The long-awaited Martin Creed retrospective at the Park Avenue Armory has opened its doors, bringing an almost exhaustive survey of the artist’s work to New York for one of the summer’s more peculiar, and ultimately, more striking exhibitions. Pulling from the artist’s 20+ year career, the exhibition offers a fascinating and adventurous exhibition, that asks as much from the viewer as it presents, allowing free-roaming exploration and rewarding it with a range of shocks and surprises.
Creed’s work is particularly impressive in its ability to infiltrate the space that surrounds it, or to present the space itself as a participant in the exhibition. Glancing at the show checklist, one notices scores of works that initially escaped the viewer’s attention, or seemed like aspects of the space itself. In the main hallway, the artist’ had painted long, gaping stripes of black emulsion, for instance, a paint job that only presents itself upon repeated viewings. Nearby, the hallway’s main curtains slide open and closed repeatedly, challenging the viewer to dart through at just the right moment, or collide with the curtain as it slams shut. In another space, his piece Half the air in a given room welcomes the viewer to wander through one of the Armory’s well-appointed rooms, almost completely buried in latex balloons.
Equally interesting is the work’s ability to function in tandem. In one room, an opening and closing door is counter-pointed by his Turner Prize-winning piece The lights going on and off. The subtle changes in positioning with each successive illumination marks a strikingly nuanced passage of time through the two works, as the viewer contends with their own jarred perspective while trying to trace movement of elements in the room. Elsewhere, his video pieces of actors defecating, vomiting, or smashing flowers (the last piece performed by himself), offers a veritable display of outré actions, as if presenting extremes of human behavior as an exhibition of its own.
But it’s the show’s site-specific installation Creed has realized in the Wade Thompson Drill Hall that underscores his skills in the most explicit manner, lampooning the ambitious scale of the space, and the grandiose projects which often take place inside. A towering video screen plays loops of various actors opening their mouths, and displaying half eaten food. At the conclusion of each short clip, the garage door at the end of the space gradually rises, revealing the street outside, and rupturing the hall’s consistency as an isolated environment. Creed’s work is revelatory in these moments, playing with the gravitas of the location and context even in the speed and positioning of a garage door’s opening, further underscored by the delicate, plucking strings of the roving band that often passes through the hall, and the echoing voice of its bandleader. The work presents itself as something monumental, the door’s opening as something of a grand reveal, yet its great distance from the viewer, and its exposure of just another New York street outside collapses this impression almost simultaneously.
Creed’s work functions most effectively in these moments, building on the exhibition context as a space to quickly, and often violently, rip any expectation or preconception out from under the viewer’s feet. His retrospective is at turns shocking, hilarious and joyful, while never demanding much more from the viewer than a willingness for adventure. For those willing to take the plunge, the show is an almost endless treasure hunt, digging out each of Creed’s coy visual puns and comic inversions throughout the Armory’s prestigious grounds.
The Back Door is on view through August 7th.
— D. Creahan
Martin Creed: The Back Door [Park Avenue Armory]