My initial thought on peering through LFL’s glass door at Phoebe Washburn’s psychedelic tsunami of an installation was that this promising young artist had bitten off more than she could chew and didn’t finish on time. All I saw was a chaotic stand of wood. I remembered the invigorating buzz of walking into half-done Vito Acconci shows, incomplete exhibitions at American Fine Arts, and Cheyney Thompson’s recent Andrew Kreps show, which, if memory serves, wasn’t done until a week before it was over.
Washburn’s piece begins just inside the door and echoes some of the uncanny passing-from-one-zone-to-another effect that Thomas Hirshhorn created at the entrance to his last Gladstone installation. Washburn has fastened together thousands of two-by-fours, all painted lovely pastel shades (“mistints,” according to the gallery), into what looks like some upsweeping wooden grotto or a big rock-candy mountain on stilts. Cocooned within the piece, which seems to be levitating, are worktables; two of them have been attached to the wall just below the ceiling, forming a bridge that you pass under. The construction is makeshift yet solid, like some crazy structure fabricated out of whatever was at hand, haphazardly but with maniacal purpose.
Passing through a thicket of sticks and under the tables, look up and you’ll see the word hello spelled out in gaffer’s tape—Washburn’s idea of a welcome mat and evidence of her goofball side (“the end” is spelled out in wood screws further along). When you finally round the corner, a steeply rising bleacher configuration in an irregular paisley shape comes into view. The whole thing, which owes much to process art, suggests a 24th-century Saõ Paulo, a multi-colored electromagnetic field of timber crystals, or a three-dimensional Amy Sillman painting. It is apparently based on some sort of squirrelly, self-replicating building system. The two-by-fours are arranged in rising waves; some of their tops are flat, others angled. Sawdust from the construction has been left between the slats in pools (Washburn calls them “beaches”). Loose screws, rolls of tape, pencils (“cousins of the wood,” she says), and the boxes they came in are here and there. Nothing’s Cutie, as the piece is titled—perhaps indicating that no part is superfluous—is a soup-to-nuts mega-structure in which nothing has been discarded: Everything that went into its making is part of the finished piece. The systematic progression, self-referring materials, and visual journey toward the center produce modernist flickers. Everything else is postmodern quirks.
Although I consider Washburn one of the more interesting young installationists around and her visual algorithms mesmerize, after the alluring unpredictability of the entrance, Nothing’s Cutie falls somewhat flat. It’s impressive, but once you turn the corner, it’s grasped too quickly. Ambiguity, anticipation, and apprehension wane; arbitrariness and tranciness set in. I found myself standing in one place and wishing that she had tinkered with the entry more, thought about the transitional space from outside to inside, dispensed with the pencil boxes (which fit but feel too clever), fussed less, and let go more. Nothing’s Cutie is commanding, picturesque, fascinatingly functionless, and hulking. Washburn has a gift for ordering, omnivorousness, accretion, and color. But this piece isn’t as good as her last installation at this gallery or her sundry out-of-town efforts.
How Washburn, 31, connects up to and diverges from some of her peers is telling. Unlike Sarah Sze, who is a space-destroying, anal-retentive, warrior-princess artist (owing to the amazing exactitude, ironic reuse of materials, and the spatial voraciousness in her work); Ann Hamilton, who’s only a producer of photogenic New Agey sets; or Rachel Whiteread, who is a mummy maker by way of Nauman, a mortician, and a magician, Washburn is a pack rat, magpie, bag lady, mollusk artist. Pack rat because she scavenges for her materials; magpie for the way she piles them up (beaver would work, too); bag lady because of the eccentric order and compulsion at the core of her work; and mollusk because of the way she almost secretes things in sequential, sedimentary layers. These qualities, plus her ambitious whale scale and the way she plumbs the gap between necessity, serendipity, impulse, and order, make Washburn stand out.
How she will develop is unclear. After all, the number one sculptural trope of the moment is the room-filling installation made of stuff; museums, galleries, university foyers, and international festivals are wall-to-wall with them. I admire Washburn but can’t help feeling that she’s dogged by this convention. The thing that gives me hope is the sense that she has almost no idea what these structures will look like before she makes them. Washburn appears to be generating systems that generate formations she can’t predict. This ties her to such seemingly unrelated artists as Sol LeWitt, Jackie Windsor, Barry Le Va, and Matthew Ritchie—four other systematizers who, despite seeming on top of everything, allow their art to take them in unexpected directions. When Washburn invents systems that surrender more while putting more information into play—when she lets go of some of the internal logic and gets in touch with her inner oddball—she’ll be better than she is, which is already awfully good.