“The Empire of Sighs”

Andrea Pollan knows that there’s something wrong with contemporary artists. “Mysterious mailed powders cause HAZMAT dramas,” the Curator’s Office director tells us in the statement that accompanies “The Empire of Sighs,” her guest appearance at Numark Gallery. “Stress levels soar while pharmaceutical companies mete out mysterious purple pills to this Prozac nation.” No, the problem isn’t alliteration. Pollan says that what makes the present moment uniquely awful—for all of us in general but for creative types in particular—is our instant access to tragedy, made possible by new information technologies. The result, as she puts it, is a “pervasive, collective societal neurosis”—one that has apparently changed both the way present-day art is made and the nature of what it has to say.

No surprise, then, that the 16 pieces in “Sighs” sometimes feel more like the product of a group-therapy session than the demonstration of a curatorial thesis. The nine artists in the show all share similar obsessions, perturbations, and dysfunctions. There’s abundant emotional fragility to be found here, in any number of pieces that present surrealistic nightmare scenarios. And then there’s the material presence of the works themselves, many of which are quietly, tentatively rendered—or are so physically slight that one might feel the need to tiptoe around them.

Even the exhibition’s two large-scale installations, Michele Kong’s Pores (2005) and Julianne Swartz’s Spectrum (Double Blue) (2005), look fragile. Kong’s piece is nearly invisible; it’s possible to walk straight through the gallery without even noticing it. Delicate transparent woven forms descend from the ceiling to just a couple of feet below eye level, each narrowing as it approaches the floor. Tiny, clear, irregularly shaped beads are dotted throughout. The pieces resemble ghostly chandeliers—or fantastic conical spider webs covered in dew.

The piece would seem to be about its own lack of substance, but then the material begins to assert itself. These hangings, it becomes apparent, are made with monofilament and tiny beads of hot glue—the favorite materials of the neophyte sculptor unable to weld, cast, or model but happy to make liberal use of the hot-glue gun, thank you very much. That such beguiling forms could be made with such inglorious materials is certainly something. But this work has little to do with a world on the edge; it’s more a meditation on the winding down of the plastic arts, and on the way practicing sculpture no longer means making substantial objects.

Swartz’s Spectrum, though superficially more eye-catching, also flirts with invisibility. Seven brightly colored steel wires emerge from the wall and arc their way downward toward eye level like fishing rods doubled over by a big catch. Magnets at their ends appear to be drawing identically colored wires up from the floor, holding them stiffly at attention. A few inches of emptiness separate the magnets from each wire end. Again, simple, dopey materials are employed in the service of a magical transformation: The arching of each wire points to the grand, mysterious forces that bind the world together. The piece seems to sit at the quaint intersection of scientific demonstration and mystical quest. It’s a diverting act of positioning.

Roxy Paine’s Amanita Muscaria #13 (2005) is a richly detailed, if slightly baffling, simulacrum, also about invisible forces. At first, the piece looks like some 19th-century botanist’s inquiry into the secrets behind natural processes: It appears to be a large mushroom gradually decomposing within a sealed glass dome. But the mushroom is a meticulously painted polymer replica: a bravura demonstration of—and riff on—visual trickery. Think of it as the taxidermied remains of the tradition of Western art, apparently an entirely historic practice at this point. Though not exactly a hazmat drama, the piece is at least about a poisoning of sorts.

Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz would probably appreciate it, though they might view Paine’s work as more of a postmortem for a fairy-tale mushroom. The American/Spaniard team, you see, also works under glass, constructing a darkly funny nightmare world in snow globes. In Traveler CXLIII (2004), a tiny figure in a blue cap lies facedown in a snow drift; on his knees above him, another man looks to be either pummeling him or desperately trying to revive him. Overhead, from the bare branches of skeletal plastic trees, little black ravens look on with interest. In Traveler CXXXV (2004), a group of men stand hunched over in a grove of bare, silvery trees; each has his head entirely inserted into a hole in one of the trunks.

It’s almost poetic that the very thing these objects are meant to do is never going to happen, at least in a gallery setting—many viewers will have to fight the urge to shake them up and see it snow, already. Still, better than any of the globes themselves is a 40-inch-by-33-inch photographic image of the inside of Traveler CLVI (2005). Here, a giant spider seems to be rapidly descending through mountains. In what might be a middle-aged middle manager’s recurring nightmare, it holds a frantic businessman in his maw; another white-haired man runs ahead, desperately clutching a brown briefcase. It’s actually snowing inside this globe, and the camera’s blurring of much of the fore- and backgrounds adds some scale-erasing ambiguity. No jokey little bauble this, although its Grimm Brothers–worthy message is perhaps too clear: Adulthood brings neither certainty nor security.

Sarah Hobbs contributes a more subtle psychological drama: In her untitled 2004 photograph, a sea of white eggs entirely covers the floor of a dimly, diffusely lit room, which is otherwise empty save for one lone chair of transparent acrylic and modernist design. The soft lighting seems to emphasize the weight and texture of each egg; the opportunity for disaster—or at least sickening mess—for anyone actually in this chair is clear. All of Hobbs’ work is concerned with compulsions and disorders: hoarding, perfectionism, insomnia. But the eggs’ perfected, smooth volumes bring yet more art-world associations—with, say, those iconic marble heads of Brancusi. Of course, he never would’ve imagined modernism as quite so restricted or—there it is again—fragile.

As fragility goes, however, Kyung Jeon is “Sighs”’ greatest adept. Her Pink Steps (2005) is fairly large in scale—roughly 80 inches by 60 inches—but most of it consists of vast expanses of wrinkled rice paper, attached in sections to an underlying canvas. Across the center, tiny cartoon vignettes dot a hastily scrawled tree line of slack brown outlines, a few irregular graphite arcs, and tiny splotches of white and pink, presumably meant to indicate blossoms. Prepubescent boys and girls, either naked or bare-chested and wearing tight underwear, engage in odd, sexualized acts: A young girl wraps a smaller boy in her freakishly elongated tongue; a boy stands and pees on a reclining girl, his urine forming heart-shaped puddles. Little pink footprints trace a path from scene to scene, leading to a lone female figure in the lower third of the page, who carries a large yellow sack filled with sleeping children.

The result is equal parts Korean fairy tale and manga bondage fantasy. It’s very different from Laura Carton’s similarly psychosexual www.sweetcameltoe.com (2001). In this work, the sex act has been painstakingly removed from an Internet porn image, leaving only a poor-resolution photo of terribly tacky furniture and cheap wood paneling—and, admittedly, an ominous sense of some vanished degradation. Jeon is less concerned with lost things than with acts that have yet to occur, things that loom on the psychic horizon. In Feeding Gumballs (2004), a boy and girl squat on the floor; attentively, seriously, he feeds brightly colored gum balls to her one at a time, pulling them from a cluster that looks suspiciously like a double helix of DNA. Here, fairy-tale-like metaphor becomes a potent tool for imagining an unimaginable future, when all little girls have grown up and mysterious purple pills do more than just help them with their OCD. However flat, uninflected, and anti-heroic Jeon’s graphic language is, her images hum with unexpected resonances.

Give Pollan credit for finding real connections between seemingly disparate works, and for hanging an engaging show. If there’s a problem here, it originates with the curator’s insistence on finding still more connections—with current events and current technology and their impact on our collective culture. Of course daily life and the language of art are linked. But really, most of the issues highlighted in “The Empire of Sighs” are more of a reality in the latter than in the former. Denials of material mastery, parodic de-skilling, undermining the success of your own images with whimsy—these have been a given in the art world for at least three decades now. Pollan won’t find these changes in the wreckage of the World Trade Center or on the streets of Baghdad; they’re in the settled rubble of art history. CP