Survival of the Fit | Art Review | Chicago Reader

Survival of the Fit 

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ASHLEY BICKERTON

at the Donald Young Gallery

New York artist Ashley Bickerton's latest sculpture is just the sort of work you would expect the Big Apple to export to its less glitzy neighbor. Many of these large floor and wall pieces, with their black leather, silver fasteners, and glass cases suspended by pulleys, look like a cross between torture devices and fitness machines. Concerned with ecological issues, Bickerton's sculptures reveal the victory of style over content in Western culture. They are simultaneously sarcastic, cynical, seductive, and hyper-sophisticated. In short, they are terrific.

On entering the Donald Young Gallery, you are immediately impressed with the way these nine works command the exhibition space, which is usually almost too imposing. The gallery's high ceiling, massive white pillars, and vast walls are more reminiscent of a federal building than a gallery. From the entrance, you step into a central space that opens into a gymnasium-size room to the left, and a smaller room directly ahead.

In the central space are two wall sculptures and a floor piece. At first glance the wall pieces, with their stacked-shelf arrangement of oddly assorted materials--organic, industrial, and "affluent" materials associated with leisure--are rather confounding. Wetlandscape #2 is composed of three tiered shelves supported by wire and pulley rigging. The bottom shelf is actually a length of red canvas whose edges are lashed to a black metal frame by white rope. Despite the pile of dried seaweed it holds, this bottom shelf so resembles a hammock or trampoline that you're tempted to scramble aboard. The middle and top shelves are shallow glass and steel cases; the middle holds sand, and the top, small rose-colored rocks. On the front of these cases, in white lettering, are the names of obscure places like Puukukui Mountain and Ngorongora Crater Reserve. The entire piece is crowned by a rolled-up black leather mat.

Because Wetlandscape #2 refers to places unfamiliar to most viewers, any direct ecological statement is eclipsed by style. But the look of its expensive materials--glass, steel, and leather--seems to mock our cultural preoccupation with affluence. And after all, our collective pursuit of the good life at whatever cost to the environment is precisely what has landed us in the environmental soup.

The other wall sculpture, Stratified Landscape #2, has a similar tiered construction. Again, the physical call of the sexy black materials and stacked shelves, which invite climbing, drowns out the protest represented by the pile of coral on the floor directly below and the seaweed inside the large canvas pouch just above it. This sculpture is figuratively as well as literally very black.

In the room directly beyond this space are two wall sculptures that clearly express Bickerton's cynical view of the present and pessimistic prediction for the future. As if to satirize our selfish culture, Anthroposphere #2 is deliberately obnoxious. A glass-and-metal case over eight feet long is suspended horizontally by pulleys and dressed in black leather with silver fasteners. Along its lower front edge a rolled black mat is secured by straps. As we look into this aquariumlike case, our own image is thrown back at us by the reflective back panel. The floor of this tank is littered with empty Kodak and Polaroid boxes (termed "studio garbage" in the show's title sheet); two black electrical fans, not running, have been cut into the left and right sides. As a final sardonic touch, four black-leather silver-trimmed bracelets encircle both ends of the black aluminum support bar above the tank.

It is conceivable that containers like this could someday serve as human survival chambers outside of which, like fish, we could not live. For the present, however, everyone who looks at this piece--who sees himself or herself in the mirrored panel--stands accused of ecological crime. So does the artist, who presumably produced the "studio garbage." The sarcastic edge can be seen in the slick, processed materials, the leather and glass, which tell the tale of nature's slow death. The predominant black and silver elements not only add an air of sophistication but bring to mind motorcycle jackets, lingerie, belts, and whips--the cliched paraphernalia of S-M. After all, isn't environmental destruction the ultimate act of sadomasochism?

The other piece in this room, Wild Gene Pool #2, is a strange and wonderfully imaginative work straight out of a Jules Verne story. It is a large, almost square case made of aluminum colored black by chemical coating. This coating gives the case an expensive and authoritative look that only industrial-strength budgets can usually afford. The front sports 16 round glass windows. Inside each of these portholes is a small pile of seed; the plant type is identified on the outside just below each window. Three black rubber-padded handgrips protrude from each of the case's sides, and mountaineering rope winds and knots its way through the 12 handles. This odd case seems designed by or for a deep-sea culture whose gene pools, no longer wild, need to be protected but could become dangerously inbred. It can't be an accident that this work has been paired with Anthroposphere #2, for together they tell a story of careless destruction and its effect on future generations.

In the main exhibition room to the left, daylight pours in through a huge glass wall facing the street. The softening effect of this light modifies the aggression of the four sculptures that dominate the room; the light makes their large size and coldly precise construction a bit less overpowering. Minimalism's Evil Orthodoxy, Monoculture's Totalitarian Aesthetic #2 is the show's most overtly vicious work. A row of six trough-shaped glass-and-steel cases are anchored to the wall by a crisscross of wire and pulleys. The lower half of each contains soil or a third-world export like rice or peanuts, while a black bag marked H2O hangs in the upper section. The sides of each case are labeled "Africa," "Asia," or "S. America." Underneath is the word "topsoil" or "monoculture." The physical sensation of weight, of these heavy suspended cases, makes the viewer aware of his or her body: I could imagine myself struggling to raise one of these weights, as one might when working out on a Nautilus machine. The idea of bodily exertion connects the fitness-machine construction and third-world agro-economics. In technologically advanced countries like the United States, thousands of people spend millions of dollars each year to subject their bodies to the luxurious torture of chrome-and-leather exercise apparatuses. Meanwhile third-world people toil all day every day to harvest export crops in fields owned by someone else.

At first it may be unclear what minimalism has to do with monoculture in this piece. A monoculture is a type of agriculture in which miles of only one crop is planted, which results not only in plants with less nutritional value but also in gene-pool depletion. Minimalism, with its characteristic method of construction--many repetitions of one form--is like monoculture, and consequently takes on similar connotations of impoverishment.

The sculpture on the adjacent wall achieves boldness and humor through simplicity. Catalog: Terra Firma Nineteen Hundred Eighty Nine is a series of 16 yellow fiberglass containers with porthole-shaped glass covers. The containers, arranged in four rows of four, are each crammed with a single organic or synthetic material, such as peppers or vacuum-cleaner refuse. Like Wild Gene Pool #2, this work has a decidedly anachronistic, underwater feel. It's as though these materials, so much a part of everyday life in the 80s, were archaeological samples gathered and stored by some future generation of ocean dwellers studying their vanished landlubbing ancestors. The comic relief provided by one cheese-curl-filled container is downright Shakespearean (think of the grave digger in Hamlet).

Bickerton's apocalyptic sculptures are simply too unique and energetic to be depressing. Inventiveness is crucial to survival, and humans are nothing if not inventive. To date, we have spent too much of our creativity on superficial pursuits, but we can and will make the changes necessary to our survival. Bickerton seems to advocate this change--his work functions as a mirror of our culture, revealing to us the guilty face behind the seductive mask.

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