Each Friday, our writers review a few choice (New York) gallery openings from the night before. This week is a bit change of pace—we’re diving into an exhibit instead.

Alex Da Corte, Chelsea Hotel No. 2, Running time 3.04, HD digital video, 2010, Music Leonard Cohen

by Elinor Case-Pethica, Staff writer

Alex DaCorte’s Chelsea Hotel No. 2 appears within his larger exhibition at Mass MoCA, “Free Roses.” The multi-room installation is visually overwhelming melange of pattern, color, mirrors, and dramatic lighting. Chelsea Hotel No. 2 offers something different to the show, it has a nostalgic air, and unexpected personal quality to it. Mass MoCA describes the work as “an index of Da Corte’s vocabulary of materials, colors, and processes.” There is more to it though—the work is built upon the viewer’s most visceral reactions; such as how we feel seeing dirty hands touching food, or liquids being spilled and things being squished, and all in a methodical and seemingly purposeful way.

Another recent piece by Saige Rowe at Bodega Gallery, Three Short Physical Movements Followed by a General Lull, produces a very similar effect. There are several major differences in the attitudes of the two videos, such as the level of theatricality—DaCorte’s work employs a musical soundtrack (Leonard Cohen’s piece by the same name) as well as a white backdrop as a stage that turns his eclectic cast of objects into icons. Rowe’s work has a more homespun aesthetic, set outside with the unfiltered sounds of birds and other ambient sounds picked up by the mic. This is not to suggest the piece is unsophisticated—much like Da Corte’s, every scene is deftly controlled both in terms of composition and color. In the words of Rowe herself, “Every moving pic is still a still.” Three Short Physical Movements Followed by a General Lull follows the progress of a vibrantly dressed character’s progress through a grassy yard, performing strange tasks and motions with a deliberate and almost chore-like attitude.

Saige Rowe, three short physical movements followed by a general lull, 2016

Both pieces bring to mind a phrase coined by German philosopher Immanuel Kant—purposiveness without purpose. What Kant’s phrase refers to is his idea that a successful artwork has the suggestion of a purpose being fulfilled, despite the purpose being unclear or unknown. The apparent functionality satisfies the mind’s desire for logicality, and creates aesthetic pleasure. This idea is key to the success of abstraction. When subject matter is removed, purposiveness must remain; when an abstract work appears random, it fails.  

In a medium such as video—dedicated to recording figurative appearances—what does abstraction mean? Abstraction is the removal of subject matter to favor process and formal elements. These video pieces explore the abstraction of real life—with nostalgia for the beginnings of abstraction and the explosion of feelings of artistic freedom and pleasure that came from releasing parameters in that way.

Da Corte and Rowe create a kind of traditional abstraction by removing context, narrative, and discernible purpose, while tightly choreographing color relationships, composition, and the visceral reactions of the viewer. In this way, both seem to share much in common with the familiar genres of abstract painting and sculpture. The two artists’ work becomes interesting, however, in how they tackle abstraction on a conceptual level. They question what abstraction looks like when the line between art and life is blurred and it enters into the world of the viewer. The ideas of photographic truth and formal abstraction have had surprisingly little crossover—Da Corte and Rowe’s exploration of this territory begins to pick at interesting conceptual issues in both.