Assembly 1: Unstored
May 5–Spring 2023
Optimism for the future course of humanity is in short supply these days, but a drive out to Assembly, Bosco Sodi’s new art space in Monticello, NY, might help change that. Its rousing aim, as stated by the inaugural exhibition’s curator Dakin Hart of the Noguchi Museum, is nothing short of repurposing the structural optimism of the American dream. By simply attempting such a lofty goal in the heart of MAGA upstate New York (Sullivan County voted 53.87% in favor of Trump in the 2020 elections) it achieves even more. There is delicious enjoyment to be had from the fact that it is Sodi, a Mexican artist, who is the one seeding the possibility, like in Jean Giono’s “The Man Who Planted Trees,” of making this particular pocket of humanity great again. Naturally, this is accomplished not through anti-immigrant bombast and red baseball caps, but through the dissemination of art and ideas.
One-and-a-half hours north of the George Washington Bridge, tires roll across asphalt cracked from winter ice and salt. Tree-choked mountainsides give way to rolling pasture divvied up by tumbledown walls of glacial rock. Buildings gradually accumulate in the approach to Monticello, many of them empty. The air is one of economic decline cut through by the relentless linearity of a highway that once reflected modernity’s unswerving aspirations. Then you see Assembly: a 23,000 square foot space built originally as a Buick dealership but now exuding the unmistakable aesthetics of Contemporary Art. We are told in the opening text by the door that its “vastness was part of a strategy for selling eighteen-foot-long Roadmaster Rivieras at a time when the interstate was synonymous with the American dream.” Assembly has arisen from optimism of a different kind. One of Sodi’s central ideas is to take out of storage artworks that have been languishing in crates unseen, raising the ghost of the old “if a tree falls in a forest” question of observation and perception: if an artwork lies unseen in a crate, is it still art? It is clear that this is underpinned by a deeply held belief in art’s power to quietly inspire hearts and minds, so long as it can be made visible enough to do so.
On arriving one is faced with a room of Ugo Rondinone’s Stone Masks. Found stones, each about the shape and size of a human face, hang one by one along a wall at eye level so that the viewer meets, eye to eye, the two holes that have been drilled in every one. These holes pinpoint the emotions of singular lived existences. Some jovial, others timid, a full range of mankind’s momentary emotions are imposed as individuals on rock formed millions of years ago, washed by rivers and time into the shapes they have now. Encountering them after traversing the scar the interstate carves through a landscape that was once an arcadia, the question to grapple with is whether nature is elevated by being thus anthropomorphized. Do they stare at us in voiceless interrogation of humanity’s actions against her? Or do they instead create a sense of connectedness to nature, allowing us to emote with them and suggesting that stone now demands the same moral consideration as other humans? Or perhaps this just another subjugation, taming the ancient to fit the vacuous human obsession with our own fleeting selves.
The main hall holds an exhibition of contemporary sculpture from Mexico that includes eighteen artists in total. The vanguard of this show, met as one enters the space, is the installation Pulso (Installation) (2016–2021) by Tania Candiani. Suspended from the ceiling are 144 teponaztli drums made from wood and leather, 114 pairs of drumsticks, eight tarahumara drums and their eight corresponding pairs of drumsticks. They hang in the formation of a marching band. As with Rondinone’s masks, here is a silence that challenges in its muteness. Inescapable, however, are the energetic reverberations of suggested sound, the power of the possible. These are pre-Hispanic drums once played to create the rhythms and sounds that connected humanity to the flow of nature. Now in their silent suspension, do they encourage us to band together to play music that the world needs to hear? Or resent us for having forgotten the beat? The exhibition as a whole resonates with such interconnected energies, whispering and entreating.
Paula Cortazar’s Organos (2017) and Óvalo (2020 ) on granite and limestone contain a totemic power, a vibration that appears to emanate from them, but is actually engraved in repetitive, graphic lines across their polished surfaces. These lines evoke the passage of a worm under skin, a dermatological infection, the infinite, ancient wisdom of bacteria, or the infinitesimal, burrowing creatures of the ocean bed, all now enshrined and worthy of obeisance. On the floor what first appear to be ominous symbols in white chalk is in fact Galia Eibenschutz’s Ephemeral drawings performance floor (2019), the remnant of human movement in space, stretching the breadth of an arm span into something cosmic and arcane.
Leaning heavily, wearily, with what feels like the weight of the world are two monumental paintings by Bosco Sodi, Vers l’Espagne (2019). They face each other from the two opposing walls of the gallery: two exhausted boxers in the ring, held up only by their wooden travel frames. Cracks run like capillaries through their surfaces, fractured yet still intact and so thickly impastoed that they read more as slices of primordial terrain than paintings, expressions of an earth that might suddenly implode from the strain of humanity’s many desecrations.
Then from the main hall one must emerge out into nature itself, into the green of trees in the backlot, the humidity of the air, before descending into the cool of the basement gallery below, not quite subterranean but almost. Here, a black encrusted tondo by Sodi hangs like the dark sun of a land where creatures are summoned to the surfaces of gathered rocks. Izumi Kato’s sculptures, like punk gods that find form in the disparate chunks of stone, smile at us to say that yes, all is one. Disarming in their simplicity, collected rocks gather together to become the torsos of benevolent spirits waiting in forgotten corners, or strange sprites that writhe at a visitor’s feet. Kato sprays bright colors onto the rocks with an ebullient but rough symmetry, forming large eyes and sensually curved noses in blues, reds, yellows, or neon pink. Rather than deface the natural stone, it is as if Kato releases the spirits within—the result is a joyous animism. Nearby, three vessels by the master ceramicist Shiro Tsujihira sit quietly. Almost completely spherical, each appears to have burst from internal pressure, their glaze oozing like a primordial sludge. They are seed pods carrying ideas, hope, and its various progeny within. Perhaps they released Kato’s sprites.…
There is a transcendent power in the works that Sodi and Hart have gathered together across all three exhibitions at Assembly. Stone bursts, footprints, crazing, holes and fissures, the thrum of ancient rhythms: all the imperfections of the world are the essence of wabi sabi, the Japanese worldview that Bosco Sodi draws on in his own work, seeing in the ephemeral and impermanent a spiritual understanding of the flow of life. Here is the beauty that can burst forth, burgeoning through cracks in the decaying asphalt of the interstate, giving us hope and some faith in the eternal—even in these existentially fraught days, when it is impossible to ignore the fact that our overheated world is broken.