When Is a Cat Not a Cat? When It’s a Sculpture

Today’s sculptors are working in a very expanded field

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Photo by Andrew Russeth
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Photo by Andrew Russeth
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Courtesy the artist and the Whitney Museum
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Courtesy the artist and 47 Canal
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Photo by Barb Choit, courtesy of the artist and Simone Subal Gallery
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David Muenzer, Coffee in the Office (detail), 2011, in "14 & 15" at the Lipstick Building
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David Muenzer, Coffee in the Office (detail), 2011, in "14 & 15" at the Lipstick Building
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Courtesy the artist and Callicoon Fine Arts
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Courtesy the artist and Untitled
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Courtesy the artist and the Kitchen
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Photo by Andrew Russeth
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Last summer, at the Cleopatra’s gallery, Sam Falls filled two vitrines with apples and worms to eat them away. He has also coated sculptures with different amounts of protective paint, ensuring that various parts degrade in sunlight differently. At the current Whitney Biennial, Sam Lewitt pours black ferromagnetic liquid over plastic and magnetic materials. Small orbs of the magical material, typically used inside electronic equipment, quiver in the air currents from two nearby fans. The piece evaporates, and new liquid is poured on once a week to refresh it. Thomas Kovachevich affixed materials to walls at two recent gallery shows (tape at Callicoon Fine Arts, in October; tape and grosgrain ribbon at Show Room, on view through Sunday) that change shape as humidity rises and falls. The changes sometimes take place at the institutional level: when the Grand Openings collective was in residence at the Museum of Modern Art last summer, German artist Jutta Koether splashed liquid glass on black wood planks that became paintings (her preferred term) when leaned against the walls, props for visitors to use during events or, at other times, sculptures on the ground of the museum’s atrium, not to be touched.

Even seemingly solid objects—sculptures in the most traditional sense—are coming unfixed. They are in motion, or could be at any moment. For a pop-up show at abandoned offices in the Lipstick Building in Midtown, David Muenzer molded Eero Saarinen tables out of hundreds of pounds of tempered varieties of chocolate. Visitors could break off a chunk and take a bite, and the tables eventually started breaking apart. David Adamo’s show at Untitled last May had sculptures emerging out of blocks of wood, a floor strewn with woodchips, as if the artist were still working. For her current show at the Kitchen, through May 6, Virginia Overton has scavenged various castoff items from its basement, wedging those (readymade) objects between walls. Gravity threatens to undo them at any moment. At her just-closed show at Alex Zachary Peter Currie, Lutz Bacher covered one floor of the gallery with sand, which shifted and spread throughout the show as visitors trampled it. And at Simone Subal Gallery, ostensibly straightforward Minimalist sculptures are, in fact, only half there: their maker, Frank Heath, has sawed them in half and mailed one section to nonexistent addresses, using the Lower East Side gallery as his return address. Will they return before his show closes on April 26?

So, we have delirious readymades, like Mr. Bader’s sculptures, which can be glib and smug (taking other artists’ work) but also ingratiating (those cats!) and goofy (burritos), as well as artists like Mr. Falls and Ms. Yi, who are interested more in transformation and degradation: their rotting fruit and dripping, cooking sculptures, respectively, seem to invite Proustian madeleine moments, webs of references, whether elegiac or blissful, sociopolitical or personal. The news release for Ms. Yi’s show cited WikiLeaks hero Bradley Manning, while Mr. Falls’s memento mori may call to mind abject moments—the bug in your salad, the worm in your Big Mac, the body wasting away under the ground. And then there are more traditional practitioners, like Ms. Overton and Mr. Adamo, who offer sculpture seemingly in the process of changing—frozen before a collapse or ready for a bit more labor. Often, these fields overlap, as in Ms. Lidén’s room of evergreens—readymades that gradually wasted away, and will be reborn soon by the collector that bought the right to make the piece again and again.

These artists have diverse interests—they are individual cases—but what their work shares is a clear demand for physical presence. It appreciates, even requires, repeat visits—a bit of your time—and it changes each time you go back. It tacitly acknowledges that, in an age when capital and information—to say nothing of art—are transferred effortlessly through virtual networks, there may be nothing more radical, more intoxicating and refreshing, as art, than tangible, physical objects for viewers to make sense of. Doing so may mean adopting a cat, eating a salad or taking a whiff of antidepressants.

It is going to be thrilling to see what comes next. What comes after—how do you improve on—two burritos in the sun, or a room full of Christmas trees? We’ll soon find out.

arusseth@observer.com

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