New York

Phoebe Collings-James, Bodied, 2016, polypropylene woven sack, tape, poplar frame, 70 × 70 × 7".

Phoebe Collings-James, Bodied, 2016, polypropylene woven sack, tape, poplar frame, 70 × 70 × 7".

Phoebe Collings-James and Jesse Darling

Phoebe Collings-James, Bodied, 2016, polypropylene woven sack, tape, poplar frame, 70 × 70 × 7".

One of the seven freestanding components of Jesse Darling’s Liberty Poles (all works 2016) clattered to the floor at the opening of “Atrophilia”in late October, when someone brushed against it. So many signs are ominous in retrospect, but this incident felt especially preordained: The two-person exhibition with Phoebe Collings-James had taken its title from a word invented by the two artists to convey a “desire for collapse or stasis” (a fall into rest or hibernation, then, rather than anarchy).

Liberty Poles comprises several empty, upturned bags of Gold Medal–brand flour positioned atop spindly, uneven poles and a single crutch. Resembling a group of unsteady stilt-walkers, the sculpture—which is festooned with festive red ribbons—nods toward Juvenal’s critique of Rome’s commoners, who he said were interested only in “bread and circuses,” or pacifying forms of entertainment. Yet the pathos of this sculpture—with its weak limbs and basic nutritional values—does not suggest the same scorn for today’s distracted polis. Rather, these surreal figures appear like scrawny, ambivalent heralds who greet us at a historical juncture. Similarly elevated were Valedictorian (1), (2), and (3), a group of generic red classroom chairs whose legs had been extended to baby giraffe height, accentuating the sense of public bodies. It’s uncertain whether we are watching members of an old world order buckling at the knees or a new one shakily assembling itself.

Both Darling and Collings-James’s works are examples of a contemporary (and distinctly European) ArtePovera, in which ritual and mythology are coaxed from the poor materials of a globalized marketplace. In Collings-James’s sculptural wall works, deep box frames display commonplace food bags. Finished in the glossy red of the International Red Cross and shaped like squares or the crosses associated with aid, the frames invoke a history of humanitarianism and its discontents: Each is as deep as the organization’s shallowest vessels for transporting dead bodies. Draw Back Your Bow is a square box with a pair of red-mesh onion bags torn open, empty save for a flake or two of onion skin, and fixed to the back of the frame with yellow tape. The sacks summon both Alberto Burri and David Hammons, but Collings-James’s touch is more clinical (aesthetically and referentially). The bagging and shipping of foodstuffs are here aligned with the transportation and commodification of bodies, dead and alive. Collings-James’s objects are markers of international struggle on a grand scale, so that the violence signaled by the rips in the bags is actually always elsewhere. In the work Bodied, however, things are more animated. The cross-shaped box brings to mind forms of medieval reliquary, with the masklike white bag at its center seemingly imbued with real presence—an acheiropoieta of global consumerism.

Suggestions of divinity are in fact the crux of the connection between the two artists. Other sculptures by Darling included Border Sphinx 1 (boundary boy) and Border Sphinx 2 (boundary boy), featuring a pair of blue lion masks wearing hoods ripped from Champion sweatshirts over caps, and Liberty Torch 1 (Ace of Wands Series) and Liberty Torch 2 (Ace of Wands Series), each composed of a scuffed torch cast from a vibrator-shaped mold and stuffed with fake flowers. The altarpiece-like Votive employs what is perhaps this millennium’s heaviest symbolic object: an airplane, which has been fashioned into a small wax candle and swaddled in singed bandages, like a wounded bird or broken superhero figurine. The solemn treatment of this small damaged object transforms it into a work of fragile iconography—a prayer for grace in a time of collapse.

Laura McLean-Ferris