"The Way Things Are" Brings a Taste of the Theatrical

By Katherine Rochester
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 17, 2012

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Marti party: Works by artist Virgil Marti in "The Way Things Are" use an array of materials, all put to provocative use.

Curated by Marie-Claire Groeninck, The Way Things Are is a poised exhibition at Locks Gallery that traffics heavily in alchemy: Curtains are buffeted by gusts of air, cushions are sullied by globules of dripping wax, and objects that have no earthly right to shift are animated by mysterious forces. The show features new bodies of work by Ulla von Brandenburg, Florence Doléac and Virgil Marti—and the most compelling objects in it are really not themselves at all.

Brandenburg sets the stage—literally. Her majestic black-and-orange-checkered curtain, “Curtain II” (2008), hangs between two pillars in the center of the gallery. Step through, and you’re on stage. Look back, and you’ll see a wall painting that conjures the inside of an opera house, boxes full of expectant faces. But the painting is flat, and the details hastily blocked. What seems to matter most is not the precise location of off-stage, back-stage or on-stage, but, rather, the emanation of the curtain as a symbolic threshold to each.

Once signaled by the curtain, the illusion of the theater only intensifies beyond it. Brandenburg’s objects are often made strange by subtle alterations. A tie fastened to the base of a walking cane in “Stock mit Schatten (Walking Stick with Shadow)” (2012) is not a tie, but a lengthening shadow; the rippling of the patterned curtain is not organic, but carefully orchestrated via a trompe-l’oeil foreshortening of the diamonds into the crease of a fold. Brandenburg heaps theater upon theater, and in doing so, she instigates an unexpected collision between the minimal fact of an object and its surreal potentiality.

Flanked symmetrically on either side of Brandenburg’s curtain, Marti and Doléac’s installations look—perhaps inevitably—like sets on a stage. Not that they would mind. Set Pieces, the fascinating 2010 exhibition Marti curated at the ICA, was infused with a whimsical sense of the theatrical. (The exhibition also included a grouping of cushions much like the ones seen here at Locks). Doléac, too, seems at ease in the realm of decor. After cofounding and working for years with the influential Paris-based group Radi Designers, she now teaches at the School of Decorative Arts in Paris. Her design sensibility is apparent everywhere in her artistic practice.

For better or worse, the parallel installation of Marti and Doléac’s sitting rooms invites a compare-and-contrast approach to viewing. Both feature mirror-like surfaces that catch faint glimmers of light; both have hanging lamps above and inviting cushions below. This doubling, however, is self-contained rather than dialogical. For example, Doléac’s “Coulis” (2011), a cluster of cartoonish golden drips, hangs above the couch-like “Bubble Break” (2012), mimicking the drips that have already fallen to create the psychedelic tie-dye pattern on its surface. Across the way, the silvered candelabra that juts out from the largest stool in Marti’s “Object Relations” (2010) allows the wax from three candles to drip onto the luxurious faux fur of a smallest stool beneath. For each, the drip creates a closed circuit, remarkably unconcerned by an almost identical gesture unspooling on the other side of the room.

Although both Marti and Doléac create exquisite three-dimensional objects, neither seems much interested in using them to activate space á la Brandenburg. That’s fine, but the result is a conversation among artworks that responds to and revolves around Brandenburg’s curtain.

In seeming response to Brandenburg’s monumental form, Doléac’s smaller, silk muslin curtain shivers with kinetic energy from the blast of two household fans. In unabashedly announcing the artifice of its hypnotic ripple, “Ventilator” (2007) introduces a touch of good-humored camp into Brandenburg’s majestic mise-en-scène. This reveal marks a fundamental difference between Doléac and Brandenburg. Unlike in Brandenburg’s video, “The Objects” (2009), where a coil of rope rises up like a snake to a charmer’s tune, in Doleac’s “Ventilator,” we know precisely what makes an object dance. And yet, somehow, it still seems like magic. 

Through Oct. 27. Locks Gallery, 600 Washington Square South. 215.629.1000. locksgallery.com

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