The Perfect Show for a World Up to Its Eyes in Trash

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 9, 2007

Q: What's tall and hollow and made of wire mesh?

A: A wastepaper basket.

Too easy? How about "the New Museum in New York"? That would seem to be a sharper answer to our riddle, at least for the next four months. After seeing the artfully gathered refuse that makes up the 79 sculptures in "Unmonumental," the show inaugurating the museum's new home on the Bowery, it's hard not to see the wire-mesh-clad building, and the art it now contains, as a potent comment on the waste that fills our culture of consumption.

For 30 years, the New Museum has been a crucial venue for the most plugged-in and often most tendentious art. So it's fitting that the end to its three years of homelessness should be marked by a show that captures one of the biggest trends in contemporary art, while also addressing one of the most pressing issues of our time. Agglomerative work -- "the anti-masterpiece . . . things that are cobbled together, pushed and prodded into a state of suspended animation," as co-curator Richard Flood puts it -- is everywhere these days. Could it come as a response to all the trash our planet's drowning in?

The New-Museum-as-trash-can idea first hit me as I wandered on the top floor of the three-story show and came upon a work called "Hanging Rainbow," by Mexican artist Gabriel Kuri. The piece consists of nothing more than a metal-mesh wastepaper basket with another one flipped on top of it to make a kind of empty cage. Trapped inside, a modest little strip of rainbow-colored plastic floats within the void. Looking at this object in a museum clad in almost that same metal mesh makes Kuri's piece an unavoidable metaphor for the condition of all art in our time: One more pretty bit of rubbish added to the heap of disposable goods.

And that led to the idea of the entire show as providing a single potent image of a world awash in scrap.

There are a few pieces that seem explicitly about such issues. The three sculptures of Shinique Smith, a Brooklyn artist born and trained in Baltimore, consist of head-high bales or smaller bundles of old clothes. They echo the baled scrap the First World sells to Africa (thereby undermining long-standing local textile industries). But Smith's pieces also have a more homespun, domestic quality -- they evoke a single American's wardrobe, baled -- that bills us all as waste creators. That is, the gloriously overflowing closets of a middle-class American are in fact full of scrap just waiting to happen.

Other artists in "Unmonumental" seem to evoke the globe's trash-filled condition without so clearly making it the subject of their work.

A piece by Abraham Cruzvillegas, another Mexican, consists of a huge tangle of decrepit old buoys that hangs from the ceiling on a wire. The bundle looks like what you'd get from cleaning up a beach. It has an effect similar to Smith's bales, but brings us still closer to a polluted Earth.

A room-filling installation by 34-year-old New Yorker Gedi Sibony is made from materials so light they almost want to float away, in genteel colors such as taupe and fawn and cream. At first it looks like wry and gracious abstract sculpture, of the kind that's been around for decades. It has some of the feel of the welded-steel agglomeration by Anthony Caro that proudly fills a ledge in the atrium of the National Gallery, if such a work had caught the grace and Zen-y poise of one of Agnes Martin's grayed-out pinstripe paintings. Yet Sibony's work achieves its delicate, traditional high-art effects entirely from scrap: bits and pieces of old cardboard, a stretch of plastic dropcloth, spidery leftovers from some project in plywood. Sibony is a rare artist who seems to see how the 3-R ethos of environmentalism (reduce, reuse, recycle) might apply to art as well.

Two plinth-top works by a senior Berlin artist, Isa Genzken, one of today's most exhibited sculptors, are also made of trash and castoffs, but in a much more showy, sparkly mode. Shiny plastic toys and household objects and materials -- window blinds, fake flowers, bubble wrap -- are glued together into psychedelic heaps. They could be landscapes from a trashman's acid dreams.

All this has the strongest ties to the collaged and assembled works that artists have been turning out for almost the last 100 years. Just based on its look, the new agglomeration can start to feel a whole lot like the old. But maybe there's a subtle difference in the way it's using scrap. When found objects first became art, early in the 20th century, there was a sense of turning dross to gold. New work that looks surprisingly the same seems to embrace the dross itself, with no thought of transforming it. Where Picasso's assemblages seemed to celebrate the plenty of modern life, these later-day versions offer a grim reflection on where that plenty has led.

One goal of the New Museum has always been to "fearlessly confront challenging art and cultural conditions head-on," as Director Lisa Phillips puts it in her preface to this exhibition's catalogue. "Unmonumental" seems to do that, by jousting at the excess all around us.

Could even fine art be one of its targets?

Maybe this show presents art itself, long thought of as the essence of the functionless object, as a distillation of the excess production and consumption that may yet finish us off. Art once had to assert its worth despite its seeming uselessness. Now it's all about an overdose of useless stuff, perhaps including art.

That's a likely reading of a sculpture called "Fragments From a Collective Unity (Reclining)," by Aaron Curry, who's a brand-new presence on the L.A. scene. "Fragments" consists of a knot of biomorphic arcs and hooks and doughnuts that closely imitate the biomorphic forms in famous abstract sculptures from the 1940s. But instead of being as immaculately crafted as its models, Curry's object is as crudely made and painted as something pulled from a trash heap. In this show, even famous art can seem to be another kind of scrap, waiting to be recycled into yet more art, before that gets recycled in turn.

One of the most unlikely things about the seemingly unassuming, bric-a-brac-ish, deliberately trashy objects in this show is how well they seem to sell. The show's labels list owners ranging from a couple called Martin and Rebecca Eisenberg, who own Curry's recycled biomorphs, to the Shaws ("Mari and Peter"), who own both of Genzken's glitzy trash piles, to a certain Speyer family in New York, the proud purchasers of Cruzvillegas's bundle of used buoys. All of which makes me worry that some of the art in this show might not be so much about the pressing issue of excess consumption as a simple reflection of the problem itself. It could even be a part of it.

It could be that this art of ceaseless agglomeration is simply channeling the "challenging cultural condition" that our ceaseless consumption presents us with today. No one work from the show may have a lot to say, but all together they can hold a mirror up to our predicament. Their shared style is their joint statement.

Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century is on display through March 23 at the New Museum, 235 Bowery, New York. On Jan. 16, the exhibition expands to include "Collage: The Unmonumental Picture," mounted on the walls around its sculptures. On Feb. 13 "The Sound of Things: Unmonumental Audio" will add noises, music and words into the mix. Finally, on Feb. 15, the affiliated Web site will launch "Montage: Unmonumental Online," a virtual extension of the New Museum exhibition. Call 212-219-1222 or visit

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