Saturday, July 28, 2007

Social Arrangements -- or -- "Where do you think YOU'RE going?"

Okay -- no more delays; today's digression will be tomorrow's Damages.

26 July 2007

There is a sense in which the work of Renée Petropoulos has always been about ‘social,’ even ‘political’ arrangements (consider work that played upon the vegetal and acanthus filigreed embellishment of U.S. currency), the precise orientation and positioning of the individual (and ‘expressions’ of the ‘individual’, be they representational, symbolic, architectural, or simply stylistic/aesthetic flourishes). What is not always expressed in her work (though I’m not in any way offering an opinion here) is the sense of exchange, transit, transaction (actually, I’m pretty sure I’m overstating this here) within this social/aesthetic dynamic. It’s almost as if the conceptual rigor and elegance of her work has forestalled an expressive ‘bleed’ of one facet into another. And yet the work is playful enough so that you’re conscious of it. (We might credit the imaginative installations, too.) One senses (and I have no doubt the artist does, too) that part of the pleasure of the work is moving around it, and one’s peripheral awareness of others’ movement around it. I sometimes wonder if the alternately graduated- and intersecting-arc benches she’s started making in recent years (there are a couple here strategically positioned in the two largest galleries) are a deliberate response to this aspect of the work. In other words, build the movement into the work. But having positioned her observer/participants (us) in these configurations – the transitory “social arrangement” – how do you keep the observer moving, shifting viewpoint, perspective, going to the next place, or more precisely, the next ‘place/time’? (Do we read a political dimension here?? Yes, I think so.)

Although the show is laid out in quadrants, the conceptual armature is secure enough to withstand the significant thematic and aesthetic discontinuities between them. No matter which particular quadrant/gallery you’re taking in, you’re always referencing something you’ve just seen. What is the connection, say, between the black and white paintings – silhouetted maps – and the ‘flags’ of brightly colored, densely interwoven horizontals and verticals? The nexus may become clearer in the next gallery – but the tuck, roll and ‘furl’ here (they’re apparently interwoven ribbons of various fabrics) I think is key. The silhouetted ‘maps’ are (at least in one specific instance) political, historical maps – e.g., contemporary Germany paired with the Nazi Germany that extended itself beyond Prussia and somewhat deeper into Eastern Europe. (I’m still trying to figure out whether the pairing extends that historical frame – i.e., whether it’s Estonia or Lithuania or possibly Austria.)

And the flags? Well, there is not a shred of ethno-religio-heraldic-graphic-tartan-clan-symbolic motives/insignia to cue us to any ‘political,’ much less social, import. It might as well be a flag for rectilinear color abstraction (hey – I’ll fly it). But – speaking of that planar/rectilinear grid of color grids, how does it scan as an infinitely variable set of curves? And from what vantage point in space? Or just what does it signify hanging there?

The grids get a slightly floating treatment in the next gallery – floating in somewhat aqueous dissolve over a tondo that’s been flattened and spread out in an ellipse that might be a trimmed mercator map or the global corporate/organizational insignia (speaking of insignia) of the U.N. or PanAm. The painting itself (“Trip from Sri Lanka to Zanzibar (by boat)”) works as a kind of scan. The pale and bright horizontals have a kind of lateral movement, broken rhythmically by red/white/acid yellow horizontal bars. But more significantly is the viewer’s own ‘float’ – from one panel to that opposite – all accompanied by related, but slightly whimsical soundtracks (e.g., “Tales of Zanzibar,” “Arabian Nights”) accessed by headphones hanging directly overhead. The ‘scan’ becomes an immersion. Immersion is taken up in the next panel, “Trip Through the Gulf States (by air)”. Good-bye PanAm; hello abyss; the dissolve becomes a whirling blue vortex. (In a tit-for-tat world, would the Gulf States, bled dry of their fossil fuel wealth, suck our freshwater sources dry?) The rhythmic color bars here are whirled centrifugally to the edge of the ellipse. It’s almost as if Petropoulos literally spun the opposing tondo. The social arrangement is also the political order – is also the vortex of time and space. (Or is it all just “spin”? You have to wonder if there’s some ironic cynicism spinning around in all this.)

If we didn’t already have some sense of Petropoulos’s material range – which is broad and extremely diverse – the next gallery would give ample demonstration: a pair of loomed rugs mounted over platforms that extend across the gallery space, elaborate evocations of two contrasting urban ‘walks,’ which are characterized as ‘woven sculptures.’ The meaning is both literal and figurative: the walk, whether it be a recreation of an interior walkway or corridor in an urban space in London, or a walking path in a Berlin park, is recast as a sculptural (as well as social) experience, a kinetic sculptural sequence that repeats itself (though never exactly) over and over again – an experience that is recast yet again here in the gallery space – crossing ‘social arrangements’ where the viewer is invited to ‘recreate’ his/her own transitory placement in this scheme – via a souvenir with which s/he may have no direct connection.

The last gallery is hung with a series of watercolor/gouache/pencil drawings on vellum, each an exquisitely rendered urban façade, portal, gateway for a kind of townhouse or urban villa – whether actual or conceptual is not entirely clear, despite the explicit physical and chronological coordinates of the titles (e.g., “Ave. Nicolas Bravo y Porfirio Diaz. August 12-23, 2004”) – in muted pastel colors, with a jeweler’s (or architect’s) eye for architectural detail – brick and ironwork, screens, casement and clerestory windows, geometric imbrications and embellishments – yet another social ‘arrangement’; a social taxonomy, a sequence of masks that become surrogate and static physiognomies. Yet how static? ‘This is who/what we are,’ the facades state quietly. But what exactly is that; and what is its duration?

I realize my notes here are vague and inconclusive. I have to have another look at the show – hopefully with more time to take in the soundtracks in the second gallery. (Although Petropoulos must have been elated by the ‘social arrangement’ of the opening – 'social arrangement' giving way to 'crowd management' – I think I might have a slightly better view of the show at a slightly less crowded moment.) On the other hand, isn’t that half the point? Regardless of the extent of ostensible political or architectural ‘definition,’ ‘convention,’ there is no ‘conclusion’. Everything is in flux, in transit. (I think now of Gertrude Stein’s last words – who knows why? – “What is the answer?” and finally, “What is the question?”) Sic transit gloria mundi.

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