Much of the benefit of viewing art — whether or not we necessarily 'get it' — is the emotional feedback it provides. Besides the recurring fear of head-scratching bewilderment at this season's most popular neo-Conceptualist or what-have-you, there is the reward of calming meditation, of gentle bemusement, of occasional revulsion and hopefully more commonly joy. I sense much of the above (minus the revulsion) at two ace group shows concurrently in West Chelsea, the stellar "\ (Lean)" at Nicole Klagsbrun (ending Saturday the 24th) and "If My Soul Had A Shape..." at Paula Cooper Gallery (through the beginning of May). Both focus their roster of artists on deceptively simple means: stuff that leans, in Klagsbrun's case, and shapes in Cooper's. You can't get much more apparent than that. In fact, a show based around, oh a color for example, I could see becoming extremely fussy. And it's not that the artists in both shows are inherently minimalist, either. (though we do get some of that, it's definitely not a prerequisite for inclusion)
Stuff that leans. It's a brilliant notion. Art that isn't meant to be hung or rest on its own, like on a base or suspended from the ceiling, may need to be propped up against the wall. That's what the 20 artists in Klagsbrun's show achieve — all except Bas Jan Ader, whose action photograph of his falling (you could call it leaning, since it's frozen in time) appropriately sets the bar and is the oldest piece on show. The 1st thing you'll probably see upon entering the gallery is Nari Ward's visceral "Fourteen Burnt Bats with Ironed Cotton (2 Weeks)", an earlyish work from 1993 (N.B. don't miss Ward's fab solo show at Lehmann Maupin, ending THIS Saturday). The scorched bats w/ matted streaks of cotton embody an unsubtle violence echoed in Ader's tumble to the earth. And w/ the gallery lights casting sharp bat-shaped shadows against the wall and floor, akin to prison bars, it produces an unnerving vibe that I didn't mention in the opener but is essential to a piece meant to make us think a bit harder.
The side gallery just off Ward's wall features my favorite pieces in the show, led by Robert Gober's drawbridge-sized "Plywood", a bit of a chestnut itself in its 1987 date. Now Gober is noted for his lovingly crafted pieces that closely resemble one thing (a banged up paint can, a bag of kitty litter) but are another (painted wood, usually) — though these tend to maintain the artist's handiwork, so while they are quite realistic there is still evidence of his methodology there. Well, pardon me but "Plywood" looks exactly like plywood, like a sheet of the stuff one finds at Home Depot in great fragrant stacks, wood's workhorse. I don't work closely with the stuff to tell the difference between the real deal and Gober's piece (which is laminated fir, by the way), let alone Grades A-D, but he's achieved something sublime here. Once again Gober takes a lowly material, an essential ingredient in construction, elevates it w/ his detailed craftsmanship, and has the work leaning against a gallery wall just like any other 4x8' sheet of plywood. It's quite fascinating — and funny to note, too, that another work in the show that uses actual plywood, "UFO" (2002) by John McCracken, resembles nothing of the sort. In McCracken's usual prismatic way, the resin- and fiberglass-augmented "UFO" comes off like a teal-colored, glossy, thick rectangle. Susan Collis elevates her subjects too, with precious materials as much as attention to detail, so her block of wood entitled "The sum of my parts" (2008) glimmers with 18-carat yellow gold (screws), amber, black diamonds, smoky topaz, and a trickle of mother of pearl. The other tricky element in this room, carried out into the larger gallery, is this unexpected vein of minimalism from artists whose modus operandi isn't quite that. I'm referring specifically to flocking, seen in Keith Sonnier's new "Stock Prop" (2010), a Pepto-pink polystyrene and flocking puzzle piece, and Mary Heilmann's wicked "Sculpture of Night" (spanning 1968-2007), which could in some instances reference a Richard Serra prop piece, only this one is made of styrofoam and bamboo w/ a black nylon flocking throughout. Now, I know Sonnier quite well for his neon-incorporated sculpture. I mean, he just had a show of new works at Mary Boone Gallery, his 'Oldowan Series', and if anything the man is known for his inventive use of twisty neon. Same deal for Heilmann, whose admittedly varied abstract paintings (whether psychedelic and color-field or geometrically abstract or palette-reductive) always echo her and only her. Though there is a certain softness to "Sculpture of Night", and not just due to the flocking: it's this, plus the wavy stick supporting the styrofoam form high in the air, that carry Heilmann's essence, lightening up what w/ different materials could be construed as a weightily dangerous work. And like I wrote above about the shadows in Ward's work, it's interesting to look at these pieces from the side to see the interplay w/ their shadows and how certain ones (the misshapen cloud of styrofoam, courtesy of Richard Tuttle) belie their respective masses.
Eight artists at Paula Cooper arranged by shape: square, rectangle, triangle, circle, squiggle and squircle (the latter two sound appropriate to Sol LeWitt, on display here, w/ his vernacular of 'not-straight lines', though only squiggle is attributed to him). The categories (I think w/ the exception of 'squircle') stem from Dr. Susan Dellinger's 1978 comments on the psycho-geometric test, where each shape acts as a broad definition of who you are. This is fun enough, but I missed the Dr. Dellinger placard at the front desk the 1st time I visited the show, and I had a blast anyway. The psycho-geometric test isn't essential to enjoying the art — though, for posterity, I am either a 'circle' or a 'triangle', no surprise there, if you read the words attributed to Dr. Dellinger. I should note, too, that the exhibition title actually comes from a Pavement song, "Blue Hawaiian", which is exceedingly cool. As the lyric goes, according to the gallery write-up: "If my soul had a shape, then it would be an ellipse." The piece I was magnetically drawn to, in this array of fine works, was Kelley Walker's four-part "Circle in circle" from 2006, cast-chocolate 'disco-balls' (that's my description), in degrading diameters of 24", 20", 16" and 12", respectively, suspended from the ceiling via chains and spinning in tandem like satellites locked in tidal motion around an unseen planet. The piece neatly bisects the room, coming at it from an angle as it were, dividing the other two heavyweight standing pieces in the room, both newish works by Carl Andre. These include my other favorite work, the seductive and somehow soft-textured "Base 7 Aluminum Stack" from 2008, composed of 49 powdery aluminum ingots in a sort of low pyramid. As much as I dig Andre's aluminum-related floor pieces, slabs of the material on the gallery floor, there is something resounding in this array, in its casting to resemble gold bars while remaining a utilitarian multi-use metal. I could tangentially compare this to the Gober piece at Klagsbrun, the prelation and celebration of a pragmatic medium. The other Andre, "3x11 Hollow Rectangle", from the same year, is a self-descriptive arrangement of western red cedar timbers that could be either a deep grave or bathing trough, depending on your inclinations, but it smells wonderful. Compare with the fine Meg Webster "Contained Asphalt" (1988) near the front desk, a tall glass triangular prism filled to the brim with bits of bituminous asphalt, which smell like the roadwork that just concluded on W 23rd St. (cheekily incongruous to some of Webster's delicious-smelling spice-on-paper works) Webster's piece also, in my opinion, throws a wrench in Dr. Dellinger's neat five- (or six-) shape hypothesis: is it a triangle? (meaning the container, as the asphalt itself has a notably irregular shape) Hence, no need to stress over the shapes; enjoy for what they are. And do not miss the coup de grace here, the Donald Judd "Untitled" work (1962-90) in the side gallery, a tangerine-colored squarish plywood block, enhanced on the front w/ a dermal-like sandpaint surface and, in the center, a lustrous glass circle. This might be that dodgy 'squircle' as described in the psycho-geometric test, the "unusual individualist who could not fit into a niche of his society". Considering Judd's hallmark art processes — industrial fabrication, use of humble materials (plywood, plexiglas, aluminum), eschewing representation and categorization — and the many artists he inspired and influenced, I could find this definition apropros.
(many thanks to Nicole Klagsbrun and Paula Cooper Galleries, respectively, for permission to run the above photos)