New York

View of “Cady Noland,” 2021. All works Untitled, 2021. Photo: Carter Seddon.

View of “Cady Noland,” 2021. All works Untitled, 2021. Photo: Carter Seddon.

Cady Noland

Cady Noland rarely shows new work, but when she does it’s a big occasion—and in this instance doubly so because the exhibition of six new sculptures (and three prints on metal from the early 1990s) was produced in tandem with the release of her self-published two-volume book, THE CLIP-ON METHOD (2021), which also happened to be the title of her presentation here. As much a catalogue raisonné as an extended manifesto and meditation on evil, the publication contains copious photographs of her art and exhibitions from the 1980s to the present (including the 1989 work for which the volumes and show are named), writings by the artist, and selections from sociological texts that examine the moral and political decline of America.

Noland picks up where Warhol left off in her fascination with the pathological dimensions of popular culture, but instead of the pictorial bombast of dead bodies, police riots, and atomic explosions, the dystopian vision she explores in this exhibition is anticlimactic and clinically detached. Plenty of characters have paraded through her work over the years—Patty Hearst as a bank robber, Charles Manson’s lady killers, Richard Nixon, and a shot-up Lee Harvey Oswald. But here we were left all alone as stand-ins for the wretched and walking wounded to contemplate the looming effect of a pair of chain-link fences that dominated the space—one was stationed defensively, blocking one of the gallery’s windows (its shades tightly drawn), while the other was mounted over an interior wall. The effect was not a good vibe—but hope never prevails in the shadowland of spent promises and malevolent forces Noland summons into play.

The psychological register was cranked up further with the artist’s utterly depersonalized and austere decor, which rendered the space curiously empty yet utterly foreboding. A gray commercial-grade carpet banished the warmth of the gallery’s wooden floors and conspired with the space’s own no-nonsense fluorescent lighting to create an unforgiving environment that showcased, in addition to the heavy metal fencing, a series of four sculptures comprising modular parts of standard white-plastic barricades—the sort used for crowd control. These were stashed in corners and close to the walls, their position implying that they were out of the way, yet ready for action at any moment. Policing technique was the subject of the prints, propped up on an otherwise vacant wall, featuring annotated images culled from an old law-enforcement training manual.

The fence and barricade sculptures (all Untitled, 2021) belong to a long line of similarly configured walls, gates, cages, barriers, stanchions, and scaffolds that Noland has crafted over the decades. All connote power and control on an industrial scale and in a very direct and unadulterated way are geared to rip the scab off our shared cultural anxieties. Given that her materials are indexed to conflict and containment, they are already front-loaded with endless cultural references and associations. In her hands, galvanized fencing and plastic barricades are the artifacts of a repressive Americana—one that, day by day, comes more ominously into view. The marvel of Noland’s art is that she always sets off an avalanche of imaginative engagements (some might call this narrativity) with such elegantly spare means and gestures. In a formal sense, her maneuvers align perfectly with Minimalism, but she amplifies and weaponizes that movement’s inherent machismo and capacity for menace. The result is as much cultural critique as it is deep lamentation.

You couldn’t experience Noland’s exhibition here and not think how extremely relevant her work continues to be in what’s turning out to be an increasingly dystopic twenty-first century. These are inescapable conditions: the deterioration of human rights, the weakening of the planet, and the troubling result of “alternative facts” underpinning the “big lie.” This time around, those taut chain links are the ones that keep children caged up at the border. Those barricades are the ones flung aside by insurgents at the US Capitol. All the billionaires are headed into space, but I’m hitching a ride with Cady Noland’s art and the cold comfort of bearing witness to the loss of our collective sense-ability.