Gavin Brown has headed north, finally opening his long-rumored Harlem exhibition space with an expansive show of work by British artist Ed Atkins. Culling a diverse series pieces from the artist’s recent output, the exhibition’s awareness of its context, and its presence in this former brewery turned exhibition space, makes for a strangely surreal experience, and a striking perspective on the gallery itself.
Atkins’s characters are frequently, almost constantly distended, ripped apart or alienated from themselves, often as a result of scenes and situations like airport security checkpoints. Previously cohesive frameworks are ripped apart and reassembled, often with such incessant repetition that the work boils over into physical comedy, much like his video of a disembodied head tumbling down a stair set, pulling references to globalized violence into a clinical environment that twists its subject matter through a comical lens. Elsewhere, a trio of tattooed skinheads sing a chorus of Randy Newman’s “I think it’s going to rain today,” mixing its soppy pathos with the performer’s somewhat imposing form, as if the fusion of these conflicting images were battling for dominance.
It’s an interesting thread to follow in terms of the gallery’s new locale, a gradually disintegrating sense of the body as a whole form under the forces and frameworks of late capital. The new exhibition space is “raw” in the strongest sense: holes in the ceiling leave pigeons fluttering in and out of the space, while other floors remain out of bounds while being developed. The space itself seems to have lost a sense of its own purpose, while still bearing momentary inflections of its former self. It is a place between times, between uses, and between identities, with Atkins’s pieces emphasizing not only the blankness of the walls around him, but the layers of history that remain unreckoned with, or subtly present within the changing space itself. Even the exhibition techniques, steel girders, acoustic treatment, and massive screens, feel like alien elements, ghostly presences that underscore the space’s transition.
Brown has chosen wisely for his first exhibition in Harlem, selecting an artist whose understanding of how modernity fragments meaning not only contributes to breakdowns in formal consistency and continuity, but equally turns the resulting fragments into compositional elements, functional objects that never escape some of their previous aura. While the gallerist continues his transformation of the space, Atkins’s work does much to reveal the processes of change as an embodied analogue, written across the human body in the same way that Brown is refashioning the space around it.
This sensation of suspended time, of a collision of meanings and forces, echoes throughout the show, making it a particularly unforgettable experience. The show is on view through the end of the month.
— D. Creahan