I wondered why the two recent exhibitions at Paula Cooper Gallery's two 21st St locations — a show of Joel Shapiro's small bronze and iron sculpture and a typically subtle group show based on repetition — produced such a visceral emotional impact in me. I shouldn't have been surprised as this is the sort of art I REALLY get into: clean, minimal, cerebral, stuff that you can lock your gaze in and trail off somewhere else, art that is both somehow mechanical and entirely organic. But yet there I was, still feeling it after spending a good long while in each gallery. And it hit me: I was picking up trace remnants of some of my favorite Japanese horror films in the artwork. For real.
Allow me to explain: the Joel Shapiro show, composed of works from 1969-1979, is enough to throw you off-balance if you are fairly versed in the NY artist's oeuvre. His stacked block figurative sculpture tends to hit massive proportions, like his show of new works from autumn 2007 at Pacewildenstein. But this one recalls his first one-person exhibitions at Paula Cooper, when he displayed stark, bronze sculpture of familiar objects (houses, chairs, ladders) in extremely intimate scale. As in unsettlingly tiny. This spare installation of about a dozen pieces works off that. Yet each piece is twisted in such a way to creep you out: a barn-shaped house with wee doorways so you can peer inside to the enveloping darkness; a tree-root shaped like a beckoning claw; another house affixed to a slab of bronze, like a landscape coated in dingy metal; a shaft plunging off a shelf but w/o an opening. I knew what I was feeling: Hideo Nakata's 1998 shocker "Ringu", which sparked American interest in J-Horror and pale, long-haired girl demons. If you're scratching your head, recall the American remake the "The Ring" (dir. Gore Verbinski, 2002), which while freaky wasn't nearly as frightening as Nakata's original. Scenes of young Sadako crawling from the well, and the crude videotape of mom Shizuko in a barren landscape touched a chord with me, that Shapiro's minimalist figurative sculptures carried some sort of tormented spirits. Which is silly, but take a closer look at the figures, and don't miss the few tucked away in the project room: the house with one path extending out into space, this catacomb-like bookend... in the press materials he called these "a physical manifestation of thought in material and form", and their presence is certainly evident. I wonder if Nakata is familiar with Shapiro's works?
I had a more electrified experience across the street, at five-artist group show that is generally based around the gallery-tried-and-true notion of repetition. Beyond the earthy offerings from Carl Andre (coruscated wood slabs) and Sherrie Levine (six exacting unfinished ash Krate Tables) lies a stunner from Jennifer Bartlett, simply titled "Drawing and Painting" (1974). While the other pieces on display are made of wood (the aforementioned and Sol LeWitt's wild, painted-wood grid; Joel Shapiro's is a very wooden-appearing plaster), Bartlett's stands out both b/c it's a wall-piece, it's relatively colorful (blue and red, in addition to b&w), and it's her signature enamel and steel media. This 78-unit triangular composition calls to mind two pivotal J-Horror scenes: the 'lifeforms' computer program in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Kairo/Pulse" (2001) and a video surveillance scene in Takashi Shimizu's "Marebito" (2004). Bartlett's piece, read top to bottom, left to right, begins fairly clearly with a blank grid, then a slowly morphing polygonal shape, growing a fishlike tail (or birdlike wings) as it progresses left to right, and changing color from white outline to gray to black, then blue outline to blue, as you move downward. However, by the time the vibrant bluebird (or bluefish) interacts in its five-panel space, everything changes. The four-panel block beneath is a field of blue-red-black dots, signature Bartlett, like television static. What just happened? And the following three-panel block is jet-black, beyond a red circle here and there, then a bluish grid of two and a single fully blue square to finish. In "Marebito", the protagonist (wonderfully, idiosyncratically played by director/actor Shinya Tsukamoto) has installed a bunch of surveillance cameras in his flat. He's a cameraman anyway, but this seems a bit weird. He's been using them to monitor this nude animal-like girl (brilliantly played by young actress Tomomi Miyashita), who he rescued from the catacombs of Tokyo — like literally inside the hollow earth (choice reading here and here) — so she doesn't harm herself while alone in his flat. There is a scene like 2/3 the way through, where Tsukamoto's out and about and checks in on Miyashita, she's crawling about the room, moves towards the window, seems to be conversing w/ something/one outside then — the video screen goes blank for like 10 seconds, and when it regains power, she's sprawled on the carpet, convulsing. What the hell just happened? thinks Tsukamoto, and of course we the viewer. That's the rift in Bartlett's piece, this sort of regeneration and evolution that abruptly cuts off 3/4 of the way down, and what proceeds from there on is something very different. In the case of Kurosawa's "Kairo/Pulse", I'm reminded of this 'lifeform' computer program that mimics birth, death, regeneration and evolution via these flying pixels on a black screen. Characters Ryosuke and Harue observe it captivatingly, and all goes as formula intended until this fuzzy-edged spectre appears on the screen, devouring up the other pixels like an invulnerable Pac-Man, only scarier. What's left, eventually, is a black screen, empty save for the one odd, unwanted element.
At first blush, if you're not used to this style of minimalist art, you might think it can't hold your attention, that your eyes bounce straight off Andre's burnt-wood slab configurations, Levine's 'simplistic' wooden multiples, and Shapiro's discreetly tiny bronze figures. I dare you to linger and look a bit closer, and you just might be irretrievably tugged in, encouraging your mind to conjure up all sorts of memories and references to marry w/ what you're seeing. Which could just be proper J-Horror films.