Two exhibitions on New York's LES:
Raphael Taylor at Louis B. James
Phillip Birch at Lyles and King
By JEFFREY GRUNTHANER, DEC 2015
On Orchard Street there's little distinction between a wall and a storefront. Like advertising signage, everything signifies and nothing is really present. It’s here that a gallery designated by a pseudonymous owner, Louis B. James, exhibited for about a month a single work by Brooklyn-based Raphael Taylor.
The show’s press release was on point: “Fashioned out of galvanized steel, this work's topological form is an iteration of a typical, commercially available suspended ceiling system. Like the manufactured ceiling itself, the sculpture features a parallel grid that spans the room from wall to wall.” Structured below the original ceiling, "CS-B" made the gallery’s lower-level, basement-like space even more compacted than it would normally appear. In many respects, it reminded me of standing on a subway platform. Apart from fluorescent lighting fixtures there was nothing to see, only the corporatized patterning of embossed squares on a ceiling.
Taylor’s work seemed to literalize the Lippardian phrase "dematerialization of the object.” But what made the exhibition contemporary was the sense of mediation that pervaded it. Using a single, machinic gesture—square lines cutting into galvanized steel at right angles—he recreated a semi-public zone as frighteningly oppressive as a corporate office.
"CS-B" was more design-like than anything else. It made you look up, but this aspect didn’t fall in line with any adverbial descriptions of height, having instead a suffocating effect. This wasn’t conceptualism, but a disclaimer on the impossibility of making work. The translation of a relatively private space into something public lent the show (which closed Nov. 29) the overtones of a privately owned public space. Such spaces abound in NYC—Zuccotti Park being just one memorable example.
In its deliberate repression of objects, "CS-B" shared decided affinities with Phillip Birch’s show, “Master Dynamic: Frontier,” which is exhibiting at Lyles & King (through Dec. 20). This show also has a deliberately corporate ambience about it. Only here the gallery becomes the simulacrum of a laboratory, where the body itself is an unrealized object.
"What is there? What is going on?" as Fairfield Porter might have asked. Birch shows us a body deprived of references, where the affective sensation of its organs—and by extension its own organicity, the mereological structure that localizes parts relative to the whole—is deprived of any spatial locus. Everything is arranged to resemble the way corporations might overtake the physicality of the body, by reducing it to an idea and then privatizing that idea. Prosthetic heads, advertisement-like video pieces, titles borrowed from Hegel (“Substance Becoming Subject,” etc.)—all of this takes on the stylized aspect of subjectivity dissolving into a branded universal, using digitally-inspired sculpture to this end.
Whereas Taylor’s show could be said to literalize the “dematerialization of the object,” Birch’s show concretizes the scientific intentionality of “the experimental.” With his overt use of video, the body, and objectivity itself, becomes something implied, something only half-realized, like film projected onto a day-lit wall. We’re left with a world full not so much of things or even representations of things, but ideas as commodities.
Both shows indicate modes of creation that are utterly contemporary, not merely regional. They collapse the divide between creation and innovation, simultaneously responding to and putting into question sculpture’s place relative to the business-model aesthetic imposed by digital mediation generally (hashtag: “the Internet"). The fact that they’re showing in New York has a particular resonance, as more and more artists encounter here a lack of any real space to develop works that correspond with new lifestyles. The artistry of Taylor and Birch asks to be known and studied similar to the way we examine archives or feats of engineering; and we should attend especially to how the artifacts they construct feel estranged from the "objectivity" of experience. WM
Jeffrey Grunthaner is a writer based in New York. You can find his work in BOMB, artnet News, Archinect, Imperial Matters, Folder, Hyperallergic, and elsewhere. His chapbook THE TTTROUBLE WWITH SUUNDAAYS was published by Louffa Press in 2014. He curates a reading series on contemporary poetics at Hauser & Wirth Publishers, West 22nd Street.view all articles from this author