Crafted from two-by-fours and lashed at the waist (as it were) by ropes and bungee cords, multiple X-shaped structures span the gallery from floor to high ceiling in Adam Putnam’s bewitching exhibition at P.P.O.W. A number of large, dust-blemished black-and-white photos hang on the surrounding walls: One — a self-portrait, it turns out — depicts a naked man bent double, his wrists bound to his ankles with rope, a circumstance that resonates with the trussed building studs even as their rigid expansiveness contrasts with the artist’s cramped posture.
Surreal drawings of stone buttresses,
so close together they support only themselves, and of solid walls interspersed with bricked-up arches, formally chime with the self-portrait’s depiction of dynamic stasis. Heavy-gauge wires, bent at sharp angles, appear in a number of other photos, their springy potency a reflection of the ready potential for movement latent within a motionless human body.
Most of us live out our lives within buildings of some sort; Putnam’s structures and imagery make visceral this fundamental tango between interior self and exterior space. Our minds — or emotions, or souls, or what have you — inhabit our bodies, which in turn inhabit architecture, be it in the form of humble apartment, airless subway, or breathtaking skyscraper. That ineffable and constant collision of our own skin with the surrounding environment was thrillingly captured by the Old Masters: The Renaissance term sfumato — “turned to vapor” — goes a long way toward explaining why Leonardo’s and Caravaggio’s and Rembrandt’s portrayals of the human form continue to beguile us across the centuries.
In his videos, Putnam does not so much turn figures and structures into vapor as give the impression that he has run them through an old Betamax player with dirty heads. A 27-minute journey of misaligned color, adulterated shadow, and imperfectly mirrored images, Reclaimed Empire (Deep Edit) (2008–14) includes a soundtrack that seems a collage of basement-den Moog noodling, wind-chime serendipity, and
exhumed melody. You could interpret the endeavor as the final WTF sign-off from some UHF station decommissioned in the mid 1980s. In a series of short cuts, we glimpse the Chrysler Building, a model of the Washington Monument, and various
ersatz monoliths — or sometimes just their shadows. The sense of scale is discombobulated when it becomes clear that two of the monumental columns are actually small props in front of a radiator running along a wall in the background.
In one lovely scene, a figure draped in a sheet and bathed in magenta light slowly pulls at this veil but never quite reveals the face and body underneath. A radiant arch in the background revisits de Chirico’s melancholy plazas, the enveloping sheet recalling the aching desire projected by Magritte’s swaddled Les Amants. A head wrapped in bandages, like the mummy from a late-night creature feature, looms comically amid swirling theatrical smoke; in another segment, roughly mirrored images of miniature pyramids (one is blurrier) imply that the human-scale mummy has only a toy empire to rule. Nature makes occasional cameos: An occluded sun cycles through yellow, white, pink, green, and orange blotches, chromatic
artifacts of a misty day — as well as of the flip-phone, battered Portapak, or other eBay relic the artist uses to film.
Putnam’s DIY methods — tripods, light fixtures, and other studio paraphernalia often edge into the frame — and old-school techniques could, if handled lazily, give off a whiff of nostalgia. Instead, all the dust scratches, exposure halos, and other happy defects leaven a corporeal presence into whatever entity is being portrayed. The totality of the show feels slightly outside of time, as if performance art, minimalism, and other innovations of the ’60s and ’70s have been transmitted through the prism of later technologies, a parade
of consumer gadgets whose market
half-lives grow ever shorter in our age of on-demand obsolescence. In his search for the spirits that bind us to our physical realities, Putnam casts a discerning eye
on the 21st century’s data storm.
Jason Tomme is that rare artist whose texts add aesthetic resonance (as opposed to jargon-freighted explication) to his visual offerings. The handout at Theodore Art in Brooklyn takes the form of a letter in which “Charlie” attempts to describe to “Charles” his mysterious situation. Are they flip sides of the same personality,
a depiction of fractured contemporary existence? “I drifted into this strange kingless space,” Charlie explains. “Of course, it would be easy to fake it, but I’m afraid it would only complicate matters. How are things?”
Is Charlie envisioning a darkened chessboard, the afterglow of regicide? Is he channeling Beckett? Or do Tomme’s beautiful, detailed graphite drawings of potted plants — luminous planes and gradated volumes shot through with abstract textures — dispense with any such literalness, implying that visual representation is always more expressive than all but the most poetic or mad scribblings?
The plant images lead one in a circuit around the gallery that arrives at a wall hung with large blank sheets with strips
of graphite striations attached to their bottom edges. Their whiteness is a field for the play of warmly tinted overhead bulbs juxtaposed against the blue wash of daylight that enters through the windows.
Another clue surfaces when Charlie writes, “If it helps, I’ll just mention that
I spent my early days agonizing over the structures of this place.” A few feet high,
a few inches thick, white figures as flat
and geometric as bitmapped video-game characters stand around on the gallery floor. One has been stabbed in the…head? Another has toppled to the floor, a carpet of chunks. All are made from OSB (Oriented Strand Board), those sheets of glued splinters and wood fragments that indeed present an “agonized” surface.
An exquisite painting with faux craquelure (the cracks forgers induce in painted surfaces to fake age and gravitas) depicts vestiges of flowers, as if they had decayed along with the paint. Bits of blue, pink, and green float above evanescent shadows that coalesce into gray geometries, as elusive and provocative as Charlie’s declaration: “A powerful madman once spoke of ‘Known Unknowns.’ This is now what I seek.”
Charlie signs off, “Reverof o Reverof,” consigning definitive answers to the backside of forever.