“Stand still like the hummingbird”

Alan Gilbert

July 21, 2012
David Zwirner
June 28–August 3, 2012

Stepping out of time can be a risky proposition, however carefully planned the escape. Art has always been in conflict with time: whether as a magical or religious symbol of the eternal, as the marker of its maker’s immortality, and, in the twentieth century, as an increasingly riven material object in a virtualizing world. The hummingbird in the title of the group show “Stand still like the hummingbird” at David Zwirner may appear to be motionless, but that’s only because its wings are beating like crazy. Similarly, much of the work on display may appear Postconceptualism cool (or in the case of Marcel Duchamp’s Comb [1916/1964], pre-Conceptualism insouciance), but provocative tensions flutter beneath the surface.

It’s only fitting that the title of the exhibition has been lifted from Henry Miller, since much of the work selected by curator Bellatrix Hubert, a partner at David Zwirner, plays with appropriation, most overtly in two of Sherrie Levine’s most famous photographs: After Walker Evans: 4 and After Walker Evans: 3 (both 1981), portraits of Allie Mae Burroughs and her husband, Floyd, respectively. Although historically huge in the development of twentieth-century art, it can be challenging in the current era of wild appropriation and photography as a sanctioned medium to appreciate Levine’s pair of photographs beyond the volumes of discourse they’ve instigated. If anything, they now seem more deadpan than ever, which may be closer to Levine’s original intent and her critique of patriarchal authorship.

This sense of a world turned upside-down appears quite literally in Bruce Nauman’s installation, Raw Material with Continuous Shift—MMMM (1991), which features a large video projection of Nauman’s head spinning inverted as he mumbles “Mmmm.” In the adjacent gallery, four black-and-white photographs (all 1998) of Welsh oak trees by Rodney Graham are similarly flipped in keeping with the exhibition’s games of representation (and perhaps acknowledging the hummingbird’s rare ability among birds to fly upside-down). Alan Uglow’s Portrait of a Standard #3 (Silver) (2000) silkscreens an image on canvas that looks very much like the painting next to it, Standard #23 (Grey) (1998). It’s an aesthetic strategy located somewhere between the hand and mechanical reproduction.

But the games here are also with containment. Lying on the floor near Uglow’s two pieces is Cady Noland’s Institutional Field (1991), a chain-link fence diptych. Just as deadpan as Levine’s pair of photos, and perhaps casting light on their fate within the art world, Noland’s sculpture signals entrapment—institutional, commercial, or otherwise—and looks like the remnant of a scene from which the notoriously elusive artist got up and ran. On the other hand, Morgan Fisher plays with constriction in a thirteen-minute video (Protective Coloration [1979]) that depicts the artist donning fake lips, swimming goggles, blindfold, multiple bathing caps, mouth guard, plastic helmet, and two pairs of rubber gloves, turning his face and hands into an anonymous canvas of shape and color.

More striking, although visually simpler, is Fisher’s Red Boxing Gloves/Orange Kitchen Gloves (1980), a short, two-channel video on adjacent monitors: male hands caress a pair of kitchen gloves in one, and, in the other, female hands gently stroke matching boxing gloves. The work’s employment of seriality and repetition, its challenged gender roles, and its representational technologies aren’t so far, in fact, from Levine’s tactics (and Fisher is affiliated with structuralist filmmaking, to which the Pictures generation owes at least a little), or the rest of the exhibition with its Ed Ruscha artist photobooks, Christopher Williams photographs, On Kawara “I Got Up” postcards, Jim Nutt female portraits, Ruth Laskey linen weavings, Carol Bove bookshelf installation, Martha Wilson typology of female breasts, and more.

In general, the show on the whole and most of the individual pieces maintain a tight, albeit considered, frame around their subjects. Similarly, a number of the artworks seek to flatten out the figure-ground relationship, including the snippets of Gordon Matta-Clark’s tangled tresses in the installation Hair (1972). A notable exception, and one that brings a refreshing sense of context and durational time outside of the historicizing and institutionalizing white cube—not always ipso facto a bad thing—is Francis Alÿs’s video Retoque/Painting (2008). In it, Alÿs repaints a single broken lane divider on a road in the Panama Canal Zone as bystanders watch (or ignore), cars and buses pass precariously close to the artist, and cargo ships float through the canal behind him. Alÿs remains nonplussed throughout, with his worn sneakers and little wagon of art supplies.

Despite Alÿs’s general practice of casual—yet incisive—interventions, he takes his task seriously: he uses a smaller brush to precisely delineate the road’s yellow line, and with a larger brush fills it in. Alÿs may be having a little fun at painting’s expense, but not art’s traditional attention to form and craft. The camera sporadically pulls away to reveal Alÿs as only one of many figures in a landscape that, according to the video’s introductory text, previously served as a U.S. military base. In other words, imperialism, commerce, and colonialism serve as a backdrop for the work. The degree to which Alÿs implicates himself in all of this is unclear, but it nevertheless provides more than art-historical heft to Hubert’s serious, yet just playful enough, show.

Gender, Colonialism & Imperialism
Time, Conceptual & Post-Conceptual Art, Appropriation Art

Alan Gilbert is a poet and art writer whose most recent book of poems is The Everyday Life of Design.

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David Zwirner
July 21, 2012

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