At the end of the 19th century, the reclusive independent scholar James Reuel Smith went on a private mission to document the endangered natural springs and wells of Upper Manhattan and the Bronx. Inspired by Smith’s archives at the New-York Historical Society, 2002 SculptureCenter Prize recipient Jimbo Blachly has been tracking down and responding to the sites of these former urban oases in a collaboration with writer Lytle Shaw. The resulting photographs, drawings, and installation are on view at SculptureCenter’s new home, in a rarefied conceptual exhibition that makes for a subversive inauguration of the venue.
Blachly’s premise is attractive: Bottled, regulated, and privatized by large corporations, water has become an abstract commodity, and retracing Smith’s footsteps can be seen as an act of meaningful nostalgia. In revisiting a landscape of obsolescence, though, Blachly claims for sculpture a role more readily associated with photography—specifically Eugene Atget’s images of pre-industrial Paris. In this context Blachly’s installation, a hybrid of a Museum of Natural History diorama and a decorative fountain at a day spa, seems superfluous. Moss-filled terrariums are stacked haphazardly, water dribbles from wooden gutters, and cardboard wells and pools dot the floor. The sprawling construction has a certain formal charm, but it lacks the sense of sublimation—something lost and gained in translation from site to document—that Robert Smithson, another clear influence, exploited so expertly in films and photographs of his Earthworks.
Though less original, Blachly’s captioned photographs of Smith’s spring sites are more compelling. So is Shaw’s accompanying text, which draws out the latent romanticism of Blachly’s, and Smith’s, process. Theirs is a sensitive, conceptually fluid undertaking that might have been better served by a less solid medium.