“Matthew McCaslin”

At Baumgartner Galleries (R Street)

to Jan. 24

For his 1995 installation Bloomer, Matthew McCaslin linked video monitors playing time-lapse nature footage with gratuitous yards of winding extension cord. This virtuoso performance would have passed muster as cybernetic nightclub decor, but in gallery spaces the show struck out. The mood evoked was unitary and predictable, and the extension-cord-as-liana theme suffered from obviousness.

But in the show now installed at Baumgartner’s Dupont Circle branch, McCaslin has changed his tune; he has improvised, abandoned the idea of a theme show, and as a consequence made his work a lot smarter. The five pieces in this space (linked only loosely by a common color scheme and a transportation metaphor) are funky and ironic, and above all they evince a lively and critical intelligence.

Bill Viola once said that traditional sculpture materials can constitute the body of a piece, but the video monitor is the brain, implying (in a most uncharacteristic manner) that much of contemporary sculpture consists of “no-brainers.” Just as problematic for the genre, however, is the tendency of the monitor to usurp all attention and turn the video sculpture into a “one-brainer.” McCaslin has ingeniously solved this problem by bringing two other equally strong foci into his sculptures—the familiar gestalt of the institutional clock face and bright, irritating work lights that both attract and abuse our attention (a trick he has picked up from Dan Flavin).

McCaslin is dexterous, almost debonair, in his use of this trio of ready-mades. Ten years ago, the extension cords he lays on the gallery floor, the electrical tape on view, and the unhoused switches that punctuate his wiring might have been read as “exposing the artifice.” Now this paraphernalia itself constitutes a material about as arty as bronze or marble. His extension cords remind one of Eva Hesse’s (and now Jeanne Silverthorne’s) gallery-sweeping rubber tentacles. Other technical “means of production,” like exposed wires and VCRs, have become familiar decorations in the work of Gary Hill and Tim Hutchinson. As if to signal that he is in the vanguard of this new manner, McCaslin leaves a spare light bulb beside a television, rests a VCR on top of an unattached wagon part, and throws a few superfluous coils of conduit on a shelf.

On the back wall of the gallery is the real winner in this show: Timer, an inverted hand truck supporting a television monitor and a VCR. Partly because of its airborne wheels but also because of its abrupt, improvisatory character, the piece suggests the historical precedent of Marcel Duchamp’s 1913 Bicycle Wheel. Three synchronized clocks draped over the monitor and part of the Apocalypse Now soundtrack complete the piece. Of course, a connection could be made between the clocks, which all show the same time, the sun, a natural clock marking cosmic time, and the soundtrack that bodes the end thereof. But the strength of the work is that it resists this kind of reading. McCaslin is distant and clever enough in these pieces to discourage our laying a heavy critical hand over the artist’s light one. CP