Contributed by Zach Seeger / How do we know we’re still alive? Reverse Marie Kondo: the accumulation of our stuff; at least this was how it was prior to 2008. At that point, we liked our post-tragedy end of capitalism raw and dire with a sprinkle of self-indulgence. We wanted to preserve the cubicle of our burgeoning cybernetic social-media world. Finally, those twentieth-century people-messes of politics and direct interaction would be left behind, and internet humans could live sentiment-free in a materially banal world. After the recession, though, came a stream of art trying to save art: hopeful futures hedged with the forms of the past.
“Three Legged Race” at Essex Flowers is a curatorial homage to the early to mid 2000s by artists who consistently deliver in their practices. It’s an attempt at preserving the not-so-distant past’s conversations about what it means to be human in an environmentally turbulent world exacerbated by political upheaval and territorial bickering. Each artist’s work signifies an object waiting to be activated in an optimistically predetermined cyberpunk cube.
In Sean McCarthy’s St Anthony Reading, a black-and-white animated loop furthers the preservationist’s toil. Reminiscent of Blake’s Ghost of a Flea, St Anthony academically twitches in determined rote, the song and dance of research.
Jonathan Ehrenberg’s Ouroboros, a mixed-media wall piece, is an incomplete symbol in harlequin camouflage, snakily poised like an extension cord waiting to be plugged in. The piece hangs as a talisman, tactile and enigmatic.
Virginia Poundstone’s Sweet Flowers (Snow) is a video that congers images of Kurosawa’s The Blizzard (Dreams), but instead of figures trudging impossibly in white-out conditions, the video displays a glib tap-dancing plant emoji, bizarrely taunting a reproductive impossibility with joyful gait. It’s as if Beckett had designed an emoji to remind flora of future futility.
Karen Azoulay’s Untitled mask is an amalgam of organic material that awaits ritual activation. Hardly a static piece, it is one part harvest and one part VR glasses. It waits pensively for the rainy season, one that promises to be a lush masquerade in which comedy and tragedy die under the sun.
Rachel Domm’s multivalent Lasagna Waves is an oil pastel drawing on paper that could read as a schematic poster of phalanxed labia from a doctor’s office, a fringed petal of a dried daffodil, or a waxy expanse of brain made to catch the honey from the bee’s knees. Its ridges of cavernous abysses could also be the fungal interior of an ancient cave holding secrets.
Linnea Vedder’s Hoax stitches a material narrative. It casts history as a process, recapitulating the labor of its creator. Its patchwork flatness frames a physical reality that manifests as the opposite of what it’s claiming to be – that is, a hoax. Its texture, tenderness, and clumsiness reveal an arch category blunder that unabashedly declares the work’s objectiveness.
Kevin Ford’s Gray White Oxford Seagull Outlet Boot Orchid personifiesa glitchy screen. Hallucinations appear on the wall, leaking, bleeding, borderless and dissolving like transitions in a Jeremy Blake video. The piece, however, is ominously physical, forming a flat portal that threatens to dissolve the room into vacation oblivion.
Rufus Tureen’s television spot for AM I WHO I WAS as is in keeping with the self-reflecting, infinity-room mirror of indulgence. Alive in carefree, no-critic time travel, this pied piper of lyrical seductiveness lures us into a future more like the past.
Lydia McCarthy’s Space-time Self, a large inkjet print, serves as a gridded substrate for future masks, future selves. The topography of the head is well mapped, but the head itself is held together by the most feeble of adhesives. In the future, she suggests, we will need both advanced engineering and DIY ingenuity to survive.
Mónica Palma’s paper sculpture A Kind of Hug is a conical wormhole prying through a crack in the door. At first glance, it appears to be waiting to spring forth, but it could also be slinking back through the cracks in retreat. The brightly colored paper suggests a makeshift listening device, or a crunched-paper spyglass into a vault where all our significance is buried.
Melissa Brown’s modestly scaled ink-on-paper pieces ostensibly seem to utilize the most conventional materials to inform us of where we are, who we are in this room. In fact, they are mysterious distortions of figures and interiors that decline to describe immediate surroundings, instead heightening a sense of cosmic otherness. With lyrical brilliance, they simultaneously seduce and disturb.
Janine Polak’s Solo glass sculpture appears as a tank-top pillow, an emptied IV bag waiting to be refilled. The piece could be construed as a genderless ice shell torso, but its figuration is a stretch. The earnestness of the composition suggests a vessel for the future maintenance of the human body.
Distinguishing this smart and varied yet cohesive and quietly moving exhibition is a collective innocence: a sincere belief that people will remain curious, aware of their potential to physically engage. The pieces appear as frozen, figurative fragments in a remote world, waiting like mystical runes to unlock a coded future.
“Three Legged Race,” with Karen Azoulay, Melissa Brown, Rachel Domm, Jonathan Ehrenberg, Kevin Ford, Lydia McCarthy, Sean McCarthy, Monica Palma, Janine Polak, Virgina Poundstone, Rufus Tureen, Linnea Vedder. Essex Flowers, 19 Monroe Street, New York, NY 10002. Through Sunday, February 2.
About the author: Zach Seeger is a painter, sculptor, and writer who works in Brooklyn, New York. He has recently exhibited at Arts + Leisure and Freight + Volume (New York) and Baby Blue Gallery (Chicago). A series of paperworks are currently part of the exhibition “Malled and Walled: American Style,” curated by Fred Fleisher in Zurich.