Open House: Working in Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Museum, by Nick Stillman

Early critical returns on the Brooklyn Museum’s Open House: Working in Brooklyn have been middling to scathing, with most negative reviews questioning the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink curatorial strategy. Open House is gleefully and maybe willfully disorganized, reflecting the vast ethnic, social, economic, and artistic diversity of the borough. But (and I’m not the first to say it) by positioning the show as the ultimate exercise in inclusiveness, curators Charlotta Kotik and Tumelo Mosaka weatherproof it from critical judgment. In a lot of cases, it’s hard to even discern which pieces in the museum actually constitute the exhibition.

As a generalization, Open House features more heavily-worked, craft-informed process art (see Biennial, Whitney) than informational “conceptualism,” although it’s impossible to judge whether the disparity is a curatorial judgment or actually indicative of contemporary artmaking norms in Brooklyn. So what about so-called “reductivist” art that negotiates formal relationships of shape, color, line, and space? The theoretical thread that seems to connect the diverse brands of contemporary minimalism here is a frustration with the visual and social homogeneity that is a byproduct of corporatized, suburbanized, neo-conservative America. Interestingly, Open House shows the current potential for reductivism as cultural commentary and critique.

Joe Amrheim’s “Arch” employs formal organization to comment not on global politics, but the politics of the art world. A majestic arch of mylar sheets embossed with hackneyed terms used to describe contemporary art (“Proto-Symbolist,” “Conceptual-Art Look,” “Adolescent Flash-in-the-Pan Stuff”), “Arch” is an inventive blend of architecture, semiotics, and storytelling. Art criticism eventually becomes part of art history, and with contemporary art always inching toward the indescribable, Amrheim’s piece is a reminder that it’s the critics, not the artists, who formulate the terminology that identifies the work to future generations.

Melanie Baker and John Powers stand out as effectively pursuing reductive means to serve political ends. Baker’s two large charcoal drawings are extreme close-ups of politicians, each presumably George W. Bush. Figurative elements focus on banal details of the president’s anatomy: his hand on a podium, his tightly pursed lips. But the figures are surrounded almost entirely in dramatic black, illuminating the secretive lust for aggression lurking behind his unseen eyes. Powers’ “Daisy Cutter” is, at first glance, a huge chandelier constructed from small pieces of styrofoam in the shape of El Lissitzky’s “Prouns.” A gorgeous sculptural abstraction, the piece holds up visually as one of the show’s winners. But Powers’ chilling wall text explains that the construction of the piece emulates the new-school daisy cutter bomb, which the US dropped on Afghanistan in an attempt to scatter Taliban members from unseen caves.

Heidi Cody sabotages the logos of powerful American corporations and re-presents them mashed up into composite brands. Her slick light-box on display here bears recognizable similarity to the Pepsi logo, and looks great, but the guessing game she plays by appropriating the logos of unidentified corporations deflates her critique, and the piece reads more as a Kantian-influenced abstraction. Daniel Mirer’s coldly depressing photographs of vacant office interiors work as wry commentary on the empty soulessness of 9 to 5 existence. All chilly linoleum and locked storage closets, the austere emptiness in these photos will tingle the spine of anyone who’s suffered through a deadening temp job, where these kinds of interiors are the unfortunate norm for the worker bees composing the hive. Emptied of human presence, Mirer’s interiors capture the inexorably dominating social effects of architectural space. Maria Elena Gonzalez’s two electrical towers-one made from glass, the other from fingernails-is a more lighthearted jab at corporations and private sector control of utilities.

No single piece felt more empty, and simultaneously more soulful, than Emily Jacir’s video/sound installation “From Texas With Love.” A video screen depicts the very literal recording of a dull one-hour drive through Texas. Other vehicles pass occasionally, but the majority of the video is emptiness-only the road ahead slicing through the desert. An iPod with headphones provides a soundtrack. To assemble the playlist, Jacir asked 51 Palestinians living in Palestine what they would listen to if they could drive for an hour without being stopped at Israeli checkpoints-a complete impossibility. The songs range from percussive Middle Eastern rhythms (Fairuz is notably ubiquitous) to Hendrix, Metallica, and B.B. King. Jacir’s video is a reminder of a few things. First, Patriot Act and Homeland Security Act notwithstanding, America remains a free country that allows its citizens free passage within its states. For now anyway, the American road trip lives on. Secondly, Jacir’s gesture of asking Palestinian citizens to decide the content of the work for her feels metaphorical for the whole premise of Open House-a mixed bag, naturally, but also a gesture of openness and solidarity with a borough teeming with artists more now than ever.


Nick Stillman is an artist and Editor of NYFA Current, a publication of the New York Foundation for the Arts.