Exhibition Review: “It Ain’t What You Make It’s What Makes You Do It” at Valentine Gallery

Posted on May 7, 2014

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Dennis Oppenheim. "Theme for a Major Hit." 1974

Dennis Oppenheim. “Theme for a Major Hit.” 1974

Dennis Oppenheim’s Theme for a Major Hit, from which this compelling group show at Valentine Gallery in Ridgewood takes its cue, is a two foot tall self-portrait marionette, dressed in a silver suit over black turtleneck, and made to tap dance on a circular podium by a motor that tethers it from overhead. The clattering of the marionette’s wooden feet on the podium creates enough of a din to drown out much of the soundtrack that accompanies it, but when Valentine turns the thing off to give himself a break from the clomping, the gallery still hums with noise: from Oppenheim’s soundtrack, two other soundtracks, and the small-motor humming of the handful of other works on view.

The exhibition is conceived as a nod to Oppenheim—an influential early figure in the earth works movement who became increasingly interested in the manipulation of everyday objects—from artists who were inspired by him. His marionette is great fun to watch, and it’s a fitting personification, such as it is, of the playful tenor of the rest of the show. But a marionette works in part by making the metaphor of pulled strings visible, and the fact that the strings here are pulled by a motor gives the piece a sad poignancy. This mood of fun tinged with something more melancholy is the marionette’s primary connection to the other works on view, in which initial delight with the visually or mechanically inventive is tempered by something more disquieting. The show is like a vaudeville act on repeat, a reminder why magicians never perform the same trick twice.

Charlotte Becket’s Self Portrait is a mess of stringy black silicone that’s powered by a motor hidden within. It twists and turns on itself slowly but organically, like a slumbering bear. Gregory Barsamian’s Barrel 52, a zoetrope within an old oil drum, depicts a sleight-of-hand trick in which globs of green liquid rise up the inside walls of the barrel to awaiting hands which catch them, rotate up, and open to reveal coins. This frenetic action seems called up by an attending toy (angel or demon?) and lit by strobe. Mark Esper’s On The Jarry Road, an inverted bicycle wheel atop a stool, is kept in perpetual rotation by a toy train engine—emblazoned “Duchamp Line”—that runs along tracks affixed to the wheel’s inner rim. The train is a lo-tech mechanized lab rat, and it struggles slightly with its task, as if its forward motion provides just enough resistance to keep the wheel spinning. The question of the train’s ability to maintain the wheel’s spin is mesmerizing.

Duchamp is also present in Mary Zeigler’s Site, a drama of moving metal shavings that plays out on a glass-topped podium that’s lit from within. Four narrow-gauge rods are affixed to the glass surface, forming the boundaries of a square playing field in which the action of the piece occurs. Within the field, a fifth rod, not affixed, sweeps ever clockwise with the aid of an unseen magnet; dragging, attracting, leaving behind and then re-connecting with small metal shavings as it goes. Imagine the pieces of “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors,” taken apart and repurposed as a science museum attraction. It too is mesmerizing.

Of the pieces that don’t move mechanically, Barsimian’s Level—a hand-built level with an exquisite street-scene diorama in place of a functioning tool’s air bubble—sits there practically asking to be flipped, like a seesaw, across its fulcrum. The little figure of a man, beer bottles at his feet, teeters one way and then the other against streetlights by his side. The other, Jeffrey Allen Price’s Potato Auto-Portrait, a small portrait head carved from a potato a decade ago, has, somewhat amusingly in this context, withered into a frozen mask that is the very antithesis of motion.

Guy Ben-Ner. Still from "Berkeley's Island." 1999

Guy Ben-Ner. Still from “Berkeley’s Island.” 1999

The pieces that best articulate the gestalt of the show, however, are Guy Ben-Ner’s videos, Berkeley’s Island and Wild Boy, which play in succession on a monitor in the gallery’s back hallway. In both videos, the lo-fi ethos of the rest of the show is complemented by Ben-Ner’s incredibly appealing do-it-at-home approach to video making. Berkeley’s Island has Ben-Ner shipwrecked, stranded on a pile of sand, complete with palm tree, that he’s set up in his kitchen. As his narrator reads from diary entries, he acts out his isolation in the middle of a room that his real-life family must otherwise have some need for. Sometimes he’s alone, in keeping with the narrative of the story, but sometimes he’s not. In one shot, a small girl (his daughter?) plays in the sand, and he leans over her to light a cigarette from a burner on the stove, careful not to step off the sand onto the tile floor. The gesture is hilarious. He’s broken the wall between “island” (fiction) and “kitchen” (reality), but the presence of the girl, and the fridge, microwave, etc. suggest the wall was never built in the first place. This act of self-conscious filmmaking is matched by Ben-Ner’s chops as a strikingly comic physical actor. Once rescued, he insists that his time on the island was not completely wasted. Among the new skills he’s learned is the ability to put out two citronella candles at once. Unzipping his penis from his pants, he presses a fork with bent tines against it to direct the flow of his urine in two directions, thoroughly dousing the flames.

The same character infuses Wild Boy, in which a boy (his son?) is captured from the wild (also the apartment) by a cardboard box trap that falls on him as he goes for the bait of a shiny apple. Having woken from his cave at dawn (a slowly-opened fridge door brings daylight to the scene), he is trapped and then taught the ways of the world by Ben-Ner, who must show him by example how to live as a civilized boy. Together they play (cutting up the kitchen table with a jigsaw to turn it into a slide), go for walks in the “woods,” and go about the process of teaching and learning how to stand upright, sit at the table, use a napkin and silverware, and, eventually, communicate verbally. Ben-Ner’s son is still young enough for us to see that the joy on his face is not acted; imagine spending days with a father who makes your kitchen into the wild, cuts up the furniture and lets you lap yoghurt from a bowl on the floor. The connection of real life to Ben-Ner’s fictional allegories is strong. When he builds a device to test his “wild” boy’s capacity for intelligence, his aspirations for the boy’s development are palpable. The desire any good parent would hold for their child’s success is captured brilliantly, in all its fraught expectation, in Ben-Ner’s face as he sits with a clock and notebook in hand, waiting for his boy to solve the test.

The whole thing comes close to making art look like pure fun, but Oppenheim’s mechanized marionette reminds that there are strings attached. A toy train that propels a bicycle wheel, an oil drum that reveals a strobe-lit sleight-of-hand, an ever-changing, ever-moving cluster of metal shavings that dance across a glass surface, a potato head—like a good card trick, this show is a delight. But just as a card trick relies on a deception inherent in the showman/audience relationship, the works here each have a knowing edge of world-weariness. Ben-Ner’s are no exception. His videos, homemade and home-centric, are incredibly touching for making fatherhood an essential part of the art-making fun. But the fun is not to be taken lightly; it is in spite of all the things that might close in on it.

Guy Ben-Ner. Still from "Wild Boy." 2004

Guy Ben-Ner. Still from “Wild Boy.” 2004

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