The Offal Truth: Stuart Brisley at Algus Greenspon; 'Proofs and Refutations' at David Zwirner

Once, during a serious conversation in a friend’s apartment, my friend’s 1-year-old son wandered into the room, listened to us

Once, during a serious conversation in a friend’s apartment, my friend’s 1-year-old son wandered into the room, listened to us talking, and then carefully squatted down between us and defecated on the floor. I forget what we’d been talking about, but I’ve never forgotten that final word.

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Since the 1990s, inspired by a reference in The Interpretation of Dreams, the English performance artist Stuart Brisley has been constructing a “Collection of Ordure.” Several prime examples of his collection–one is tempted to say “ripe,” but they’re odorless–are on display in the Village as part of a solo show at Algus Greenspon.

One example (also titled The Collection of Ordure) displays petrified turds, crumpled paper, bloody rags and latex gloves on a steel and glass plate. The objects form a gentle S-curve, as if they had been excreted en masse from the artist’s studio. The colors range from a deep bluish gray to an almost yellow sienna, and the shapes vary so much that you’re hard pressed to imagine what animals could have made them. But of course, the same animal made them all–using PVA, sand and papier-mâché. Intimations of Abfall, across the room, winds together eight heroically long corkscrews, black, brown and white, left over from some golden age when men were 30 feet tall with waste to match. They look as much like tusks or a colony of snakes as they do like ordure.

If art–or, indeed, our whole acquisitive economy–springs from a certain infantile impulse, this is one way to treat it. Acknowledge the fact directly, but sanitize it, satirizing dirt with perfectly wrought, odorless simulacra of dirt. And it works, as far as it goes.

But the other way–and the way that Mr. Brisley has followed in his performance–is to use real dirt, the dirtier the better. In 1972, he performed a piece in London called “And for Today … Nothing,” in which he lay in a bath of black water in a dark room filled with the stench of rotting, maggot-infested offal. The next year he made a video called Arbeit Macht Frei, which is playing behind the shit at Algus Greenspon. It is, incredibly, as shocking and difficult to experience as “And for Today … Nothing” could have been. A man vomits a stream of gray water; his head, submerged in water, writhes; it rises and sinks. The video is silent, but you can hear it in your chest.

You might think of mathematics as a regal, monolithic progress from truth to truth. If so, you are the audience for the late philosopher Imre Lakatos’ book Proofs and Refutations, a Socratic dialogue about geometry that aims to show the process of math as messy, dynamic, always incomplete and all too human. Just like art!

Curated by Philip Ording, from the Mathematics Department of CUNY’s Medgar Evers College, and Alexandra Whitney, “Proofs and Refutations,” at David Zwirner, begins with instructions. Henry Flynt’s Counting, a mounted plaque, tells you to count the pieces in the show; Dan Graham’s Schema (March 1966) tells you how to make a poem; and Adrian Piper’s Nineteen Concrete Space-Time Infinity Pieces is a piece that consists of ideas for pieces.

But maybe the formula is only a pretext, as in André Cadere’s Barre de Bois Rond (Round Wooden Stick). Mr. Cadere painted colored stripes on wooden sticks according to patterns he invented, but he always left one mistake in each stick. (He also used to leave the sticks leaning in corners of other people’s shows.) Man Ray’s Mathematical Object is a photo of an intricate geometrical model–but we care about the picture, not the thing. His aptly titled Much Ado About Nothing is a painting inspired by a similar model. Al Taylor’s Odd Vows (Bern), made of 13 delicate boards marked with letters of the alphabet and joined by long steel rods into a rough ellipse, seems, like an insect, as if it barely touches the floor.

Or maybe the idea is the thing, but not its content. Alfred Jensen’s grid of red, yellow and black dots is framed by the calculations he used to make it, and it doesn’t matter what they’re getting at, or whether they make sense, because they look good. Or maybe the idea is the enemy, as in Valie Export’s four Körperkonfigurations, black-and-white photos of the artist’s stiff body modeled against the straight lines of monumental architecture.

The truth is that the idea is, in the end, nothing. Sigmar Polke’s Lösungen V (Solutions V), a formal series of nine simple equations, from “1 + 1 = 3” to “1 + 5 = 2,” reminds us that if math points toward truths that can be broken down and defined, art points toward truths that cannot.

The Offal Truth: Stuart Brisley at Algus Greenspon; 'Proofs and Refutations' at David Zwirner