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Francis Cape: Sculpture Center, New York, New York
Lisa Hein

Francis Cape, 167 east 69th street , 1997, installation View, wood, paint

The gauntlet is down before you ever enter an exhibition of Francis Cape's work. The challenge, first of all, is to see it. Disguised as a given, as part of the existing architecture, you are likely to speed past it, only to return when you don't find any art.

167 east 69th street, installed at Sculpture Center last winter, inserts a painted, paneled wall beneath an office balcony. This long-standing balcony appears itself to be an addition--compared to the solemn gallery box, this mezzanine, with cheap construction and streamline curves, looks like a Hollywood fantasy from the '40s. It can't decide if it's medieval or modern.

Francis Cape pries open the architecture's inconsistency with a wedge of similarity and difference. Like its context, 167 is painted white--but a creamy, marzipan white, as different from gallery white as could still be white. Inserting his English panel vernacular into American panel pastiche, Cape mimics the balcony's 3-part division by horizontal lines. He refuses, however, to make the vertical divisions line up. And if the context makes deco sweeps, Cape keeps everything straight--except for a tiny quarter-round molding at the single tangent where his corner meets the balcony's edge.

Cape's refusals and compliances lead us down two chains of interpretation. Down one, we notice the work's inscrutable, indifferent affect; its two "interactive" doors disappoint a generation of hands-on exhibit users. A temporary installation with superior materials and craftsmanship than its "permanent" setting, 167 sometimes says to us, "I am better than you." Confronted with a pure, handmade blank, we feel the exclusiveness of both traditional British society and modernist abstraction working on our anxieties.

At other moments, the installation's affect is gracious, deferential and self-effacing. It presents itself as decor, as mere screen, as afterthought. This tack invokes the newly humble orthodoxy of art in the last decade. 167 east 69th street may in fact be a sendup of both abstraction and good taste. The work is almost sarcastically invisible.

Cape explores a number of issues here. One might be the position of an English expatriate in an Anglophone world. Americans don't understand half the things Cape says, although he speaks the original language.

Another is how an artist must feel to be dubbed, by the exhibition's pointedly generic title, "Emerging Sculptors #10." Like part of the woodwork; the latest small humiliation of a 20-year career.

Lisa Hein

New York, New York

1997

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