When artists mine consumer culture for materials, the results often add up to a thin variation or “update” of Pop Art. “Performance Anxiety,” currently on display at the Chelsea-based Stadium gallery, is notable for taking a different approach. Whereas many young Pop artists work with a near absurd reverence to products and branding, the sculptors in this exhibition instead use the synthetic colors and odors of drugstore items like deodorant, mouthwash, and energy drinks to engage inventively with materiality and form. They focus on what artist Steve Bishop described in a recent interview as “the visual and personal language of produced things.”
Laying on the floor in the center of the room, Bishop's Î¦ IV (2011) features a reflective purple surface that at first appears solid. As people walk past, however, small ripples become visible; a closer look (and a deep whiff) reveals that its metal tray is in fact filled to the brim with mouthwash (Cinnamint Listerine). While the piece's simple geometric form (based on the golden ratio, after which the work is named), monochromatic surface, and placement on the ground evoke the minimal slabs of Carl Andre (more on this in a moment), its defining quality is actually olfactory, as the mouthwash's sickly-sweet odor permeates the gallery.
Looking up, we see Ben Schumacher's Blue Agave (2011), a 6-ft glass monolith standing upright and against the wall, kept in place by metal supports. Using a combination of window tinting and Vitamin Water, the artist creates a gradient effect in the glass, intended to recall “user-generated web 1.0 images” (although the effect actually seems closer to web 2.0 visuals). As in Bishop's treatment of mouthwash, Schumacher's interest in energy drinks seems to have less to do with their commercial connotations than with their physical properties — in this case, the artificial hues. Schumacher has explored this idea in the past with strong results (e.g., “Blue Demon”, 2010). Blue Agave, however, doesn't quite hit the same mark, as his choice of materials — the quality of the glass panels and, particularly, the introduction of the metal supports – produce confusing associations. For even if the supports were intended primarily to serve a practical rather than aesthetic function (as I'd guess is the case), they're too conspicuous not to play into our reading of the work; as a result, instead of early net aesthetics, the piece ends up evoking a shower you'd find in an upscale hotel.
That Bishop and Schumacher's works owe much to Minimalist sculpture is obvious enough; the question is, to what end? The curators tell us that the artists allude to Minimalism in order to highlight its regression from radical theory to preferred aesthetic of consumer marketing — an interesting idea, certainly, but not one that seems to apply to these particular sculptures. If anything, these works appear to have more to do with eliminating our associations with marketing and packaging, decontextualizing the substances in order to accentuate their intrinsic sensual properties. As such, adopting a Minimalist aesthetic is an effective strategy, as it serves not only to remove the artist's hand, but the advertiser's as well.
While the other artists in the show are similarly interested in the aesthetic potential of hygiene products, they forgo Minimalist reticence in favor of a more gestural approach. Christopher Chiappa's Speed Stick (2008), for example, recasts two sticks of said deodorant into a single arc, its packaging serving as an anchor at each end. Visually arresting and highly amusing, the work follows what has become the standard M.O. in Chiappa's work; he's previously given a similar treatment to beer cans (This Budweiser Cyclone) and cheeseburgers (McMiracles) (both 2011).
Most striking of all are the two works on display from Timur Si-Qin's “Axe Effect” series, in which the artist skewers bottles of Axe shower gel with swords and presents the results as messy, colorful sculptures. Supported by a sword rack or stuck into a pedestal, once installed, the pierced bottles are allowed to bleed onto the floor, creating pools of swirling neon chemicals that are actually quite beautiful. They call to mind the late-60's poured latex works of Lynda Benglis, an artist whose deep investment in materiality and propensity for confounding conventions of sculptural form and placement is echoed throughout the exhibition. Si-Qin's pieces are clever, bold, and above all, funny, from the shish kebab gesture down to the details (the garish camouflage tape wrapped around the sword handles, the smiley face trinkets dangling from the butts). Anyone who views art regularly knows how rare it is to find work that is genuinely any of these things, let alone all of them; even in a collection as strong and cohesive as this, the works stand out as especially effective.
This show marks the debut of both its gallery and its curator, the late NYC-based artist Nicolas Djandji, whose death prior to the project's completion left a group of friends to stage it in his absence. It's unfortunate that we won't have the opportunity to see Djandji develop in his newfound role as curator. There was clearly a lot of promise there, as his accomplishments with “Performance Anxiety” amply confirm.