ITALIAN ARTIST LARA FAVARETTO’S EXHIBITION AT MoMA PS1, “Just Knocked Out,” delievers one knockout: a 2012 work called Gummo that is made out of five tall car-wash brushes in black, gray, blue, red and umber. At rest, the brushes look like tall, hairy phalli, and when they spin they expand like the frocks of whirling dervishes. Over the course of the show, which opened May 3, they have been wearing down their bristles on a slab of iron on the wall behind them, and a fine layer of dust has accumulated beneath them. It is an intoxicating sight, all that energy being used for so little return—and also an apt metaphor for the show.
Unfortunately, most of Ms. Favaretto’s installations and sculptures engage their ostensible subjects—entropy, loss and decay, and the ways in which we ascribe meaning to objects, whether paintings, confetti or industrial materials—in only the most superficial ways. The pieces, not helped by the show’s spare layout, come off as bad one-liners.
The show was organized by the museum’s curator Peter Eleey, and includes works from the past 15 years, though the majority of them are new. Many read like a not-too-clever parodist’s take on conceptual art, pairing obvious and derivative ideas with unfortunate titles. Plotone (Platoon) (2005-ongoing) consists of 60 tanks of compressed air set in rows that randomly take turns activating party blowers attached to their nozzles. Sunnyside (2012) is a cube of tightly packed green confetti that, over time, sheds. Tutti giu per terra (We all fall down) (2012) is a group of industrial-strength fans that take turns sending plumes of multicolored confetti through the air.
Part of the problem is that Ms. Favaretto seems to specialize in minor tweaks on established formulas. That Sunnyside is a near-exact copy of a sculpture that Tara Donovan made in 2001 out of toothpicks—it also slowly comes apart over time—almost makes one think she is intentionally presenting worn-out forms as a sort of commentary on the exhaustion of post-minimalist motifs (could Platoon refer to Robert Barry’s 1969 “Inert Gas” series?).
Her work with institutional critique suggests a measure of sincerity. Your Money Here (2008) is a small silver plaque that has those words engraved next to a mailbox-like opening. It’s true that museums are like businesses, but it’s also true that artists have been making this point in more interesting ways for at least 40 years.
For another bit of critique titled Di Blasi R7 (2012), Ms. Favaretto rode that model of motorbike around a gallery periodically over the course of a week, streaking and damaging the walls when she crashed into them. It’s the latest in a long line of formulaic attacks on the white cube, but one that has a touch of humor as a satire of larger, more macho motorcycle-streak artworks by Aaron Young. For the most part, though, her work is just bombastic.
WITH ANOTHER EXHIBITION, however, PS1 has a clear winner on its hands. Esther Kläs’s sculptures are exemplary of a current trend among young artists: making artworks that look beaten up and damaged, like ruins or relics. The German-born Ms. Kläs is one of the best at using this precarious, battered language of raw materials and hands-on craftsmanship, and Mr. Eleey has wisely put on her first solo museum show in the U.S.
Ms. Kläs’s most iconic pieces are probably her rough-hewn abstract totems made from materials like Aqua-Resin, concrete and HydroCal. They are human in scale, generally rising to around six or seven feet in height, and appear to change as you circle around and examine them. Wisps of alluring colors and textures gradually reveal themselves; the effect is almost sensual.
(F) (2012) is a vivid lavender totem that leans just slightly to one corner of its base. Its surface seems to burble with gestural strokes and bumps that she worked into the Aqua-Resin. Toxic-looking greens and yellows hum along beneath the surface, perfect complements to the bubble-gum pink of the plank she has propped on a thin, upright slice of plywood for hold (ex. 1) (2012), in another gallery.
The purposeful imperfections in Ms. Kläs’s works disclose how they were made—a refreshing, humble gesture. At the center of each of the pieces called (1-4) (2012), she has scraped away some of the grainy concrete (speckled with bits of colored pigment that she mixes in before sculpting) to show the wire mesh that supports them. The piece’s modest poetry implies a broader question: How is anything held together?
A FEW MILES SOUTH of PS1, in Brooklyn Bridge Park, Paris–based artist Oscar Tuazon offers sculpture on a far grander scale in his Public Art Fund-sponsored exhibition “People.” It looks like a team of park planners fought while conceiving the three sculptures: each combines a different dead, standing, bare-of-leaves tree with architectural elements.
For People (all works 2012), Mr. Tuazon attached a basketball hoop to one of the tree’s branches and pushed up against its trunk the concrete wall of a handball court. It is absurdist, rather than functional: because the construction is surrounded by gravel and next to a walking path, visitors would be hard-pressed to play traditional versions of those games. A Machine is a sort of dysfunctional fountain: a tall tree with a pump hidden on it, slowly leaking water down its trunk. The Rain’s tree sprouts through a concrete cube.
Over the course of the nine-month exhibition, which opened in mid-July, these pieces will degrade, the trees decomposing and, in the process, becoming even more dramatic anomalies in the otherwise lush park. They are reminders, amid the park’s careful architectural order, of the failed and contested uses of public space.