Roman Ondak, Aeon, 2019, wood, metal, paint, 10' 8“ × 2' 7 1⁄2” × 2' 7 1⁄2".

Roman Ondak, Aeon, 2019, wood, metal, paint, 10' 8“ × 2' 7 1⁄2” × 2' 7 1⁄2".

Roman Ondak

Esther Schipper

Many of Roman Ondak’s artworks over the past two decades have relied, explicitly or implicitly, on the help of his audience. Think of Measuring the Universe, 2007, in which visitors mark their height on a gallery wall, or Good Feelings in Good Times, 2003, a performative, volunteer-filled queue. But the Slovak artist has also alternated such ephemeral proposals with sculptures, installations, photographs, and films, and his first show with Esther Schipper—a commercial powerhouse on the Berlin art scene—was on the face of it a full pivot to objecthood, as well as a reminder that the heyday of relational art lies in the past. “Perfect Society,” in which we were nowhere invited to register our presence, was an airily composed roomful occupied mostly by discrete sculptures rooted in repurposed, often architecture-derived, everyday materials but often feeling conspicuously elegant. Market forces aside, the question of where we stood in this work—if anywhere—took a while to resolve.

For Aeon, 2019, Ondak took lengths of wood and arranged them in a succession of right angles descending from the ceiling to just above the floor. As was often the case in this show, a worldly object infused with quotidian life—the pivoting wood looked as if it might have come from an institutional staircase rail—was decommissioned, shorn of function, and refashioned as logical geometry. In Vertigo, 2018, the artist did something similar with a couple of bannisters from his house in Bratislava: The squared-off, spiraling involutions of worn wood jutted from the wall with a human-size gap between them, like a space to teleport within. Becoming a Row, 2019, turns inward (or, conversely, radiates outward) in a related, technically showier way: A succession of found dresser drawers was sawed down to nest, impractically but satisfyingly, within each other.

All this warm wood—augmented by Mars Walk, 2019, a timeworn gymnasium balance bar topped with red dust impressed with a series of Ondak’s own footprints, cutely harking back to Spirit and Opportunity, 2004, his recreation of a Martian landscape—gave the show a formal coherence from which, at points, it obliquely departed. The aptly titled Open End, 2019, whose ludic import the viewer was left to glean, positions a painted checkerboard in the center of a rectangle of found, lightly besmirched canvas. One black square registered as unusually dark and turned out to be an aperture to the wall behind, itself painted black. The show’s centerpiece, Perfect Society, 2019, meanwhile, offered a concentric, multicolored circle filled with sawn-down gas, heating, and water pipes at different heights, undulating like (so the press release intoned) “a sunflower’s blossom or a hive’s honeycomb.” It was a vision of a structure in which each element gamely played its part.

That Ondak spent his early life under state Communism and that his former country was split in two after the Velvet Revolution inevitably comes to mind. If his earlier art stressed the value of social activity while reclaiming it from authority, however, he here modulated that approach into a more serene objecthood. “Perfect Society” shifted into 2-D with a suite of modified historical prints, postcards, and book cuttings depicting Notre Dame de Paris, updated by Ondak’s painted addition of a vast plume of red fire rising from the cathedral and blotting out the sky. In context, you read this how you wanted to—an example of the continuing importance of the viewer’s subjectivity in Ondak’s art—perhaps as a symbol, as it seemed to many at the time of the terrible fire last spring, that something was dying in Western civilization, ineluctably giving way to something as yet unknown. Ondak’s orderliness here was ambiguous, but his regular recourse to reclaimed materials suggested the potential for something attractive to rise from ashes, from house clearances, from what is already around you. However cloudily, it vouchsafed hope, a word currently inseparable from audacity.