Each Friday, our writers review a few choice New York gallery openings from the night before.
Approximately 199, pigment prints mounted on museum board
by Elinor Case-Pethica, Staff writer
The premise of this show is investigating the reality of borders and geographical divides. One of the most engaging elements of the show is a list, trying to answer the simple question, "How many countries are there in the world?” This inquiry boils down to establishing what one chooses to acknowledge as a country; United Nations members? Sovereign States? Groups with Olympic teams? Their own passports? This questioning of divisions and categorizations is an interesting point, raised throughout the work. In a day and age where nine out of ten Americans cannot locate Afghanistan or Iraq on an unlabeled map (despite U.S. military involvement in those countries for well over a decade), one must reconsider the true purpose of dicing up the world’s geography, and what the various ramifications of arbitrary divisions may be. The artist’s works address these ideas through a series of minimalist map and data-based pieces. The Geography of Love consists of two small canvases, each with a screen printed map of the world, covered respectively in small red stitches representing on one, “People I Love or Loved” and the other, “People I Could Love.” Another piece, Human Strokes, chronicles every foreign death reported in the media with a dab of acrylic on canvas and an entry in a journal.
The Geography of Love (People I Love or Have Loved/ People I Could Love), screen printed and hand-stitched canvas diptych
While the conceptual premise of Gros’ work is compelling and politically timely, many of the gestures she makes feel sloppy or random. In such a small, pared-down show, each move should have significance, or at least cohesion. The canvases are poorly stretched and rippling at the corners, and a number of elements feel like trailing loose ends. The uncomfortable lack of cohesion in Implicit Borders appears to be indecisiveness on the part of the artist as to how the work should be approached. It awkwardly straddles the subjective emotional, and the dispassionate statistical, without an indication of how it ultimately hopes to be read. Implicit Borders at first glance takes up the visual rhetoric of systems art, pioneered by artists like Hans Haacke. The show’s attempt to plot and present data as artwork and political exposé is reminiscent of Haacke’s 1971 piece, Shapolsky et al Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System, which documented and mapped the real estate holdings and rental practices of one of New York’s biggest slum landlords. Similarly to how the formalist art of the 60’s asks to be approached from a solely aesthetic standpoint, systems work asks to be approached wholly politically. This is not to say that political work cannot or should not contain allegory or poetics; Alfredo Jaar’s One Million Finnish Passports is similarly data-based and political, yet contained entirely within a single metaphorical gesture. Where Implicit Borders stumbles and ultimately fails is in using data’s cold presentation format to present ‘emotional’ content, without putting any significant metaphorical—or, to be blunt, artistic—spin on the information. Despite falling short of any kind of meaningful institutional critique or emotional eloquence, the show’s focus on issues of national identity and the methods used for grouping and quantifying human beings is laudable. It is heartening and reassuring to see the politicization of art occurring at any level, as a sign that artists and gallerists are engaged with the outside world and hoping to enact change through art.
Alfredo Jaar's One Million Finnish Passports, passports