Adam McEwen: Switch and Bait at Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery
Offsite Location: 520 West 20th St.
New York, NY
March 5th through April 18th, 2009
On a particularly dreary section of the south side of west 20th street between the Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Anton Kern Gallery, just down the street from the NYC minimum-security jail, is a seemingly empty warehouse with signs for lease. The large glass windows and doors are painted sloppy white on the inside, as if a mop was used for a brush. They prevent passersby’s from looking inside, and convey an illusion of vacancy. If one wasn’t aware that Adam McEwen’s current exhibition, Switch and Bait was on display here, in the space rented by Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery, he or she would most likely just keep walking. The appearance of the space, camouflaging as a vacant warehouse waiting to be leased, functions as a readymade component of McEwen’s exhibition. Whether or not the space was presented with painted windows before or after Nicole Klagsbrun rented it, this is an integral element of the exhibition. It conveys a sense of being “out of business” and in doing so it mimics the closed and otherwise unrented storefronts, shops, and galleries that are becoming more prevalent all over the city.
In the form of retail sales fraud known as “bait and switch”, customers are lured by services or products advertised at a rate much lower than standard market value. When the customer is in the sales showroom, the advertised good is said to be unavailable, or a very low quality item is presented, such as a car with no extras. In the face of the customer’s disappointment, another higher-quality, more expensive good is offered, and the customer is duped into making the purchase. The bait is usually presented in some sort of ad - often in the window. For McEwen’s exhibition, as stated in the reversal presented by the title, there is no advertising, no signage to lure people in. There are no flashy items, no low prices advertised. One has to know the exhibition is here to enter and find the bait. Potential buyers walking by get only the switch, the appearance of unavailability, without even realizing it. As the exhibition has been running for a few weeks now, the gallery has taken to keeping the door open. Perhaps this is an indication that the trickery involved in the switch is working too well.
Opening the glass door, one is confronted with what appears to be a large bare, unfinished space that stands in stark contrast with other spaces in the neighborhood. For just a brief moment, the emptiness asserts itself above all else. Then you look up. The ceilings are quite high; probably at least 14’. On them are mounted halogen floodlights, which cast down on sculptures that are hanging just over viewers’ heads. 45 fluorescent light fixtures dangle from small chains. On each fixture, an identical replica of a fluorescent bulb is mounted; but the bulb is made of solid, machined, silver-black graphite. The effect is immediate and powerful. In place of the artificial, nauseating blue or yellow-white luminosity that would normally be cast by 45 lights, we have instead darkness and density. It is a field of darkness that seems to draw everything in the large room up into it. The metaphorical lightness of electrical light is switched for something heavy, graphite. The weight of the material presents another inversion, in that it’s suspended in the air.
In addition to the visual and psychological responses to the work, it’s worthwhile to consider other associations inherent in switching mercury-gas filled glass bulbs with solid, machined graphite. Graphite is a semi-metal. Like diamond, it is an allotrope of carbon. Unlike diamond, it is an electrical conductor, and can be used in an arc lamp. Graphite can also be ground and used as a very effective industrial lubricant. The name graphite is actually derived from the Greek γραφειν (graphein), which translates “to draw / to write”. Graphite is a common drawing material. In this room the graphite “draws” our attention to it, as well as appearing to draw the ambient light in the room into it like a black hole. Another type of drawing is referred to in the next room.
Walking through this large gallery towards the back, there is a doorway to a smaller gallery on the left. The room is empty except for a traditional sculpture pedestal in the middle with a small black object on top. The object is a replica of an American Express credit card with Adam McEwen’s name. Like the light bulbs, this object is made from graphite. The card conjures different types of drawing, drawing on one’s account, one’s credit. It is impossible to look at this card and not consider the current economic situation we are in. The experience of walking into any gallery is a retail experience, even though most of us who walk in to galleries are not doing so to make a purchase. The credit card serves as a reminder of this, that our gallery experience is dependent on series of exchanges that are now in danger. The title of the exhibition, the presentation of the front of the gallery, and the work itself combine to present a somber reflection of the inevitable effect of the economic crisis on the art market.
Chris Kasper is an artist/teacher/writer living in New York City.
He holds an MFA from the School of Art at Yale University and completed the Independent Study Program of the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2006.