Friday, January 12, 2007

Bonvicini at SculptureCenter

Though I hesitate to link to another Times article that will be read by so many, Holland Cotter's review of Monica Bonvicini's show (and a group show called “In Practice Projects”) at SculptureCenter is an exciting reminder that - with Roberta Smith and Michael Kimmelman battling for the chance to review each season's blockbuster shows - there is still room at the paper for brilliant writing about art emerging on the periphery.

Returning to the exhibition, Bonvicini, who works out of Germany, has become something of a darling at various biennials, installing works at the most recent events in Liverpool and Istanbul. While a lot of her work has been about (and built as) architecture, she's also worked in a variety of other media. Indeed, her large-format photographic work These Days only a Few Men Know What Work Really Means (1999), composed of gay pornographic images obscured by vaguely Baldessarian colored circles and text was instrumental in propelling her career forward.

Her piece on view at SculptureCenter, Built for Crime [pictured above], is - like These Days... - relatively conservative in construction. (Other interventions have involved constructing a new set of walls inside a gallery and building a gigantic, steel staircase between two floors.) A series of large glass letters have been cut out spelling the title and brilliantly bright lights have been inserted. Understandably, Cotter looks for the text's referent. What is built for crime? "[It] might describe architecture, or capitalism, or the big, expensive sculpture itself. It’s hard to say." All of the choices seem to offer interesting interpretations.

For Cotter, these are fundamentally socialist questions:
Few people — certainly few in the art industry — are interested in being pestered by such drearily old-hat Marxist questions. Ms. Bonvicini probably knows this, but she gets some fun out of asking them anyway. Her strong suit is being obstructive and annoying.
There's something else at play here, though. I (and I think most people) have tremendous difficulty viewing her architectural installations and especially Built for Crime (a sculpture that in both scale and subject approaches architecture) as "obstructive and annoying." They're fun, even alluring. In that respect she seems quite distant from the polemical Barbara Kruger, to whom she is most often compared, and closer to someone like Jenny Holzer, replete with ambiguity and not a little pleasure.

Kruger, Holzer, and Bonvicini are all clever sloganeers; they're also deeply dissimilar. For, while Holzer and Bonvicini traffic in uncertainty, Kruger tends to write with biting clarity, focusing on the political. Setting Bonvicini beside Kruger, it is difficult to fully endorse the former. Even if Kruger's work has become less subtle, her commitment seems commendable at a time of such national crisis, and her early works remain terrifyingly vital [see left]. In contrast, Built for Crime comes across as a cheap thrill, an irresponsible display of escapism. Indeed, all art begins to look that way. That may be Bonvicini's point.