Los Angeles

Stephen Neidich, I can tie a trucker hitch in my sleep, 2021, steel blinds, motor box, idlers, roller chain, light, 86 × 116 × 10".

Stephen Neidich, I can tie a trucker hitch in my sleep, 2021, steel blinds, motor box, idlers, roller chain, light, 86 × 116 × 10".

Stephen Neidich

Some say that Duchamp’s 1913 sculpture Bicycle Wheel inaugurated the category of kinetic art. Yet the form’s coming-out party was sparsely attended and brief. If we can call it a movement, it is one that went dormant almost upon inception, thereafter subject to sporadic periods of resurgence. When Peggy Guggenheim granted kinetic art a room of its own for five years, between 1942 and 1947, in The Art of This Century, her New York gallery, she effectively placed it on the front lines of aesthetic advancement. Enthusiasm for mechanically mobilized works held firm for roughly the next two decades, until the new paradigm of entropy stole its thunder (and everything became a “ruin in reverse,” as per Robert Smithson). In 1968, art historian Jack Burnham could write of “the relative aesthetic failure of Kinetic Art,” despite the occasional artist continuing to this day to make it. Certainly its novelty value has considerably depreciated, so what might it still have to say about the future?

This question was compellingly raised in Stephen Neidich’s “five minutes more please,” his tellingly titled second show for Wilding Cran Gallery. Neidich, who has for some time committed his practice to the automation of inert objects, here indulged in a pointedly reflexive meditation on the psychophysiological stakes inherent in such operations. On the walls were hung a series of motorized structures resembling venetian blinds, both horizontal and vertical, wholly assembled by the artist from steel and conjoined with an equally fabricated-looking (and no less visible) machinery of cogs and pulleys that periodically drew them open and closed. The whole system was programmed—or one might say choreographed—to point viewers in multiple directions, thus keeping them in a state of tensed vigilance as one unit was activated and another came to rest. Since Neidich’s blinds were not affixed to windows, what they disclosed was, of course, nothing but the supporting wall. Moreover, their movements—as they rose lopsidedly, became bunched up, got stuck midway—tended to replicate our most frustrating struggles with them in everyday life and thus lent an absurdist tone to the proceedings while simultaneously encouraging a sort of estranged introspection.

Courtesy of back-mounted LED bulbs, the blinds were bathed in a rich range of hues, alternately evoking rose-tinged mornings, electric-blue afternoons, and purple sunsets, while also calling to mind the nocturnal neon-lit landscapes of cities. Amid this conflation of the painterly sublime with a luridly stylized sexuality reminiscent of early rock-music videos—think “Private Eyes” (1981) by Hall & Oates—the viewer assumed the role of a kind of transcendental voyeur. This staging was clinched by the surprise appearance of a peephole in the center of I can tie a trucker hitch in my sleep, 2021. The opening, as though it had been pried apart by two ghostly fingers, was at once vaginal and ocular and sent out a lascivious wink. But beyond that it conjured up the whole dialectic of surveillance and exhibitionism—in all of its manic alternations between excitement and exhaustion—that dominates virtually every aspect of our lives today.

These works, with their visible mechanisms, make one think of industrial production—that is, of the once heroic (and frequently masculinist) realm of the foundry and metal shop, of mechanics and engineering. Yet Neidich’s sculptures are designed to malfunction and are forced to do so by a whole other order of machinery secretly operating behind them with maximal efficiency. Every moving part that grinds and locks is commanded by the relatively friction-free operations of a computer, the situation perhaps adding a touch of pathos to the slapstick proceedings. Related to this is the striking realization that, even while one waits for something to happen, something is already, constantly, happening. If the failure of kinetic art in general can be the intermittency of its starting and stopping—and to the fact that, like any gadget or gizmo, it does not move itself—then this problem undergoes an auspicious twist here. Neidich bears down on the nondynamic side of kinetic art as its potentially saving grace. Now that perpetuum mobile is all around us, the simple act of making things move might be less compelling than dramatizing their inertia.