Ricci Albenda’s New Age minimalism makes me happy. Even though his work sometimes doesn’t quite take off, or bogs down in details, I like the wholeheartedness of it—the bumps, bulges, herniating curves, sucked-in vortices, and perspectival insanities; walls that appear to elongate into warp drive, sprout genitalia of unspecified sorts, or flip-flop between near and far. I like Albenda’s master-builder brand of installation, the way he turns the gallery into a haunted house, optics lab, and Hollywood set all at the same time. Most of all, I like the way he treats space as a sculptural material.
Albenda’s artistic roots are varied. He connects to artists who use the gallery as raw material or subject. This lineage includes Duchamp, Michael Asher, Vito Acconci, James Turrell, and Sol LeWitt. (It’s especially dicey to have Albenda’s show up at the same time as LeWitt’s Whitney retrospective, since Albenda—whose drawing on the Kreps invitation could pass for a LeWitt—seems to be building three-dimensional versions of the older artist’s isometric wall drawings.) Albenda’s also in step with a number of contemporaries who aren’t as critical of the white cube—artists like Charles Ray, Olafur Eliasson, Jorge Pardo, Glen Seator, and maybe Vanessa Beecroft, who bring a new kind of surrealist wit or decorativeness to their interventions. Because of its voyeurism and scientific bent, Albenda’s latest creation feels like an abstract amalgam of the glimpsed flesh in Duchamp’s Étant donnés and the mappings in his Large Glass.
Basically, Albenda, 35, wants to be to sculpture what Correggio is to painting: an artist who punches holes in visual space. Whether he succeeds or not—and here the laws of physics and a splotchy gallery floor mitigate the results—it’s fun to watch him try. At Kreps, Albenda’s gone all out. He’s altered nearly every surface; made tilting, angled walls; fashioned elaborate convex corners; hung a hollow cube in the center of the gallery; and inset peculiar reliefs around the room. These reliefs—Albenda calls them “portals”—look like futuristic hood ornaments, cake decorations, mini Ronchamps cathedrals, or cyberscrotums and thighs. A couple resemble puffed-out, comic-book versions of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs of white movie screens.
If you move clockwise through “Tesseract,” as Albenda calls this show, the first things you see are three portals down a long corridor. Each is a stylized rendition of a corner or zigzagging wall. If you cup your hands in front of your eyes and block out the troublesome floor, space seems to slide and lengthen as in a cartoon. The back wall looks like a geometric implosion, and makes the rear of the gallery appear to recede even further. Turning right, you’re funneled toward an apparently shortened corner. As you turn right again, the central cube appears to stretch into a trapezoid. The portal at the end of this hallway looks like a bionic body part. Whatever you experience, the whole thing’s pretty loopy.
The definition my dictionary gives of tesseract is “the four-dimensional analogue of a cube.” The art dealer told me, “It’s an eight-sided cube.” Albenda makes things clearer in the press release when he writes, “A square is to a cube as a cube is to a tesseract.” I got a better idea of what this object is when I stumbled on Robert Heinlein’s “And He Built a Crooked House,” a story about an architect who constructs a tesseract home in Los Angeles consisting of eight cubes stacked on top of one another in the shape of a cross. Occupants climb stairs only to end up on the ground floor and look out windows to see the Empire State Building, an upside-down ocean, or nothing at all. Each room is connected to an impossible series of other rooms.
Albenda’s “Tesseract” is a cross between the space depicted in The Matrix and the sci-fi high-spiritedness of Woody Allen’s Sleeper. Intimations of other dimensions and additional rooms occur. Higher mathematics and oddball geometries fill the air. But there’s also a touching giddiness to the whole thing—a light comedy that saves Albenda’s art from overseriousness and science. Give it time and “Tesseract” can morph into something fairly uncanny, tranced-out, and trippy. It’s as if it had been designed by the architecture firm of Einstein, Freud, Cronenberg & Disney, with a consulting team of Dr. Caligari, Edgar Allan Poe, Victor Vasarely, and M.C. Escher. Call it psychitecture.
Whatever you call it, the tesseract isn’t new to art. Architects have nudged around the idea for years, Matthew Ritchie depicts them in his work, and in 1955 Salvador Dalí painted Christ crucified on one. Previously, Albenda painted optically distorted words on canvas, more recently applying them to the walls of his warpy installations. I didn’t love the paintings, but thought adding words to the sculpture tweaked the illusionism. At Kreps, Albenda goes with pure sculpture. Maybe a little too pure. He tries to take us to the edge of the tesseract, but there’s not quite enough visual information to bring off a genuine transformation. Still, wherever he takes us, Albenda’s minimalist way of looking for other worlds is enlivening. As e.e. cummings said, “There’s a hell of a universe next door.”