Guide for the Perplexed

In the main space of Steven Wolf Fine Art’s gallery are three objects positioned on a blanket of sawdust. One is a little structure of wire mesh. Angled toward it are two hollow cubes, painted gray. Chicken feathers are scattered haphazardly about. The gallery owner peeks his head out of the office asking if I have any questions. Yeah, a fair few actually.

I usually like to walk into an exhibit with the slimmest notion of what I’m going to encounter other than my initial curiosity about the few preview images that show up on an event listing or gallery website. I especially tend to ignore completely any kind of theme that has been imposed upon a group of artists exhibited together. Only after looking for a bit and making several return trips to something I found interesting do I turn to the signage or the binder at the desk. At that point misconceptions I had about a work have to be reconciled, or ideas that sprang to mind will be confirmed.

I’m not averse to noting the influence of another artist’s work, but I’d rather make the connections after regarding something in its own right. If there are elements that speak to what has come before, the associations should strengthen rather than support the new work completely by proxy. I’m also a fan of the conceit that a good work of art, whether a book or a film or an installation will tell you how to read it.

But Stephan Pascher’s work here is doing something different than borrowing elements or exploring territory opened up by another artist. The cubes are, very distinctly, Donald Judd stand-ins, rather than just Donald Juddesque. So I’m grateful that the owner is so enthusiastic about my interest and happy to shed some light on the piece. The boxes are indeed approximations of the sculptures that can be found in the desert landscape of Marfa, Texas and the wire frame box is a miniature chicken coop.

guide1A little whodunnit published by the galley which comes gratis with your visit helps illuminate the piece still more and places it in context. Who Got the Chickens? is in fact the springboard from which the sculpture installation is a kind of accompaniment. “The question comes,” explains the gallery’s website, “from the title of a story Pascher recently wrote, which takes place in a town a lot like Marfa, Texas, and features a main character a lot like Donald Judd, though he goes by James Dean. Chickens are slaughtered, sculptures conserved and suspicions aroused under the border town’s stark moonlit sky in this short, elliptical tale…” The black and white photographs found within the booklet nicely set the tone for the work on display and reconcile the dissonance between the harsh fluorescent lights of the gallery and the recording of chirping crickets playing in the background. Much of the tale indeed takes place in the twilight hours.

While the story is told largely from James’ viewpoint, the other characters, some scrutinized in light of the recent killing, make us question our sympathies. Those whose job it is to clean and restore Dean’s sculptures are curtly dealt with. Jaime, arriving from a place where violence is an everyday occurrence, finds a town whose industry is wholly dependent upon the artwork famously ensconced there. Who indeed are the bit players here, and are their concerns less important than that of the restoration work? For Anne, the killing of the poultry is traumatic. It is assumed to be the work of an animal, but what if it’s the work of human spite? So it is entirely appropriate that the chicken coop should stand facing the two cubes and be of roughly the same size: the construction is a representation challenging what we deem to be important.
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Perhaps it was the mood set by the story that reminded me of a dream I once had. I was inside a two story home, the interior of which was wrapped completely in sheets of cellophane. In an instant I found myself elsewhere, looking down at a doll house that I identified as the same structure I had been in. I remember a moment of vertigo in the dream reconciling how I could have occupied this tiny space and a feeling that somehow I was regarding what it was like to be a child at play, inhabiting tiny worlds of a toy spaceship or lego building in the imagination. The sculptures do have this disorienting effect once you realize that the are scaled down pieces, because the chicken feathers and bits of sawdust are obviously their natural size.
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In this case, I really enjoyed the transformation of the experience from what I could see initially and tease out, with the altered view of the installation after I had read the short story. At that point, you infuse the work with the characters and situations described, and the piece becomes, in effect, something new. If Donald Judd’s pieces are meant to be read against their vacant background, juxtaposing them with a new structure, a utilitarian one to boot, is a nice way of questioning their aloofness from the everyday, their pureness of form in a world where many do not have the luxury of rendering life into an abstraction.

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