John Isaacs, Sleepwalking into the Anthropocene, 2019, clay, steel, epoxy resin, paper, 27 1⁄2 × 32 1⁄4 × 14 1⁄8".

John Isaacs, Sleepwalking into the Anthropocene, 2019, clay, steel, epoxy resin, paper, 27 1⁄2 × 32 1⁄4 × 14 1⁄8".

John Isaacs

Travesía Cuatro | Madrid

A colorful colossus, vaguely anthropomorphic and covered in rags, guards the gallery entrance, setting an ambivalent tone for the carefully orchestrated choreography of John Isaacs’s exhibition “Dust.” All but one of the works on view have been shipped from the British artist’s Berlin studio—literally hot from the oven in the case of some ceramics. Isaacs has carefully arranged them to suggest a loose narrative, with an almost rakish progress from the most open spaces, visible from the street, toward the private, recondite inner rooms.

Totem or taboo? The piece is titled The Architecture of Empathy, 2019, and looks both welcoming and vaguely threatening: It is difficult to decide whether it stands as a hopeful milestone or as a warning. It could be an artifact of a future festive civilization, or the ruin of an earlier one already wiped from the face of the Earth. Isaacs himself commented on its ambiguity while talking about the show: He originally wanted to make it so that it could wobble, like a giant tumbler doll. A certain blend of irrationality, emotion, and lucid ingenuity would be useful tools to approach such works, just as with the larger world we create and inhabit, and to which they allude.

Utopian and dystopian connotations similarly accompany one another in Sleepwalking into the Anthropocene, 2019, with its reproduction of Brancusi’s Sleeping Muse as if it were a deflated balloon, set on a classical pedestal bearing the inscription THIS IS THE PLACE. The pedestal is cracked, and little pieces of paper bearing the wishes and secrets of visitors are embedded in its crevices.

Open Letter, 2019, is a tapestry that reproduces and enlarges the clumsy handwriting of a child’s homework—that of the artist’s daughter. Along with the question CAN YOU REMEMBER THE ANIMALS?, its list of animals and other terms that might be vocabulary words has an elegiac air, which is accentuated by its confrontation here with the sculpture Untitled, 2019: the glazed-ceramic body of a mutilated woman of generous shape, her skin painted with a blue-and-brown world map, as if she were a globe. Indeed, all three works in this room function in concert as a moving, richly interwoven installation that spans from the most cherished intimacy to global concerns: Both of the aforementioned pieces are reflected in the large wall-mounted mirror of Study for an Emotional Landscape, 2019, which frames them, and imprisons them—given that it is chained to a heavy Murano-glass balloon on the floor. The gallery as a whole evokes the disturbing aftermath of a battle that is perhaps yet to come.

Isaacs has shown an irreverent and refreshing eclecticism throughout his career. Here, it takes on a different tone as he jumps over traditional barriers and borders, both artistic and political, again mixing together different techniques, formats, and idioms—photography, neon, sculpture, painting—with ironic and tongue-in-cheek quotations and allusions to titans of modern art such as Brancusi, Picasso, and Michelangelo Pistoletto. Taken altogether, the exhibition encourages an emotional and empathic vision of an alternative world. In one small piece, Untitled, 2018, colorful neon letters offer a kind of utopian manifesto: VOTES FOR CHILDREN, they demand. Perhaps not as foolish as the daily world we inhabit, the phrase sums up the mixed mood of Isaacs’s recent work, which hovers between melancholy and his old rebellious self. Perhaps, it implies, we’d be better off with a little less common sense and a little more imagination.