on the contemporary might mean to pull back on it, and make it drag.

Throughout my time at the exhibition, I was reminded of the idiosyncratic installation of art and artifacts at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. A disciple of John Dewey’s pragmatism, Dr. Albert Barnes installed his great collection of Picassos and Cézannes amid a swirling array of hardware, including locks and handles, which punctuate the space between the paintings and subject them to new readings. Barnes’s hanging is so distinct and idiosyncratic, in fact, that one cannot help but read it as a kind of philosophy, the metal handles inviting you to open doors of perception. The criticality of McBride’s gesture seems to lie in the suggestion that we have reached an inverse state today. In a world in which the most important types of access often seem locked and foreclosed, one must be on the lookout for other ways of opening things up.

Alex Kitnick