New York

Mathias Poledna, Substance, 2014, 35 mm, color, sound, 6 minutes 40 seconds.

Mathias Poledna, Substance, 2014, 35 mm, color, sound, 6 minutes 40 seconds.

Mathias Poledna

Mathias Poledna, Substance, 2014, 35 mm, color, sound, 6 minutes 40 seconds.

The kernel of Mathias Poledna’s exhibition was Substance, a six-minute, forty-second 35-mm film depicting the movements of a Rolex watch. The 2014 work was first shown at the Renaissance Society in Chicago that year, and in that exhibition, Poledna also removed the trusswork from the institution’s ceiling. Two portions of that metal structure appeared here, suspended by wire, like bits of a miniature railway bridge. Hanging in an otherwise empty white cube, these were the first things one saw before a mix of music and motorized projector noise ushered the viewer into the black box at the gallery’s rear. 

The relationship between the architectural fragments and the film proved elliptical, but both demonstrate an interest in hardware, apparatus, and techne. Indeed, it is not only the mechanical movements of the watch that captivate—the second hand spinning strikes the viewer as the epitome of elegance—but the way the mechanism’s finesse matches that of the film. Substance begins with a close-up of the watch’s face shot at such an oblique angle that the camera can hardly keep any part of it in focus; instead, we are met with a spray of golden light. But details quickly appear, which beget further details, as well as ideas: the number 28, little divots in gold, the indescribable care of Swiss craft, the fetish character of the luxury object. The soundtrack is driving techno, which gives this short film (or is it a trailer?) the excitement of a thrilling chase.

Seduction is not a surprise here, for Poledna belongs to a cadre of artists convinced that the secrets of the world might be revealed if things are only looked at long and hard enough—if technical objects are observed with the same labor and care that it took to produce them. We might call these artists “deep formalists,” and, in many ways, the California Photoconceptualist Christopher Williams, with whom Poledna has recently collaborated, presides over the scene as a father figure. (Jack Goldstein hides somewhere in the shadows.) Rigor, inscrutability, and technical perfection constitute a large part of their methodology. In a world seemingly taken over by digital screens, the Old Hollywood level of analog production that characterizes much of this work gives it a great deal of its frisson. If these artists pledge to carry on the post-studio legacy of Michael Asher (with whom Williams studied), it often seems that, in fact, they have simply switched studios, leaving the artist’s atelier for the arena of commercial production. 

This move also seems tied to an interest in craft and artistry (the artisanal?).  A pile of gray cards placed at the front of the gallery guided the viewer to the Metropolitan Museum of Art a half block away, and, in particular, to Pair of Rowel Spurs, ca. 1650, cut from iron and given to the museum by Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, one of the scions of the New York Times. Intrigued, I walked down the block and showed the woman at the museum’s information booth my handsome gray card; she instructed me to walk past the grand staircase and make a hard right at the medieval gallery. If I followed the hall to its end, she said, I would find Gallery 376. I heeded her directions and wound up in a room of full of armor and swords. It took me a moment to find the spurs; then I knelt down to read the label next to these eccentric objects, each of which bore a five-pointed star. “These superb spurs are intricately chiseled with minute figures of warriors on horseback interspersed with grotesque masks and floral patterns,” it stated. “The workmanship of their decoration relates closely to that of a small group of chiseled-iron sword hilts that were made in either France or Holland in the mid-seventeenth century.”

Interesting, but what is the relationship between these iron spurs and the gold watch, celluloid film, and steel structure, which are separated not only by space but by centuries of time? Contra Poledna’s title, these artifacts are not simply substances, but “controlled substances,” with the ability to affect life and mesmerize viewers. One feels a sense of loss in front of such things; while tactile and tectonic by turns, they nevertheless feel out of touch.

Alex Kitnick