Brought together through a series of affective relationships, the four artworks in (loverboy), sleep, shatter, handheld bird each embody or anticipate the meeting of normally separated spheres, giving corporeal dimension to fragile, anxious states. The works confuse conditions of protection, violation, exposure, containment, and transformation, intimating potential trauma inside or just beyond the frame. Gonzalez-Torres, Graham, Le Va, and Ray are rarely all shown together in a thematic context, providing a partially revisionist opportunity for this exhibition. The works’ affinities go deeper than seductive material. Their formal and kinesthetic qualities give way to a shared portentous presence. From their most basic, surface appearances – a stack of broken glass, curtains, a white bird embryo, a grainy video of a sleeping man – each work expands and destabilizes, becoming nearly hallucinogenic.
In Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled” (Loverboy), 1989, cloth, light, and space subtly shift positions—with each other and the gallery—enacting a fragile set of relationships founded on experiences of security and perpetual instability, stimulation, and the potential for exposure. Despite their ephemeral, seemingly decorative presence, the curtains demarcate a highly politicized and psychologically charged boundary between the private and public realms. The seductive quality of the material and its associations give way to an acute awareness of the contingency between inside and outside worlds. The intimate realm of the home can be violated by governmental, institutional or public intrusion. While the presence of curtains in the gallery context references this potential intrusion, they also reverse the equation, inserting the domestic and subjective into the shared, public, institutional gallery.
The complicated, potentially harrowing spaces between psychic space, the public realm, and the body are implied in Rodney Graham’s Halcion Sleep, 1994, a black and white video projection showing the artist’s sleeping body (drugged, we are told in an opening text, by .5mg of the sedative/hypnotic drug Halcion) driven in the back of a van from the outskirts to the center of Vancouver. The physical distance between Graham’s inert body and the throbbing city is negligible, yet the psychic gulf between the unconscious idyll and the flickering city through the windows is vast. Though the news stories about Halcion have ceased since the late 1990s, around 1994 the sleeping drug made major headline news for its immense popularity despite widely documented, extremely dangerous side effects of psychosis, insomnia, hallucination, anxiety, aggression, and depression. While referencing the mechanics of cinema and earlier conceptual art, Graham’s hypnotic video is a series of sad reversals as he attempts to replicate his innocent childhood memory of waking up in the back seat of his parents’ car during a road trip by taking drugs as an adult. The classic metaphors for transformation, traveling and dreams, are dangerously reversed: Graham’s limp body is still as the van moves on (the trip looped, he never arrives), and his dreams are only as transporting as the view outside the window.
An on-going work begun in 1968, Barry Le Va’s shattered glass floor sculpture takes on new dimensions for each site. As each layer of four different-sized plates is joined and added to the stack, Le Va shatters the glass at the intersection of the pieces by a single blow from a ten pound sledge hammer. The top layer is left unbroken, silencing and containing the trauma and framing the viscera of broken glass. The artist’s body is conjured by the evidence of accumulation and destruction, marking the sculpture with latent energy and expended force. The violence of the act is both magnified through repetition (stack, shatter, stack…) and suppressed by the routine, systematic process. Here, glass’s functional qualities (transparency, enclosure, communication) are negated. The evidence that remains as artwork exists as a dreadful question: “What happened here?” The trauma of Le Va’s action is barely held at bay as the edges and boundaries of the containment become palpably present.
The fragile containment of a powerful bodily event is acutely felt in Charles Ray’s Handheld Bird, 2006. Surprisingly made of solid stainless steel, painted white with a warm surface, the sculpture is just smaller than a closed fist. From a distance the object appears egg-like but soon reveals itself as a small bird embryo, almost fully formed, at the very late stages of incubation. To make Handheld Bird, Ray hatched chickens from an incubator in his studio for a number of years. A conflation of vulnerable exposure and clenched self-protection, the work asserts a specific, fragile, and frightening corporeal condition. Handheld Bird simultaneously suggests different spaces: the lab of clinical examination, an art space of “close looking,” a quasi-spiritual space, and the profane space of a freak show. An almost idyllic symbolism and the physicality of direct, abject fact collide, prompting, perhaps, self-recognition in the alien, model form.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres was born in Güaimaro, Cuba, in 1957 and died in Miami, Florida in 1996. He lived and worked in New York, NY, where he received an MFA from the International Center of Photography/New York University in 1987, a BFA from Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY, and attended the Independent Study Program at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY, in 1981 and 1983. Gonzalez-Torres used aspects of his own identity to address issues of homosexuality, immigration, AIDS, and the personal relationships in his life, to make rigorously democratic, conceptually layered, and formally innovative work that confounds separations between the public and private.
Barry Le Va
Barry Le Va was born in Long Beach, California in 1961 and attended California State University, Long Beach, as well as the Los Angeles College of Art and Design and received his BFA from Otis Art Institute of Los Angeles County in 1964 and his MFA in 1967. He lives and works in New York City. Since the late 1960s Barry Le Va’s sculptural installations have helped define the genre of installation art. Organized around an exacting internal logic, he has used glass, felt, wood, metals, rubber, and various powders and liquids to contest and articulate the spatial and psychological relationships between materials and bodies in the gallery.
Rodney Graham was born in Vancouver, Canada in 1949, where he lives and works today. He studied at the University of British Columbia from 1968-1971. Graham’s films, video, sculpture, photography, installations, painting, and music have explored interrelationships between various modes of perception, through experiences of time, philosophy, altered consciousness, film, and language. His film and video work is often comically deadpan or punning, distorting or extending narrative expectations to create stalled, looping, and hypnotic tableaux.
Charles Ray was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1953 and completed his BFA at the University of Iowa in 1975 and his MFA at the Mason Gross School of Art, Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1979. He currently lives and works in Los Angeles. Over the last 30 years, Ray has created uncanny artworks that combine an interest in the space of abstract Modernist sculpture with an often- unsettling use of the human body, unexpected materials, and startling shifts in scale. These tensions between material and imagery produce complicated psychological, sexual, perceptual, and corporeal responses.
(loverboy), sleep, shatter, handheld bird was organized by Daniel Byers as part of the requirements for the master of arts degree in curatorial studies.
CCS Bard student-curated exhibitions are made possible with support from the Rebecca and Martin Eisenberg Student Exhibition Fund, Mitzi and Warren Eisenberg, and the Patrons, Supporters, and Friends of the Center for Curatorial Studies.