The Spirit Level is a large multimedia group show currently on display at both of the Gladstone Gallery locations in Chelsea. New York-based artist Ugo Rondinone curated the show with the intention of tapping into various levels of consciousness with both sexual and surreal imagery. With a rather dark and visceral edge, the work spans a variety of mediums: painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, and installation. Between the two galleries, a total of 19 artists are represented including Martin Boyce, Ann Craven, and Sam Gilliam.
Entering the 21st Street gallery, viewers pass through roughly painted glass doors, an idea that Rondinone executed to keep outside light from tampering with the delicate atmosphere of the show. The small front room houses a group of six mixed-media paintings by Hans Schärer. At first glance, these paintings look like macabre illustrations of a single figure aggressively bearing its sharp teeth; however a closer look reveals their thematic and cultural significance steeped in the aesthetics and symbolism of religion. Each of these paintings is titled Madonna and, as a whole, they manipulate the representation of this religious icon by taking away her trademark angelic beauty. Teeth made of 3-dimensional objects and hollow orbs for eyes imbue each figure with an eerie look; the images bear almost no surface resemblance to the traditional Madonna, save for their crudely painted veils. Schärer’s paintings have a primitive look to them found in the simplicity of the figures and their tonality; the images are perhaps inspired by the way Westerners have historically viewed Paganism and its icons.
The large main room of the gallery, with its expansive ceilings, hosts the largest sculptural pieces in the show. In the center of the room are Peter Buggenhout’s The Blind Leading the Blind multimedia sculptures. These pieces, made with “household” dust and waste material, seem as if they came from old sunken ships found at the bottom of the ocean; the thick layers of dust are visible even from a distance. The twisted materials create caverns inside the massive bodies, further adding to their structural complexity.
Complementing Buggenhout’s work are two of Sam Gilliam’s large rainbow-colored polypropylene fabric installations. Wall Cascade and Close to Trees hang on opposite sides of the room’s entrance like two colorful welcome banners. Gilliam is known for introducing three-dimensional elements to the practice of Color Field Painting and Lyrical Abstraction, and often works with deconstructed materials. In his most recent bodies of work, Gilliam has taken his theories even further by replacing traditional canvas with polypropylene, hand-made paper, and aluminum.
The entrance on 24th Street is also painted with a white glaze over the glass garage-style door to subdue the sunlight. Gallery-goers are greeted by a group of paintings that rival the ominous quality of Schärer’s Madonnas. Ann Craven’s six Moon paintings, all oil on linen, are a minimalist’s answer to a skyscape. Although the majority of her work tends to lean toward more complex compositions, the simplicity of these paintings feels deep and haunting. The title of each piece is complete with the unique time and date of which it was made, indicating the phase that the moon was in while being observed. By incorporating these dates and details, Craven draws a connection between science, nature, and aesthetics.
Clockwise from the entrance, to the right, are Sarah Lucas’ Oboddaddy phallus sculptures. Made of plaster, rubber, wire mesh, and fiberglass armature, these pieces have a rich and striking texture. The sexual imagery is reminiscent of Freudian psychology and perhaps point to the repressed sexual desires that purportedly loom in the back of the mind. Lucas is simultaneously calling attention to both aesthetics and psychology, complementing Craven’s scientific gestures.
Part-time curator Ugo Rondinone is an eclectic artist whose work spans various mediums, styles, and philosophies. His pieces tend to be highly thematic; he often incorporates themes of fantasy, desire, and the supernatural into his artwork. For this exhibition, Rondinone acted exclusively as curator, denying his own pieces from being displayed. He put the show together in celebration of his companion, poet John Giorno’s 75th birthday.