The initial intention of Minimalism, as outlined by a young Donald Judd in his early essays, was not only to take art off the walls, but also to completely alter the viewer’s perception of it. Minimalism began as a type of body art, in the sense that you’re forced into a physical experience that disrupts if not eclipses the aesthetic one. Then the aesthetic experience is further muddled (or undermined) by the Minimalist insistence on using industrial or craft materials-the stuff of Canal Street.
McKendree Key’s Half Spaces: 207 Franklin Street #1 installation at her apartment in Greenpoint snugly fits all the requirements of canonical Minimalism, but does so with a casual effortlessness that lacks the self-consciousness of specifically intentioned “revivalism” and has as much to do with the utopian living situations of Andrea Zittel or a deconstructed Ikea catalogue as it does Judd’s material austerity. Key has sliced all four rooms of her smallish one-bedroom apartment in half horizontally with tautly stretched panels of spandex, resulting in a space that forces you to pick your poison of physical discomfort: either hunch around awkwardly or remain erect with your head poking into the spandex, resulting in a lot of staticky hair. Either way, being inside Half Spaces makes you feel sort of silly.
The piece is a diversion from Key’s other work, although partitioning spaces with spandex seems to be the direction she’s heading in-she’ll install a similar piece in the Islip Art Museum in August. Key’s previous work consists largely of performative installations where she would release mass quantities of plastic balls into natural settings, like a rooftop or pond. What happened next was mostly out of her control, as the natural elements had their way with the man-made ones. Clearly, the commonality of introducing artificiality into normalcy remains.
What’s changed with Half Spaces is that, instead of letting nature affect the viewer’s invariably altered perception of landscape, she controls the relation of body to environment. Although Key’s apartment is tidy, her sculptures, books, a guitar, and furniture leave the space under the spandex horizon looking somewhat cluttered, the sensation exacerbated by the claustrophobically low ceiling. An important aspect of the Half Spaces experience is to poke your head through one of the peepholes Key has fashioned, each of which affords just enough space for the normal-sized neck. The area above the horizon line is something of a revelation-comparatively, the upper five feet of the apartment are barren and spacious. The gears start to turn: “Well, a loft could easily go here.” “Some shelves would work up there.” “Maybe the spandex could actually support objects and be used as a storage space!” Probably not, actually. It’s extremely flexible, and would likely stretch right to the ground if very much weight were applied. But by dividing the room in half with the material, Key raises that pervasive issue of living space that all New Yorkers negotiate, and shows how much of it often remains unused.
A typical New York City story: artists move into a mostly abandoned and somewhat scary neighborhood for its large spaces and within five years are priced out of the area they initially sparked interest in (see SoHo, Chelsea, Dumbo, Williamsburg, Long Island City, and soon, the Navy Yard). It’s the nature of the beast in a property-starved city, and Half Spaces also touches on the economic reality of being an artist in New York-use space creatively and economically or leave the city. Speaking of economics, the gesture of using uncut, store-bought fabric to create a controlled atmosphere of heightened sensations both good and bad, is a quintessentially Minimalist one. Spandex, material of biker shorts and ice skater costumes, material of confinement, in a setting of sublimity-Half Spaces is too sublime to be ironic. Ultimately, the choice of spandex as the material of division is more utilitarian than theoretical-the fabric is easily pulled and stretched around corners and into tight spots, allowing for a thoroughly totalitarian half space. But Half Spaces also represents a witty update of Minimalist ideals, using a fabric of contemporary life to elucidate that the answers in the race for space might be just above our noses.
Nick Stillman is an artist and and Editor of NYFA Current, a publication of the New York Foundation for the Arts.