March 26, 2013

What Holds Things Together?

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Prof. Michael Ashkin, art, manufactures landscapes in corrugated cardboard. Architecture Is for Creeps, Prof. Ashkin’s show at Milstein Gallery, looks like a sea of marooned, battered buildings. It’s hard not to feel pensive walking through the labyrinth of lean wooden beams and grimy white blocks. Projected diagonally, the beams intrude upon the viewer’s passage. Atop the blocks sit minute structures made of slim wooden sticks or crumpled cardboard. Staggering wildly, the structures appear to be on the verge of collapse.

What holds things together? Prof. Ashkin not only poses that question, but also hints at several possible answers. The hand of the artist is apparent, and the materials used for each work are undisguised. Yellowish glue has been hastily slathered onto one swaying, hut-like structure. Close by, a circle of cardboard rectangles confers conspiratorially, with the help of generous quantities of masking tape. These materials supply enough fodder for lengthy debate. Recycled cardboard, for instance, recalls questions of value, regeneration and transience.

Prof. Ashkin sketches out the idea of a familiar form, tempts the viewer to fill in the blanks, and then throws in the occasional surprise. The result is that the viewer is repeatedly forced to question his or her own judgment. Fir strips, held in place by clamps, take the form of a chair (or rather, the outline of a chair).  Clamped to one of the chair’s outstretched arm is a tall beam. The beam, which rises skyward, has been abruptly broken. The jagged tip, an obvious mark of violence, shocks.

What appears to be a watchtower (or a factory building, fire hydrant or air traffic control tower?) is easily established as the exhibition’s central motif. Almost too quickly, symbols of surveillance flood the viewer’s mind. One instance is Nadia Kaabi-Linke’s All Along the Watchtower, featured in the Johnson Museum’s Lines of Control exhibition in Spring 2012. Kaabi-Linke airbrush painted a hulking shadow of a watchtower on the gallery walls, leaving the rest to the viewers’ imagination.

At Prof. Ashkin’s show, the watchtower lurks and lunges, hemming the viewer in on every side. There is an aerial view of the tower, rendered in the all-too-familiar colors of warning signs — black duct tape against a yellow background. The tower, as seen from its side over the course of a day, has also been incarnated in a trio of black and white duct tape renderings. Looking at the canvasses from left to right, the viewer sees the black tape encroach upon the white with increasing ferocity. There is also a cardboard model of the watchtower, whose meticulously fashioned balcony beckons to the viewer.

Other suggestions of violence and surveillance lend the gallery a brooding air. Crouching by the tall windows, and almost blending in with the concrete floor, is a six-sided black box. On an opposing wall, silver duct tape has been elaborately layered on corrugated cardboard to form a vaguely mirror-like surface. The metallic grey surface glints in the afternoon sunlight pouring in through the gallery windows. The pseudo-mirror invites the viewer to stare, but ultimately frustrates the viewer with its opacity. Nearby, scraps of cardboard rolled in paper resemble plump, cartoonish cigarettes, which recall Claes Oldenburg’s garishly painted sculptures of everyday consumer goods. Pressed tightly together, with the aid of a black band, and accompanied by a fuse-like stick, the cardboard rolls resemble some kind of explosive.

Prof. Ashkin is a veteran chronicler of urban wastelands, and his meditations have taken on myriad forms, as glimpsed at his shows at Secession in 2009, and the Johnson Museum in 2010. In 2003, Prof. Ashkin exhibited black-and-white photographs depicting New Jersey’s economic wastelands. Artforum critic Michael Wilson has described Prof. Ashkin’s Untitled (New Jersey Meadowlands Project), which focused on decaying industrial parks and threatening chain link fences, as “perversely beautiful.” That description also seems apt for Architecture Is for Creeps.

Architecture, in the words of philosopher Susanne Langer, is “the total environment made visible.” That is precisely what Prof. Ashkin succeeds in doing — he articulates the urban wasteland from nearly every conceivable view, drawing inspiration from multiple sources, including aerial photographs and video games. The resultant landscapes, a fusion of fiction and nonfiction, cannot easily be placed. Torn between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the viewer is left disoriented and displaced. Is Prof. Ashkin perhaps evoking amnesia, or placelessness, as a testament to marginal, forgotten places? Perhaps. As T.S. Eliot muses in The Waste Land, “You cannot say, or guess, for you know only / A heap of broken images, where the sun beats.”

Architecture Is for Creeps will be on display at Milstein Gallery until Apr. 12.

Original Author: Daveen Koh