Matthew McCaslin, High Rise, 2001

galvanized metal shelf, 2-4' fluorescent light fixtures, electrical hardware, 70 x 74 x 38"



“Comedy equals tragedy plus time,” says TV producer Lester, played by Alan Alda, in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. While it is difficult at this point to formulate the jokes, the comedy, that time will wring from the tragedies of September 11th, it is just as difficult to imagine that they won’t come. This need to replace our anxieties with forced laughter may be part of America’s pathology, but it also serves as a coping method that protects our persistent state of optimism and forward-thinking. Such are the contradictions that have beset our Nation from its outset.

Mathew McCaslin’s exhibition of sculptural works read as jokes told from an Art Historical perspective, but they’re not very funny. Maybe they’re not even jokes. In that case, they are allusions; references that are not, in the end, all that interesting. What is interesting is how they have been altered by the events that interrupted their exhibition. In a pre-9/11 world his sculptural pieces—formal, ordered assemblage works made from household products such as microwaves, televisions, DVD decks, light bulbs and urinals—spoke of Pop Culture, Art History, and their obvious interstices. They now represent American’s technological inventiveness, ingenuity, and ability to turn chaos into order. However, the work also contains traces of our Nation’s fascination with the shiny surfaces of hyper-consumerism and suggest that this has come at the expense of our preparation for something as old-fashioned as theological warfare.

One piece, a tall stainless steel cart carrying light bulbs and flourescent tubes, with the amazingly prescient title, high rise, is an excellent case in point. Its gleaming surface and lofty stature suggest majesty and strength, while its absolute sterility can’t help but conjure images of hospital facilities and impending danger. In the same way, the now fallen Twin Towers always stood for America’s schizophrenic, double-sided nature. young elvis/old elvis, marilyn monroe/norma jean baker, thomas jefferson/sally hemmings: all could be found in the dual reflections of these glass-covered edifices. We’ve known this for decades without mentioning it, like a secret kept so long we’d forgotten what had been hidden away. In the heart of America’s, and the World’s Financial District, their existence stood both for our awesome power as a Nation and for how our hubris would destroy us from within. This is not to express joy at their demise by any means. Certainly their loss is one that is deeply felt, and the loss of life within and around them is a National tragedy like none we’ve ever encountered. It is simply an effort to illustrate the manner in which art is always of its time, even when it does not consciously anticipate what its time will bring.

electric mantra, another piece in the show, aligns itself with earlier McCaslin works addressing the dichotomous simultaneity of Eastern and Western thought. The wall-mounted sculpture, consisting of two industrial light bulbs, the flushing mechanism of a urinal, a small VHS player, chrome microwave, and Sony Trinitron television set, plays out this theme by offering a beautiful, if artificial, sunset on the TV. The video image is accompanied by mandolin-heavy, Eastern music. The organicism of the music and sunset image is in obvious contrast to the man-made consumer objects that comprise the piece. However, the fakery of the image puts even this bit of “naturalness” in doubt, and the soothing Eastern music sounds suspiciously like something LA’s own The Doors might play, and reject, on their way to finding the opening to “The End”; a thought that can’t help but lead one to Apocalypse Now and its depiction of a war that will hopefully serve as a blueprint for how not to conduct our current Military operations.

The reference to the sunset image on the electric mantra TV screen is by no means a safe one. The depiction, seemingly frozen in time, could just as easily be of a sunrise. This would seem consistent with the flashing LED text “RESET” that graces the five General Electric microwaves in another wall-mounted piece titled object of desire. The message is also in line with the pervasive sentiment that 9/11 marked the end of one era and the beginning of a new one. McCaslin’s sculptures, however, do not appear interested in making a fresh start of their own. While works which collide many disparate materials into an ordered whole, such as electric mantra or all i know, appear as something of an antidote to a Jason Rhoades-like Pop-Scatter aesthetic, the nudge nudge inclusion of the Duchampian urinal apparatus makes it clear that McCaslin is firmly planting the work within a long Art Historical lineage. Similarly, object of desire’s five vertically stacked microwaves are an overly obvious play on Donald Judd. This method of mimicking Minimalist sculpture using materials borrowed from the department store showroom has already been well utilized by Jeff Koons and Haim Steinbach, among others. It is unclear why the usually looser McCaslin presentation style is here restrained to fit this previously charted territory.

Travelling from Duchamp to Koons, one must inevitably cross the heavily guarded suspension bridge that is Andy Warhol. His great ambition, “I want to be a machine,” is particularly pertinent to McCaslin’s show. The gleaming white microwaves, shiny stainless steel shelving units, and fascinatingly complex DVD decks seem absolutely untroubled by recent world events. Life as an object suddenly looks quite desirable. For Andy Warhol always forgot to keep America’s secrets. Dying when a routine operation was botched, his torso laced with the scars of an earlier gunshot attack, Andy knew the vulnerabilities of the human condition. That Warhol sought not human comfort in Eastern Mysticism, but instead longed to be reborn as a flesh-less entity, is perfectly in keeping with the American spirit of progress and adaptation. McCaslin’s exhibition manages to illuminate these often hidden strains of National thought at a time when they are likely to remain tucked away, thus serving—even unconsciously—a very worthy function.

Dwayne Moser
New York, New York