New York

View of “Laurent Grasso,” 2019.

View of “Laurent Grasso,” 2019.

Laurent Grasso

A sonic slab of rumbling bass can imbue almost anything with an aura of mystical portent. Artists know this as well as anyone, and the French Conceptualist Laurent Grasso pulled out all the stops for his 2018 video OttO to lend an awe-inspiring quality to his portrayal of sacred sites. Commissioned for the Twenty-First Biennale of Sydney—and produced in consultation with the Warlukurlangu Artists Aboriginal Corporation and the community of Yuendumu in Australia’s Northern Territory—OttO arrived with all the right stamps of approval. Yet it felt, if not actively exploitative, then deeply superficial. And its phantasmal soundtrack, while initially seductive, didn’t help.

The plot of OttO, which made its US debut at Sean Kelly Gallery, along with several new sculptures and paintings—some related to the film, others tangential—doesn’t amount to much, but its aesthetic is heavily suggestive of cosmic or spiritual goings-on. Grasso mounted thermal and hyperspectral cameras on drones to collect detailed, color-saturated footage of the sparse, depopulated landscapes that are his subject. Zooming over sunbaked rock formations that demarcate ancestral areas, the artist’s aeronautic tools confront us with a high-octane update of the Aboriginal religio-cultural worldview and creation myth known as the Dreaming, suggesting that these places may emit a psychic radiation or secret force discernible only to initiates. The possibility is intriguing, but OttO stops well short of any actual revelation.

This is a pity, since the idea of place <em>in OttO contains unexplored territory. One of the individuals for whom Grasso’s video was named, the German physicist Winfried Otto Schumann, seems to offer more potential for creative inquiry: Schumann predicted the existence of electromagnetic frequencies in the earth’s atmosphere; these resonances later gave rise to sundry noninvasive therapies that use shock waves to promote healing. Alas, this particular history doesn’t impinge on OttO</em> itself. The tendency to stop short of fuller investigation marked other pieces in the show, too: Eight sculptures from 2019, each one titled Panoptes, featured an omniscient eye carved into a rough chunk of rock, alluding to various mythological characters. Indeed, they barely nodded toward the “new perspectives on the world” promised breathlessly in the exhibition booklet.

Grasso made a similarly strenuous reach for significance in other works. Enlisting a profusion of luxurious materials and componentry, from onyx and bronze to “software translating solar activity in real time, based on data provided by four scientific laboratories” (the last of which appears in the sculpture Solar Wind, 2017), he attempts a high-production-value merging of contemporary science with ancient mysticism. The software program tracks “space weather” in the form of colorful LED abstractions. Untitled, 2019, a life-size bronze of a small boy holding a glass sphere, is typical in its blunt shoving-together of references—the Salvator Mundi motif and the Aboriginal rite of passage called walkabout—and in Grasso’s seeming expectation that such allusions are sufficient in and of themselves. A painting from the series “Studies into the Past,” 2009–, in which UFO-like spheres drift through scenes rendered <span class=“s1”>in the styles of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Flemish and Italian masters such as Fra Angelico and Piero della Francesca,</span> is a little more successful—perhaps because the anachronism is made more explicit (not to mention funnier).

Grasso does have hold of some fascinating sources—take “Time Perspective,” a short-term collaborative exhibition with father-and-son antiquarian book dealers Bernard and Stéphane Clavreuil in the gallery’s basement that paired the artist’s work with some stunning rare books, including first editions of Dürer and Goethe. But toning down the overall flash might have allowed for a deeper dig.