Merisa Mertz, Living Sculpture

Short Cuts
Life On Mars Artists Find Their Way Back To Earth

British artist Ryan Gander, whose video work "Man on a Bridge" is among
those featured at the Carnegie International Exhibit at the Carnegie
Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, talks about "desire lines." It's a term used by
city planners and architects to describe the paths people take through
public spaces, between or around pre-designed roads and sidewalks.
That's what artists often aim to do - short-circuit preconception as they
jump the rails of common usage, finding a new, bumpier world. Even if it's
only a few degrees away from the old one, a fresh perspective can seem as
distant and strange as a private view of another planet. Each of the 40
artists in the latest installment of the Pittsburgh exhibit, titled Life on Mars,
strikes off through the waste spaces of contemporary reality in search of a
unique sense of his/her own life and times, leaving a sometimes
hard-to-decipher trail of material and concept - breadcrumbs and broken
branches leading through a thicket of interests or obsessions.

Gander's video is a compilation of 50 10-second sequences showing a man
crossing a small bridge in an urban area. Cars are occasionally visible
behind him and on the roadway to his left. He walks quickly toward the
camera along the sidewalk, then seems to notice something beyond the
railing. He veers, leans to peer over the edge for a moment as he grasps
the handrail, then turns and comes back the way he came. The hood of his
windbreaker usually covers his head, but not always. In some versions he
grasps the railing with more urgency, with one hand or with both. This is a
portrait of postmodern epiphany - not a blinding flash, but a tug on the
senses or the mind that suggests a different way to go, repeated again and
again in different keys. It could also be the opposite - the pull of habit
punctuating and ordering daily experience with repetition and compulsion,
wearing away the ability to recognize or initiate change.Ê

Carnegie curator Douglas Fogle has assembled works that span more than
three decades, united only by their common commitment to the general
idea that aesthetic truth is not so much a matter of grand gestures, but of
mild surmise that gradually increases in impact, like a crack in the ice. This
past year's International was the 55th since the show's beginnings more
than 100 years ago and, like its recent predecessors, it presents a
continuum of works and personalities that have helped shape philosophical
and formal concerns that continue to feel very current. Italian artist Marisa
Merz's extraordinary 1966 "Untitled (Living Sculpture)," made of aluminum
strips, hangs threateningly overhead like a chandelier made by mating an
octopus with a robot - a very different, animistic take on late-modern forms
and materials compared to the unwrinkled, firmly non-biomorphic formalism
of her American contemporaries. The presence of some 1970s-era gesso
and paint on newspaper studies and small bronze works by Paul Thek
(1933-1988), the legendary Brooklyn-born outsider-insider
painter/proto-installation artist (Susan Sontag dedicated her seminal 1963
essay "Against Interpretation" to Thek) invokes whole dimensions of art
history and the constant, complex crosscurrents of influence. Marginalia
congeal and become central texts, while the canon of earlier priorities
breaks into smaller and smaller pieces, further and further away in time.

A show like Life on Mars can have no center, not unlike the universe itself;
every individual art event is equal to every other, defined by its own scale,
immersed in its own dimension. Nevertheless, several bodies of work stand
out as epitomes of contemporary process, walking a desire line that has
especially strong persuasive powers. Awarded the $10,000 Carnegie Prize,
New York-based, Latvian-born artist Vija Celmins' small, exquisitely pristine
"Night Sky" paintings on canvas feel their way to the stars through her
materials as if each pinpoint of light was imprinted on the artist's retina, or
perhaps on her fingertips, then translated faithfully by the steady chant of
long attention. A tenuous sense of touch emanates from her surfaces, like
a veil of light breathing - just enough to whisper "human" to some neural
translator deep in the brain. Celmins' stars have appeared on her surfaces
as they appear at dusk, revealed as the careful shadows of labor polish
away the glare of beginnings. Celmins was born in 1938 in Riga and has
been active on the international art scene since the mid 1960s. In the
context of Life on Mars, her paintings embody the calm certitude that our
smallest actions pluck the strings of instruments beyond imagining.

Downstairs in a narrow corridor, L.A.-based graffiti/installation artist Barry
McGee crashes back to earth with an almost audible visual twang, in works
that double back on themselves like records reversing direction under a
DJ's hand. Active in the San Francisco Bay area since the 1980s, McGee
(tag name: "Twist") piles graffiti and other found imagery up the high
museum walls. Some of it is framed, cobbled together in a futile effort to
bring the excesses of consumer culture under control, some is unframed;
other parts are made from surfacing materials like vinyl floor tiles, bulging
out in five-foot-wide patches as if on the verge of bursting. Forces beyond
the wall with its skin of gesture and color, and the quality of moments
experienced just before the dam bursts, interest McGee more than the
imagery itself.

In Thomas Hirschhorn's 2002 "Cavemanman" [sic], the dam is already long
gone. A vision of the makeshift heart and essential homelessness at the
core of our civilization, it consists of caverns of cardboard and duct tape, tin
foil and philosophical texts, through which visitors duck and cover, getting
in touch with their inner refugee. Like a coronary-bypass procedure
conducted by a barefoot prophet in the bowels of a metropolitan dump,
Hirschhorn's work examines the damage and blockage of contemporary
energies, stripping veins from the arms and legs of philosophy and taping
them to the walls in desperate acts of homemade bypass surgery. Among
the most influential of contemporary artists, Hirschhorn's widely imitated
installations have helped to shove an aesthetic of outsider-like, manically
ramshackle construction into the mainstream of current international
installation art. His is a futuristic world envisioned not in terms of alternate
paths, but as a place where all roads are escape routes, tunneling beneath
an unseen but keenly intuited conflagration. Caught between the cold
breath of Celmins' eternity and Hirschhorn's secret-filled, roach-hotel-like
present, the embattled human spirit is pressed thin, like a movie alien,
already unrecognizable under our own skin. [Free Times, 1/6/2009]