The Forms and Absences of Everyday Landscapes

In the religion of architecture, space is the deity, or the guiding spirit. It is the mystical property by which architects want their buildings to be judged, it is that which, when it is truly great, transports them into rapture. The strange thing about space is that you cannot see it. Nor can you feel it, smell it, hear it, or taste it. It emerges out of proportions, lighting conditions, sequences, and landscape arrangements in ways architects can articulate only in form. Space is always implied. In truth, artists are often better at showing us great space that architects, and others, such as sculptor Richard Serra and light sculptor James Turrell, have made a career out of doing. Filmmakers such as Bertolucci or Kubrick are not bad at it either. Manifest Gallery tried to capture space when it sent out an open call, answered by almost one hundred a fifty “makers” of various sorts, for a group show they called “ARCH.” It was a valiant, perhaps even foolhardy attempt, though they broadened the call by indicating that space could also, somehow, be a medium. The mixed results are currently at view at the gallery until April 1.

The most conventional work is also the most boring. There are a few mediocre paintings and photographs that document the state of the art; they reproduce the world we inhabit in a manner that leeches specificity out of them, replacing reality with flat brush strokes and the perspectival correction either computer programs or good old lenses can achieve. In the tradition of Sheeler and Demuth, they continue to build the peculiar mythology of the mainly American vernacular landscape as a place of anonymity: mass produced forms, an absence of intricacy, and a sense that life has left these sprawling landscapes. In this world, Ana Martinez gives us a parking garage, one of the tropes of such documentary work, and Armin Muehsam shows us four foundations for houses, yet to be built in a gently rolling landscape.

Far better is Paul Baron’s Vent, which shows just that, in a flat, affectless manner that recalls the “new topography” work of Lewis Baltz. It gives us a sense of both the beauty and the lack of qualities, two aspects that perhaps go hand in hand, of the landscapes we move through every day without noticing. The strength of such work in general could be this, and I wish it had been a bigger part of the exhibition—namely to show us a world we do not notice, but which frames and shapes our everyday lives.

The strongest art in the exhibition is less documentary and more speculative. Jeff Slomba presents three works, none of them for sale, that explore the most archetypal element of that American landscape, namely the gabled house. Starting from what a child would draw as a home, Slomba elaborates this simple form into a cardboard Cluster of forms spiraling out from the wall, a cross sticking out of the top. In Subdivision, he draws the same form out into multiple whirlwinds that promise to blow us all to Oz. Untitled shows us what might be the vantage point from there, of a shingle-covered roof with dormer windows, flattened out onto a pedestal and seen from above. In Slomba’s delirious visions, the elements out of which we build a home in sprawl become unhinged and unmoored, leaving us to realize how un-rooted we are in that landscape.

Greg Stahly gives us two models of a Landscape Machine and a Plot. The former is the more elaborate, consisting of silos sitting on a fragment of a farm, though you could also see it as a refinery. Below, pulleys indicate that the vertical elements, the landscape, and a Plexiglas plane can move, while the MDF base that acts as a datum bulges down below. Instead of a background datum, this bit of made land becomes a machine, though its purpose is obscure. What remains is the skill with which Stahly has built, composed, and edited out details from his imaginary world. This is both a scale model of something that cannot be real and a sculpture that alludes to things that seem very real.

Felice Grodin’s Space 1A is equally enigmatic. The drawing shows a labyrinth of walls without ceilings or floors, intersected by fragments of what could be a three dimensional map (was that California in the lower left hand corner?) or just an abstract set of geometry whose main function is to contrast with the planes. It reminded me of Daniel Libeskind’s seminal Micromega drawings of the 1970s, whose accumulations of lines were supposed to exist sui generis instead of as built form in a culture in which the architect believed it was not only impossible, but ethically unwise, to build. Grodin’s drawings are less forceful and skillful (she didn’t have a team of talented students helping, I assume), but they have the same sense of proposing not a building, but reasons not to build.

Even more fantastical, but also more recognizable, is Erich Standley’s Either/Or Arch for Ipswich. It is an English Gothic stained glass window seen on acid and built out of paper. The forms are intricate, densely layered, and meticulously built up. The whole work of art vibrates with color and form. There is no space there, and there is none of either the abstraction and alienation or the distinct Americaness that defines so much of the other work. There is only the joy in making a transcendent vision, though without much of a hint at space.

Space, in fact, is difficult to find in this exhibition, not just because of that phenomenon’s nature, but also because this selection focuses so much on objects. These are not so much made spaces as abstracted, deformed, allusive objects. The power of “ARCH” is the tremendous power of observation and fabrication that has gone into the best pieces. It is this concentration that makes art out of the spaces we have made far outside of this valiant little gallery.

– Aaron Betsky

ARCH. Exploring Made Space at Manifest Creative Research Gallery and Drawing Center, 2727 Woodburn Avenue Cincinnati, OH 45206. T-F 2-7 p.m., Sat. noon-5 p.m. Through April 1, 2011.


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