Unlikely neighbours, a review of Between the Earth and Sky at Kasmin Gallery, New York
Feb 25, 2021
At Kasmin Gallery in Chelsea, New York, an at once timely and asynchronous exhibition, Between the Earth and Sky, is just about to come to an end. Twenty-two sculptures of vertical orientation are spread throughout the space. The oldest item on display is a serpent column from Mexico, dated 600-900 A.D, carved with signature Mesoamerican rounded geometric designs, just short of two meters tall. In close proximity stands Ugo Rondinone’s the dignified from 2019, a large anthropomorphic sculpture composed of barely hewn bluestone boulders stacked in a way as to compose an oddly contemporary looking stone man in a chilled, slightly nonchalant pose.
Nearby, and even taller than the ritual snake column and the somewhat humorous stone man, is Marie Watt’s Blanket Story: Indian Territories, Round Dance, Grandmother, 2016, more than fifty folded blankets of varying material placed on a low wooden pine plinth in a neat stack, towering high enough to ressemble a column itself. The material quality of the work evokes one of those slightly distracted childhood endeavours when the obedient fulfilling of a task (folding the blankets) almost unwittingly becomes a game; “how high can I pile them before they fall?”. The intuitively known soft slipperiness of the fabrics makes it almost unbearable to look at the column for fear that it might collapse. And yet it stands just as erect as all of the other sculptures in the exhibition. Towards the very back of the room, Max Ernst’s alter-ego bird figurine, Loplop, spreads out its funny little wings as it completes his three-meter-tall bronze sculpture, Le Génie de la Bastille, Huismes, 1960, mocking the gilded male nude figurine (Génie de la Liberté) that elegantly prances atop the Bastille Column that stands in Paris to this day.
The logic of the arrangement of the exhibition is that each sculpture gains the foothold that mirrors the 20 skylights that perforate the ceiling above; except for an 1860’s Kota Reliquary Figure from Gabon that greets the visitor immediately upon entry and a stacked marble column by James Lee Byars, marble The Figure of Death, 1987, which has gained its own off-grid space. Oblivious to each other’s existence one can almost imagine invisible glass cages fencing off the sculptures from one another as they stand there as unlikely neighbours –culturally, materially, and historically – each standing their own ground.
Certainly, there has been a recent surge of public interest in monuments and this exhibition cleverly rides that wave. But what happens when sculptures with such divergent cultural references are forced into formal contiguity? How can they avoid becoming reduced to isolated cultural specimens, subjected to a comparison that is doubtful to reveal anything other than superficial and, at times, random similarities? Per Kirkeby’s sculptural work, for example, is generally more oriented towards the gate than the column or the stelae.
The immediate expression may be powerful, but aligning ‘stelae, herms and columns’ across cultures and centuries leaves little by way of commonality other than a formal orientation: verticality. And when does a formal comparison become meaningful? Would it be interesting to compare a tree with an obelisk? A mattress with a slice of cheese? Even if we extend the comparison to one of metaphorical quality, what is there to be gained from the proposition “Rachel Harrison is like Isamu Noguchi is like Per Kirkeby is like Huma Bhabha” (to choose but vaguely historically aligned pieces)? While some connections may be fitting others are tenuous to say the least. Blanket Story has lost its story and the serpent column its ritual function. Nevertheless, the exhibition brings together an impressive range of historically and materially diverse sculptures on view, many of which will individually make your trip worthwhile.
The exhibition Between the Earth and Sky is on view at Kasmin Gallery 509 West 27th Street, from Jan 21 - Feb 27, 2021.
Margrethe Troensegaard is a Doctoral Student in History and Theory of Contemporary Art at the Ruskin School of Art and St. Edmund Hall, Oxford. Margrethe’s research at the Ruskin School of Art investigates the contemporary condition of the monument by considering its recent use and relevance as an artistic genre, institutional strategy and exhibition model.
Margrethe holds an MA in Curating Contemporary Art from the Royal College of Art, London (2012), and a BA in Art History from the University of Copenhagen and the Chinese University of Hong Kong (2009). Past curatorial affiliations include Raw Material Company, Dakar (2011); Dia Art Foundation, New York (2010); Arte sin Techo, Buenos Aires (2009); Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen (2010), and Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk (2008-11).