Paper Goes Gun Crazy: Sarah Frost at PPOW; Hannah van Bart at Marianne Boesky

4 frost  arsenal det  Paper Goes Gun Crazy: Sarah Frost at PPOW; Hannah van Bart at Marianne BoeskySome boys like to make ships in a bottle. But some, apparently, prefer to make endearingly disturbing replicas of assault rifles, bazooka shells, pistols and guns from the video game Halo out of copier paper and Scotch tape. They post instructional videos on YouTube and sometimes adapt their guns to shoot conical paper blow darts. Sarah Frost, who stumbled onto this subculture in the seedy New Year’s Eve party that is the Internet, replicated dozens of these replicas as an installation called “Arsenal.” After a first appearance in St. Louis, “Arsenal” is now in New York, filling the front of PPOW Gallery with a frozen explosion of sanitary, ash-white death.

The weapons hang from just under the ceiling down to the floor, forming two sheer walls to either side of a diagonal aisle. Everything is in the most aggressive possible position: Bayonets point up, shells point down and machine guns sit ready on tripods on the floor. The blood grooves on the bayonet blades look embossed, but there are few other immediate traces of the artist’s hands. Ms. Frost falls in with the boys’ desire to make perfect copies of their various Platonic forms of military force and fantasy murder. And while her weapons exhibit a precision surpassing what an ordinary teenager might be capable of, in principle they are scrupulously restricted to what he could do. There are no esoteric glues or secret sculptor’s tricks, only the corners, barrels and curves that can be made by folding, rolling and patient monomania.

The place where the method breaks down, and consequently the only place where a glimmer of vulnerable humanity is revealed, is in the triggers. Too small to be constructed three-dimensionally, they are sad, fragile little tongues of paper one sheet thick. It’s only too perfect that it’s the point where the weapon intersects with its operator that’s the weakest: We’re not using them. They’re using us.

The weapons’ whiteness is also perfect. When Melville wrote about the color’s eerie horror, 150 years ago, he saw it in the natural world; now, as the color of cigarettes and deodorants and Photo-Shopped celebrities, it’s only more horrible. It is also, of course, the nominal color of the people who have flooded the world with real black rifles that shoot, and “Arsenal,” which is of variable size, could easily be expanded to fill an embassy lobby in Brazzaville or Kinshasa.

For her third show at Marianne Boesky, Dutch painter Hannah van Bart has shifted her inspiration from memory to photography, using found images to create moody, cartoonish oil portraits that burst sideways from gray into deceptively bilious color.

The male figure in Reservation, the act or process of keeping back faces the viewer in a pose that could be called business-classical, but has whiffs of mug shot and typology, too. On his face, between prominent ears, is a look of gentle, self-conscious fear, but what’s most noticeable is that he becomes less concrete from the outside in. Ms. van Bart surrounds him with a hard black outline, as if to say, “Here is a person, and no further.” The algae-green color of his suit is actually a network of defensively bright lines over gray, while his ears and features, without black outlines, seem unfinished and soft. The mustardy suits of the identically dressed brothers in Connected bear similar black lattices, and The Poet’s lime suit and white collar are so sharply outlined they look almost flat. It’s hard not to read these glowing silhouettes as an on-the-nose comment about the restriction and inflexibility of social roles.

The freer her subjects’ features, the more moving they are. Woman, whose green and yellow sweater set glitters like a house with fading paint, has a pair of blurred gray eyes drifting across two black ones, and a bare nose and shimmering orange lips that float off center. Here is a soul we can look into–but in large part it’s because the contrast between body and clothing isn’t being so heavily played.

The false precision Ms. van Bart is arguing against is a bit of a straw man. With a pencil, dichotomies make sense, because any line also acts as a border, and because a drawing is chromatically dichotomous–literally black and white. With a painting, however, as soon as you pick up a brush, you’ve made your decision. This may be why Girl, the lone drawing, holds its own so strongly against a show full of paintings. Here the broken lattices of shirt and face, the clean white collar, the pale, smudged forehead and the soft lines of graphite-blond hair seem like the one best way of constructing a portrait of something both spirit and flesh–a human being.

editorial@observer.com