Water provides the aqueous conceptual glue binding together the work in this 12 artist group exhibition. Curator Lilly Wei conceived the exhibition “on a playful note, [as] an early Spring show that looks forward to Summer.” I am not sure if this curatorial conceit serves the art well, as it establishes a very literal common denominator which perhaps dilutes the potency of the individual pieces, turning them into eclectic examples of “water art.” Nevertheless, a few of the artists presented here break this surface tension.
Patty Chang presents a notable video piece entitled “Fountain,” in which we see a woman (presumably the artist), closely examining her face in the mercurial mirror of a still pool of water. After a few moments of narcissistic reflection she leans down and begins kissing and then slowly slurping up the water. She drinks the shallow pool, revealing an actual mirror at the bottom. The piece then seamlessly begins again. With great economy, as well as sensual allure, Chang seems to be exploring water as a metaphor of reflection on multiple levels. The reflection off the water is fugitive—a liquid image—while the mirror, with it’s fixed optics, could be seen as a revelation of that which is more essential (although still unreal.)
James Sheehan shows a very small painting (2 × 2 3/8 inches), with an accompanying magnifying glass, titled “The Empiricist.” The surface is a kind of pinpoint impasto creating a fairly indistinct swarm of sprinkly colors when viewed with the naked eye. When the looking glass is employed, the crusted surface blooms into pictorial space. The scene recalls Rubens’ paintings of undersea grotto bacchanals, yet here the narrative remains unclear, with a central figure of a man holding what appears to be a martini shaker as a row of women wait seated to one side. I suppose the empiricist here is the examining viewer willing to take up the lens.
Arlene Shechet’s “Casting Water: River Leak” is intriguing, although more in what we can surmise of the process of facture from the title, than for the objects displayed. Two sets of overlapping gray rubber blobs on the floor appear to capture the specific aqua-dynamics of a moving body of water. The rubber ebbs outward across the floor in ever smaller concentric rings. Artists working in “Nature,” a term which should be understood in quotes post-Smithson, are still investigating the casting of indeterminate natural formations and the aesthetics of ruination, yet there is a technical craftiness to “Casting Water” which undermines what one assumes to be its effort to be ugly.
Smithson’s “Rundowns” unlocked conceptions of nature because they moved in the opposite direction—performing an act of visceral despoliation which, upon reflection, turned out to beautiful and harmless. “Casting Water,” while transforming free flowing water into a gray rubber slurry, is not yet nasty enough to be beautiful, and so cannot meaningfully disrupt the pristine Rotunda space, a goal which presumably lies at the heart of a process of bringing the outside in.
JOHN HAWKE is a contributor to the Rail.