Sam Scharf, Nothing
Sam Scharf, Nothing

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

I don’t mean to sound crass, but I’d know my dog’s turds anywhere—or at least, I thought I did, before I saw Sam Scharf’s excellent solo show at Flashpoint Gallery. In the video piece “The Beholder,” a roughly three-minute-long loop, the camera focuses close in as flies zip and zoom around a pile that looks like the work of my 15-year-old Jindo. It couldn’t possibly be the same (I pick up after my dog, thank you), and in any event, other non-dog-owning viewers are going to take away something else from the piece. In fact, they’ll have to, because Scharf’s stone-faced, unapologetic art isn’t giving anything away.

“The Beholder” is typical of the art on view in “Nothing Is the Same,” the D.C.–based artist’s solo debut. The title forces a job onto the viewer, who is being asked, of course, to find the beauty in watching flies doing their coprophagous thing. Which is reasonably easy to do—circle of life and so on, plus the loop is rather hypnotizing. That’s when Scharf has viewers where he wants them: straining to meet, or to resist, some predetermined expectation, a reaction that he is daring them to feel. If his work makes the viewer feel repulsed, it isn’t by its depiction of feces (not after Marc Quinn or Piero Manzoni or countless others who deploy the real thing), but by its manipulative posture.

Scharf courts another preformed reaction with “You Could Make That,” a work that you could make with drywall, wood, and LEDs. A sculpture that reads very much like a painting, it appears to be a segment of wall into which he’s punched a hole, revealing a textured, pink, illuminated underlayer. He is challenging the viewer to write it off as slapdash or, perhaps, to read into it an echo of Marcel Duchamp’s “Étant donnés”—the famed conceptual artist’s final work, an installation revealed only after his death in 1968 to be a brick wall with a wooden door, through which a viewer can spy (by way of a peephole in the door) the obscured body of a nude woman (a sculpture) with a gas lamp in her hand. Scharf has reduced one of the great mysterious artworks to a flippant gesture.

Through careful titling and by avoiding any semblance of the artist’s hand in the making of his work, Scharf appears to be pre-positioning himself vis-à-vis his art, inoculating his output against criticism and praise alike. For “Artworker,” Scharf uses yellow twine to spell out along a steel-mesh banner a series of phrases, such as “Work the Art” and “Make the Work.” He’s hardly the first to turn to aphorism: I hear Tim Gunn purring his similar droll catchphrase (“Make it work!”) when I see the piece, but I also see quips from Duchamp and especially Bruce Nauman.

Sam Scharf, “I See You” (2013)

Cynicism and self-protection were played-out gestures even before the end of Duchamp’s lifetime. The artist who changed all of art with the notion of the readymade in 1915 was by 1935 developing miniature facsimiles of his work and stuffing them into suitcases for collectors. A century has passed since art was considered an inviolable realm, and Scharf, like a proper post-minimalist sculptor, is mired in that legacy. His project is a forensic one, and he’s asking others to participate—or rather, imposing this work on the viewer.

If Scharf’s viewers start to feel like the flies in his video, that’s certainly one available response. The exhibit is one more show of sculptures made using industrial materials and snark—years after such shows as “Unmonumental” at the New Museum, “Thing” at the Hammer Museum, and “The Uncertainty of Objects and Ideas” at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden testified to the trend of fugitive restlessness in the sculpture arena. “Torn Down,” a tower of ripped-up particle board set in an unassuming nook built into Flashpoint’s space, could be the remainders of any of those shows. And while it is a witty piece, it is a careful and controlled work in a careful and controlling show. There’s no room for accident in Scharf’s work. Even Scharf’s humor is precise and rigid.

There are a few handholds in the show, though. I’d be willing to bet that “Nothing Left Behind (Love Letter to D.C.)” is Scharf’s reflection on the Ai Weiwei retrospective at the Hirshhorn. “Nothing Left Behind” is an organic-looking dodecahedron, a particle-board mass painted safety-hazard orange but covered over with moss. That corresponds neatly to a few works by Ai: his huali (wood) icosahedrons (“Divina Proportione” or “F Size”) as well as his houselike structures made from pressed tea (“Teahouse”).

The true love note to the District is “I See You,” a two-part installation set in Flashpoint and in the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. Two desktop telescopes, encased in hard rubber and set in the windows of each institution, connect the space between the two sites, enabling viewers to peer across G Street NW at one another. This marks a welcome first in recent memory—an artist thinking about the potential of the vast Mies van der Rohe-designed lobby for placing art. Scharf’s other piece for the MLK Library is my favorite of both sites: another geometric drywall installation, one papered over with a photo print to resemble the lobby floor. The architectural work encloses a hanging street lamp that makes the work look like a white-hot boil erupting from the ground, fracturing and hardening.

It’s more of a sketch than a sculpture. The work is not perfect, and unlike some other pieces on view, it is less than confident about its status or what the viewer should do with it. Elsewhere, “Nothing Is the Same” is an ambitious show that dares viewers to deny its ambition. At times, Scharf lets his guard fall, and it’s in these moments that his work reveals what it will be once the artist learns to tap into uncertainty and ambiguity as tools and not just dwell on it as a subject. It’s a promising start.