By: Laura Phipps
Michelle Lopez’s first solo show at Simon Preston Gallery, “The Violent Bear It Away,” commands the space and echoes its sentiment. The gallery, an unimposing white space historicized by revealed wood beams and brick walls, is among a number of Lower East Side/Chinatown galleries that share their blocks with fish markets, tiny bars, and homeless shelters and quietly place art into this matrix of low-end commerce. The space at Simon Preston communicates both high level production and simple physicality. Lopez’s work in this show manages to operate effectively within this backdrop of dual objectives.
The exhibition divides the gallery into two main spaces. The division is forced, most obviously, by the large Sycamore tree of Southern Trees/Black September that juts through a small white wall in the center of the gallery, its shorn trunk and cantilevered sandbags greeting viewers. The trunk protrudes into the front half of the space, while the remainder of the branches extends into the back half of the space, through a small wall. Less obviously, the division is marked by a difference in materiality between the first and second room. Lopez’s work as a whole looks at the inevitability of tragedy and, as she said in a recent interview, the redemption comes through destruction. While the pieces in the front of the room are made of highly produced materials that reference the destruction caused by nature and machines, the physical extension of the tree’s branches in the back room references the solitude of loss, as well as, redemption.
In the front of the gallery two dichotomous pieces foreshadow the silence of Southern Trees/Black September. Woadsonner (Edit) is the edited version of a “failed” earlier piece by Lopez. (This was a piece commissioned by Public Art Fund in 2000). Woadsonner (Edit)’s current success is inhibited by the immediacy of the art historical references to Robert Rauschenberg’s and John Chamberlain’s works, as well as the lack of connection to the second piece sharing its space. Woadsonner (Edit)’s connection to Special Mission Project/Akira is muddled, but the intentional materiality gives the viewer a hint at the idea of tragedy each sculpture is attempting to express. Special Mission Project/Akira is a black tangle of anime-inspired hair that both melts into and floats above the floor of the gallery. The black, cast ash of the sculpture recalls forces of nature that break down humanity’s defenses. Special Mission’s simplicity is striking, but again the referential aspect—a weak critique of Japanese Superflat—renders the piece slightly less than its whole. However, the cast ash is also used by Lopez to cue an understanding of Southern Trees/Black September as a complex comment on the destruction of social events such as lynching and terrorist hijacks. The branches of the tree extending through the center wall create a serene and silent space, broken only by the realization that a single branch is artificial. Cast from resin, the single branch provides the hint of loss as a result of the destruction of man’s interference upon nature.
Lopez’s most successful works are those that come as a result of her sociopolitical probing (Southern Trees/Black September), not her art historical explorations (Special Mission Project/Akira). When Lopez references complex social history and her own history, such as the fact that she was born on September 6, 1970 when the Dawson Field’s plane hijacking occurred, she is able to create works, such as Southern Trees/Black September, that allow the viewer to contemplate the meaning of loss.
“Michelle Lopez: The Violent Bear It Away” at Simon Preston Gallery runs through May 17th
Simon Preston Gallery
Take the B or D trains to Grand Street of the F, J, M or Z trains to Delancey Street
Gallery hours: Wednesday through Sunday 11am to 6pm
Gallery website: www.simonprestongallery.com
The exhibition is accompanied by a publication featuring essays by Carissa Rodriguez and J. Uslip