Sarah Sze’s Return of the Real


Stuck between a recession and a recovery, the art world is predictably game for eating and hoarding cake, too. A perfect example of the current cupidity is Dan Colen’s windily hyped exhibition at Larry Gagosian’s big tent. A gassy repeat of Jean-Michel Basquiat­–style branding frosted with 2007 prices, the show—boasting colorful slacker paintings that ape tired recipes for artistic success—packs more hot air than Bill O’Reilly’s pleated trousers.

Other gross-out manifestations of the art world’s gluttony include, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article, the return of “the collector-cum-investor” (again?) and the upcoming October rehanging of Jeff Koons’s 1990 porn paintings (not again!). Second servings of gut-busting excess, developments like these compare to excellent art as Marie Antoinette’s high spirits do to Bishop Desmond Tutu’s compassion. Expressions of sheer vulgarity, they conversely magnify the work of artists whose generosity exposes the lie that contemporary art is a members-only club for rich, superficial, faddish assholes.

The present antidote to piggish tidings is Sarah Sze’s blooming, bounteous installations of stuff we regularly overlook, which she effortlessly transforms into far-out Lilliputs and down-to-earth Space Odysseys. A modest character—despite being a MacArthur Fellow—Sze has long pointed the way to Whitmanesque freethinking through her interpretations of democratic consumerism. Cast from the bins at Target, Walgreens, and Home Depot, her sculptures convey both the epic and mundane integrity of Leaves of Grass.

Sze came seemingly out of nowhere in the late 1990s as a full-blown original artist. Since then, she has been marshalling disposable objects such as matchsticks, water bottles, and office supplies to make three-dimensional paintings that double as sculpture, and sculptures that look like all-over Jackson Pollock paintings. A figure with little in the way of artistic antecedents—the work of Jessica Stockholder comes exclusively to mind—Sze successfully merged gestural spontaneity with orderly sculptural form. Using shop-bought debris to confect experiences of visual overload, she has essentially made a metaphor of life’s disorders. Her results—as seen in her first New York gallery exhibition in more than five years—both challenge and celebrate the human weakness for inventing stability for the world’s messiness.

The current show is Sze’s debut at Chelsea’s Tanya Bonakdar Gallery (she changed galleries a few years ago). Like her previous outings, this one breezily eschews hype while promoting a real-world aesthetic that is more 99 cent store than hedge-fund manager’s trophy. Sze’s exhibition advances her visual conceits—allusive yet enlightening flights of taxonomical fantasy—in itty-bitty increments that quickly become avalanches of massed details. Her arrangements evoke equal parts forest and trees—the challenge is always to consider both simultaneously. Doing so invariably forces a critic to consider big ideas while wading menially into the chore of list making.

Take the show’s largest sculpture, The Uncountables (Encylopedia). Imagine a cabinet of curiosities set into a leaning tower—or, alternately, the Library of Congress being chucked around by the Ajax White Tornado—and you get an idea of the insane spatial tricks that lie in wait. A makeshift pulley system that jerry-rigs stability out of a set of tilting shelves, Sze’s sculpture at once flies apart and comes together while toting a mini-museum of cast and paper objects. There are bottles of various provenances, takeout trays, juice cartons, a pair of flip-flops, flowers, a feather, leaves, fish made from newsprint, rocks, fans, lamps, plants, paper cups, a level, rolls of tape, a package of salt, and, frankly, many more “specimens” than one cares to number (thus invoking the piece’s title). With Sze, the devil ghosts the details—the objects in this particular sculpture run from pedestrian to transporting—yet cumulatively, Sze’s encyclopedic reach formulates nothing less than the symbolic shakiness of all knowledge.

A second work, Duped, also contains multitudes despite being purposely conceived in a comparatively minor note. The sort of stumpy arrangement that’s bound to be overlooked—it includes a pair of matching stools, a lamp, a mug, a plant, and a roll of extension cord—the sculpture wattles several of its forms from debris like branches, bits of string, newspaper, matches, toothpicks, wires, and an LED light. Useless copies of a functional lamp and a stool, they suggest Platonic versions shaped from whatever the cat dragged in. A third work returns Sze to the terrain of the spectacular. Titled 360 (Portable Planetarium), this circular cosmic structure is lassoed together from wood slats and clamps that strain to contain—or spill out—yet another cornucopia of base bric-a-brac. Sze fashions a light show from materials that include three overhead projectors outfitted with perforated black sheets. Filled to bursting, her homespun planetarium beams galaxies upon the wall that slip away, like all her work, the minute we think we have a bead on them.

These and other installations in Sze’s show routinely refuse the viewer the safety of a single viewpoint. Sculpture that’s insistently on the brink, it seesaws constantly from art to life, and back again. Like Heraclitus’ famous river, Sze’s arrangements sport flowing, uncertain properties: Eddies occur along with rapids, and you cannot step into the same stream twice. Her model universes shift with each glance. Like with time or our shitty economy, everything changes, nothing stays still—especially when we think it does.

For a second take on the poetry and, in this particular case, the violence inherent in the everyday, consider the work of the Mexican sculptor Alejandro Almanza Pereda. Currently on view at Magnan Metz Gallery in Chelsea, Almanza Pereda’s collections of plaster sculpture and construction material teeter on the brink of catastrophic collapse—potentially with bone-crushing results.

One sculpture in this terrific show, The Tie That Binds, features a foundation’s worth of cinder blocks snake-charmed into a vertical cascade no space-age cement can hold. The secret? A single thread of steel chain fastened by a padlock from which dangles a pound and a half of janitor’s keys. A second sculpture consists of a multi-tiered framework built from fluorescent bulbs. The fact that each level supports several potted plants means that—as these grow—the sculpture will eventually overrun its scaffolding and blot out its skeleton of light.

Yet the best description of this thoughtful, intimidating exhibition belongs to the artist himself: “I imagine a structure that is contained by its contents: a museum contained by the artworks, a library contained by its books, an aquarium contained by water.” Enough said.