Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Wise Follies

Alex Podesta
Distractions and Follies: New Finished Works in Progress
The Front, New Orleans

Alex Podesta    Detail Untitled (Paddle)
There are five sculptures in Alex Podesta’s current exhibition at The Front. Artists showing large work in one of The Front’s four small galleries must overcrowd the art in order to exhibit a body of work or support the concept of an exhibition. This show is an example. On one hand, I would have liked more space surrounding each piece, but on the other, the curatorial balance would have been offset by omitting even one of these sculptures. The larger, more complex pieces especially needed more elbowroom. The Front, the collective with what is arguably the strongest exhibition program in town, could really use a big exhibition space. But about the work…

In Untitled (Bat/Boy/Bunny) A boy's head with rabbit ears was mounted on the wall leaning into the room, a blank stare on his face. The boy/bunny was half-sheltered beneath a transparent umbrella held by a man-sized right hand. Near the hand holding the umbrella, another man-sized right hand held a wooden baseball bat. The boy’s head was mounted at a height notably higher than the viewer's. Move in close and the bat looms above you, but you won’t quite feel threatened. You will be partly but not completely sheltered by the umbrella. I couldn’t figure out the ideal proximity or approach to view this piece although, as I said, the space does not allow for many options.
Man as a human-rabbit, or human dressed as a rabbit, is a trope of the artist. I have seen Alex Podesta's work before and never really questioned the function of the rabbit suits (or rabbit-humans) because it made sense in the weird world of the work. But in this case, with this piece, I find myself asking, wait, why does that boy have rabbit ears? Maybe its because they are not realistic (like the antlers in Untitled (All Hands), another work in the show) nor do they resemble a fluffy bunny suit, which comes comically loaded. Unlike the other elements of the piece (except the neck on which the head is mounted) these ears retain the look of having been fabricated. They also add a detail that may, along with the other props in the piece, be one too many. Without the rabbit ears the piece might be effectively creepy. The ears make it feel like a joke that doesn’t quite land or the topical effort to make a creepy proposition less creepy.

In the end I felt like I failed to experience what I was supposed to looking at Untitled (Bat/Boy/Bunny), failed to "get it." It’s not that I need to understand a work of art, but I want to be convinced by its weirdness. 

Untitled (All Hands) is another human-animal hybrid. The boy is part deer. Its  body was made of plywood that retained the pencil markings and holes that alluded to the process of its making. The boy/deer is captive, tethered by a sheer white ribbon held loosely by two (human) hands mounted on the wall nearby. I diligently noted all the details: the posture of the hands, both the boy/deer’s and the captor’s, the fact that the face of the boy/deer looks boyish but the hands belong to a man not a boy, that the ribbon is not a rope or chain. I noted detail upon detail but the sum did not quite cohere, nor was I overwhelmed by its absurdity. I never lost sight that I was in an art gallery. 

The three remaining sculptures were fantastic in their pared down weirdness. 

In Untitled (Pointer) a hand points to a map in an atlas on the floor. The hand is connected to a smooth rail of spruce tapering upward to join a finger, slightly bent, resting on the wall or pointing to it. Or if you follow the logic of the map below, it may be pointing to some place beyond the top of the mapped earth, to some place  far in the universe. The finger below points to the coast of Louisiana. I guess I can see one more thing here that points to here. If its this good that is.

In Untitled (The Resilience of Charles Ray), two fingers rest on the image of a red easel on the page of a charcoal stained catalogue or book. The gesture of the hand strikes me as specific and personal. Maybe it’s the hyper extended index finger. This gesture also recalls an inverted pose of the hand associated with icons of saints. The hand is connected smoothly at the wrist to a piece of pine lumber, I think it's a 2 x 4. As it rises from the hand the rounded wood regains its square dimensions and has burned to charcoal toward the top. One might accept this burning as a destructive gesture but I see the making of a giant charcoal drawing tool. I wonder if the easel in the photo illustration is a piece by the sculptor Charles Ray (who also used found materials and cast body parts in his work). In spite of the potential of this rather minimal work to be a one-liner I find it expansive, encompassing the idea of artistic heritage and raising questions with the mysterious directive represented by the fingers on the page.

A mahogany and spruce paddle leaned on the wall, blade up; in place of its handle is a hand. In Untitled (Paddle) the hand points with or rests two fingers on the floor. The paddle itself is a beautiful object, the light and dark wood alternating symmetrically so that a long dark stripe (reminding me of Barnett Newman!) runs down the center of the piece. Paddles are prehistoric objects laden with symbolic potential. (I saw a photograph of one from 6,200 BC!) This paddle gives way to a hand. If you took this paddle and held it as if  to propel a boat one of your hands would grasp the object at its center and the other would hold... its hand. Hand/handle. (How is this pun not corny!?) Finally, as the blade leans on the wall the hand is pointing with those two fingers to what? To the floor? To the earth? This piece is concise and funny, mysterious and weird and I really like it. 

The title of the show is Distractions and Follies: New Finished Works in Progress. The first part, Distractions and Follies could refer to the absurdity of making art, any art, let alone this art with its sense of humor. Finished Works in Progress is a funny bit of exhibition rhetoric, an artist's joke. I am going to consider the work finished and these are my conclusions: I don’t really connect with the larger works but I might have in a different space.  As I said, my first awareness in the gallery was of material. We intuitively register sculpture in our bodies. Its physicality relates to our physicality. The two more elaborate works in this show steer me away from this physical awareness to a more cerebral processing. This is art. What does this art mean? What do I think about it? But the the three wall-leaning works are witty without being weightless, funny and yet somehow authoritative, slapstick but omonous. They are nice to look at, the fabricated, altered and found components in perfect accord with each other. They do not feel like amputations or morphed humans-objects. They feel complete in their corpus and purpose. They feel wise in their absurdity.

Alex Podesta  Untitled (The Resilience of Charles Ray)

Alex Podesta   Untitled (Bat/Boy?Bunny)

Alex Podesta   Untitled (All Hands)

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