March 2009, Sites @ The Whitney Museum

March 2009, Sites @ The Whitney Museum
Alice Aycock: Untitled (Shanty), 1978, Wood, 54 x 30 x 30 inches,Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Raymond J. Learsey, Photo: Geoffrey Clements, Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art, New York


Sites at the Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10021
February 19 through May 3, 2009 
As the world economy continues to unravel, the question on top of everyone’s mind is, where will we all go from here? Sites, at the Whitney Museum of American Art takes a leap into the void with a selection of sculptures, drawings, paintings and video that collectively seek direction and definition.  However as place and identity hang in suspension, this exhibition renders a larger experience as opposed to a collection of objects. In fact Sites, reveals that as early as 1951 artists began looking beyond the physical limits of the blank, stretched canvas and into the depth of landscape by exploring its emptiness, density and random shifts. 

Rachel Harrison’s Woods Road, (1996) quietly opens this low-key exhibition and stands as a 6-foot tall, 2-foot wide mixed-media sculpture that frames three photographs within three different types of wood veneer surfaces. Each image focuses rather voyeuristically upon the daily life of an elderly woman pushing a shopping cart throughout her small but congested neighborhood.  Although the artist captures an abbreviated journey, arranged in the shape of a triangle, the synthetic wood surfaces not only speak to the artificiality of the moment, but also serves as a socio-political metaphor of the lower middle class. 

The circuitous direction established by Harrison juxtaposes strongly with Alice Aycock’s monumental Untitled (Shanty). (1978) Made primarily out of plywood, Aycock constructed a tall, narrow tower framed by a perfect circle, attached in the back.  When seen from afar this piece not only renders the symbols of peace and anarchy, but it also carries suggestive sexual overtones.  The vertical and horizontal lines found throughout both structures give way to a series of drawings that engage space upon the flat, drawn surface in an attempt to work with the context of erosion. 

This endeavor turns into a challenge once it becomes clear that landscape is far more subjective through its material. Claes Oldenburg’s Proposal for a Building in the Form of a Colossal Flashlight in Place of the Hoover Dam, Nevada, (1982) captures the sturdy form of a monolithic flashlight, seemingly anchored and unmoved. However as the handle lays across the edge of a reservoir, water trickles forth from the light source at the other end suggesting an alternate form of energy. Mud Flow, (1969) by Robert Smithson is far less technical and depicts a mass of brown soil oozing forth from a hillside, sketched in black. 

Place becomes a series of connecting shapes in Fred Sandback’s Untitled. (2001) The artist’s rendition of juxtaposing, perpendicular lines piece together a series of architectural-like compartments that suggest depth, height, and width while appearing very flat at the same time. Similarly, The Location of a Circle, (1974) by Sol LeWitt seeks the pictorial definition of place. As part of this drawing, the artist included a lengthy description within the right margin that identifies a circle as a form, which emerges from a series of juxtaposing and intersecting lines.  This meditation upon pure geometry continues in the sketch and maquette of Ronald Bladen’s Flying Fortress, (1974-78) which translates lines into physical elements that push the boundaries of balance within a free standing form.

Additional pieces like David Smith’s Hudson River Landscape, (1951) and Agnes Denes’, Isometric Systems in Isotropic Space-Map Projections: The Doughnut, (1979) attempt to represent as much physical space as possible without appearing too abstract. However Doug Aitken’s 8-channel video, Electric Earth, (1999) depicts a multi-faceted state of mind. For Aitken, space first exists as a home where a young man seeks time to dream, sleep and watch television. Site becomes even more experiential as the viewer moves outside with the subject, whose body wakes to dance music and moves freely along the city sidewalks at night. After moving past an empty laundromat and parking lot, the dancer’s hands extend to the sky, reaching out to an airplane overhead before a series of intense dance movements, and loud rhythms, camouflage with the specter of city lights. Sites, cuts across various media and preserves the concept of three-dimensional space as an ever-changing but subjective moment, one that remains completely new.

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Jill Conner

Jill Conner is an art critic and curator based in New York City. She is currently the New York Editor for Whitehot Magazine and writes for other publications such as Afterimage, ArtUS, Sculpture and Art in America.  

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