Charles Harlan – Michael E. Smith – Virginia Overton – Lewis Baltz
22 November 2014 – 1 February 2015
An exhibition curated by Philippe Piessens, collector.
In George Packer’s, The Unwinding (2013), from which this exhibition borrows its title, the author finds himself at a recently foreclosed real estate development in Florida. Wandering between empty houses, he finds emaciated cows, brought in so that someone could claim an agricultural tax break, and then left to starve. The scene perfectly captures the postindustrial blight and the near-apocalyptic societal breakdown associated with the collapse of the American Dream.
The sculptures and installations of Virginia Overton, Michael E Smith, and Charles Harlan, the three young artists in this show, all respond to this socio-economic and cultural backdrop. The works evoke an air of the provisional, the makeshift. The artists’ pared down aesthetic recalls works by Minimal artists like Carl Andre and Donald Judd. But where the latter favoured the raw materials churned out by America’s great industries and high production values, the artists in this show opt for more humble materials that can be dispatched to the building site or trash pile and back again.
While the media used by Overton, Smith and Harlan are largely restricted to what they can find and repurpose around them, their works should not simply be considered a reflection of American decline. In many ways their works recall Packer’s statement: “alone in a landscape with no solid structures, Americans have to improvise their own destinies, plot their own stories of sense and salvation.” Overton, Harlan and Smith make the most of this newfound freedom. They all express a sensitivity to the innate qualities of materials, an awareness of space and site, and welcome notions of displacement and improvisation. Each, however, has succeeded in creating his or her own artistic vocabulary. Overton harks back to Arte Povera, describing one of the works in this show as “A piece of real parquet hung on a wall … real things in the world, not … some extraneous objects to be placed on a pedestal.” By contrast, Harlan’s structures, through their sheer physical weight and totemic forms, refer to antiquity and the prehistoric. For Michael E Smith, sculptures resemble “ruined bodies”, and are made from discarded materials, everyday objects and animal remnants. They strongly evoke Freud’s “uncanny” in a world where all is not well.
Moving from the present day backwards, this exhibition ends with a series of photographs from the 1970’s by the American artist Lewis Baltz. Shooting in black and white, Baltz’ images record industrial parks, tract houses, freeways, shopping centres and housing developments. He picks up on their dimensions, their rigid lines, and the quality of the materials, using the aesthetic methods of the “technological sublime”. However, far from eulogizing Man’s radical and possibly irreversible alteration of the landscape, Baltz offers a pessimistic view of the future. His photographs capture instances of incipient decay such as cracks in walls, desolate and abandoned construction sites and gathering waste. It is as if, with a combination of horror and fascination, he foresaw the unstoppable deflating of America’s bubble of mass prosperity that started in the 1970’s: “It was horrifying … it was fascinating to see this tsunami coming at you, you have these nightmares where the train is coming after you and you run and run and run, but you stay in place. You couldn’t escape it”.
Lewis Baltz (b. 1945) is a visual artist and photographer who became an important figure in the New Topographics movement of the late 1970s. His work has been published in a number of books, presented in numerous exhibitions, and appeared in museums such as the Museum of Modern Art, Paris, Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
Charles Harlan (b. 1984 Smyrna, GA, lives and work in Brooklyn, NY) studied at NYU under Carol Bove, for whom he later became an assistant. For “The Unwinding”, Harlan travelled to Belgium to research and construct two new works. He is represented by JTT Gallery in New York.
Virginia Overton (b. 1971 Nashville, TN, lives and works in Brooklyn, NY) Overton’s work is currently exhibited in the solo show Flat Rock at the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami and a site-specific installation at Storm King Art Center, NY. Recent solo exhibitions include: Westfälischer Kunsteverein, Münster; Kunsthalle Bern; The Kitchen, New York, and Deluxe, The Power Station, Dallas. She is represented by Mitchell Innes & Nash in New York and Freymond Guth in Zurich.
Michael E. Smith (b. 1977 Detroit, MI, lives and works in Hopkinton, NH) Smith’s solo shows include Zabludowicz Collection, London and Power Station, Dallas (2014). Smith exhibited at the David Roberts Art Foundation, London (2014), Frankfurter Kunstverein (2014), Whitney Biennial (2012). He is represented by Clifton Benevento in New York, KOW in Berlin and Zero in Milan.