Transformers: Ambitious Installations Are Altering the Reality of New York’s Galleries

They’re all impressive, but are any of them good?

Just when you think you know what it’s doing, art has the nasty and endearing habit of veering in a completely different direction, turning back on itself and throwing you, Alice-style, down a chute into wonderlands. Consider: a Depression-era bank has time-traveled to ZieherSmith; a cavernous cruise ship casino has crashed into Gladstone; a rabbit’s warren of dingy, sinister rooms has displaced Marlborough Chelsea; and a suburban home has taken up residence in the Pierogi Boiler.

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What happened? Just a few months ago, the Whitney Biennial argued that the past decade’s excesses had passed. It celebrated modestly scaled art, exemplified by Andrew Masullo’s compact abstract paintings, K8 Hardy’s fashion photos and Vincent Fecteau’s cement and clay confections. That, as it turned out, was wishful thinking. The new season has delivered a bumper-crop of full-on, intensely immersive, gallery-filling installations.

Perhaps more pressing than the why (there’s space and money to burn, as usual), is the how, as in, how do you critically evaluate such all-consuming works, ones that replace galleries with fully packaged, 360-degree environments? If the key measure of quality is craftsmanship (the degree to which, like a haunted house, it disorients and convinces), Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe’s “Stray Light Grey” at Marlborough Chelsea—a retro-futuristic funhouse imagined by meticulous stoners—is the clear winner.

Marlborough’s floor-to-ceiling front windows are blacked out. You enter a tiny white-walled gallery that gives way to a cramped art-handlers’ office hung with posters from Marlborough’s glory days—Bacon in Zürich, Kitaj at FIAC in Paris. On a desk rests an untouched half of an everything bagel. As in Messrs. Freeman and Lowe’s 2009 show at Deitch Projects, whose centerpiece was a blown-out meth lab, a series of disparate, desolate rooms follow, one after another, often accessible through holes in walls. There’s a run-down bathroom with wallpaper in a funky, Bridget Riley-esque pattern, a dusty off-track-betting office, a store hawking improbable cakes with neon airbrushed icing, a wood-paneled library.

The duo’s zeal for detail is impressive—strawberry shampoo and mango and cocoa butter lotion in the shower, anonymous packaged products with brand names like Baudelaire and Picasso in a fluorescent-lit mall space. But ultimately it feels like the inverse of an IKEA product: as fun as it may have been to design and assemble, it doesn’t add up to much.

The surreal novelty of wandering through may provide a mild buzz, but it’s guaranteed to vanish on a second visit, especially if you’re an adept of the Freeman/Lowe experience. Though the installation is for sale, it feels like elaborate window dressing for the (more saleable) discrete artworks—gaudy sculptures (taxidermy, crystal), large generic abstract paintings (splatters of what look like minerals or Kool-Aid mix), those spray-painted cakes. Surely there has to be an easier way to move merchandise.

The problem with these nothing-left-to-chance installations is that they all end up looking vaguely similar. While Freeman/Lowe do have signature interests (drugs, sci-fi, the 1970s), one could be forgiven for mistaking “Stray Light Grey” for a piece by British artist Mike Nelson, who, five years ago, converted the Essex Street market into a maze of rooms, or Brooklyn artist Andrew Ohanesian, who has constructed bars and run-down row houses in art environments.

Mr. Ohanesian is responsible for that suburban house at the Boiler, in Williamsburg, which is just as meticulously constructed as the Lowe/Freeman playland, but a great deal more interesting. The details are pitch-perfect. There are cheap wood cabinets, a white stove and microwave unit, Dean Koontz and The Cider House Rules on the bookshelf, sliding doors in back and a palette rich in tans, beiges and browns. For anyone who grew up in a suburban setting, the piece evokes a bittersweet nostalgia bordering on déjà vu.

The home is a bit of a fixer-upper—some damage, and graffiti, is left over from a kegger that Mr. Ohanesian hosted to christen the show, which is called “The House Party.” (The gallery ended that bash after someone tried to light a couch on fire.) Like so many of the homes that now sit empty across the U.S., this one’s on the market, and can be yours for the median value of an American home at the time of purchase (around $217,000 at the moment).

Using a house to address the mortgage meltdown has the potential to be prosaic, but in Mr. Ohanesian’s hands it’s poignant. Economic troubles still linger, and we’re all a long way from taking responsibility for the havoc that was wreaked by invisible forces on these very real homes.

A financial crisis is also at the heart of Brooklyn artist Matthew Lusk’s show at ZieherSmith, “More Broken Glass Than There Was Window,” though it’s the Great Depression’s banking collapse. Using as a guide Arthur Rothstein’s 1936 photograph Bank That Failed—it shows a small-town bank against a barren landscape—he’s built a series of airy interiors that are impressionistic, rather than naturalistic. In other words, since it’s lacking an obsessive surfeit of ready-made details, one couldn’t really mistake Mr. Lusk’s artwork for an actual bank.

Canvas bags with dollar signs are strewn about, columns are overturned, and the vault door—a white ziggurat sculpture—has fallen from its frame. A fan labeled “Katrina” pushes a soda-bottle wind chime. A series of rooms house empty mailboxes, tables bearing blocks of sand and a black painting with a white grid. Mr. Lusk’s work charts post-minimalist art’s uncomfortable connection to architectural, even societal, decay. Though he comes dangerously close to fetishizing such ruins, moments of David Lynchian surrealism (a stuffed turkey, a secret room, a creepy Kienholz-worthy janitor closet) stanch any whiff of easy poeticizing. These are potent signifiers: it is a very American disaster that looms.

There’s no question Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn is fetishizing disaster in his epic exhibition at Gladstone. He’s recreated in loving detail the ostentatious casino of the Concordia ship that ran aground off Tuscany in January and tilted over on its side, killing 32. Chairs, orange life vests and streams of brown packing tape (his trademark) are everywhere. It’d be a joy to climb through, though Mr. Hirschhorn—who’s known for his winding caves—has made the rare decision to forbid us that pleasure. He’s taken an image of capitalist mayhem, magnified it a hundredfold and set it down right in front of us. It’s horrible, and beautiful.

Like Hollywood summer blockbusters, these massive spectacles can grate. How many monster-budget movies can you watch in a row? Thankfully one more room-filling piece is a perfect palate cleanser. At Murray Guy, New Yorker Zoe Leonard has effected a thoroughly captivating installation simply by placing a cylindrical lens into a wall, thereby converting a pitch-black room into a camera obscura. Light streams in from the street, and as your eyes adjust you see cars skimming across the wooden ceiling planks, and a towering new condominium splayed across the floor. She’s made an empty room feel completely, effortlessly full, and shown just how much can be accomplished with very little.

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