The title of Erik Wysocan’s recent solo show at Laurel Gitlen’s new Lower East Side space, ‘Paris Spleen’, comes from a Charles Baudelaire story in which the gift of a counterfeit coin provokes an epistemological crisis. It was a fitting allegory for an exhibition interested in the aesthetic and material factors on which ‘value’ is dependent. The main gallery space was occupied by plywood replicas of previous works by the artist and a set of display units constructed from a variety of materials. The glass versions, entitled Paris Spleen (structure for imaging bodies) (2013), are coated with a polarizing film traditionally used on the surface of camera lenses, which gives them a darkened glaze. The set-up suggested Minimalism’s critique of high Modernism: exhibition constitutes the object, and so there is no clean demarcation between the aesthetic and its institution.
Further echoes of this historical moment were found in a series of wall-mounted mirror constructions. Mirrors deflect attention away from the object and towards the ‘entire situation’, as Robert Morris once called it. Yet Wysocan arranges the mirrors to invert the normally reversed image, so that the viewer encounters his or her reflection as though observed from another’s standpoint. He also drapes a touch-screen glove over the top edge of some of the works: the conceptual conflation here between display, screen, mirror and the tactile labour which bodies perform when using communication technologies – a fashioning of the self – succinctly develops the aesthetic differences between Fordist and post-Fordist economies.
While Minimalism sought to disrupt the formal pieties of Modernism, it held onto a stable transcendental notion of the exhibition space. The art object did not invent the ‘situation’, but indicated its relevance for aesthetic experience. In ‘Paris Spleen’ we found no such faith. It brought to mind artists like Alicja Kwade and Neil Beloufa, who spin this insecurity into playful, surprising constructions. But Wysocan is more interested in how the exhibition space bleeds into the production process, how technology infiltrates subjectivity, and how the market system is troubled by an impurity of metals. Borders are provisional because they are purely ideological, and therefore require a visual artefact – a mirror, double or coin – in order to secure their discursive sovereignty. A well-known scene from the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933) – Chico telling a woman to believe his words over what she sees – was looped on a monitor in the rear of the gallery. It would seem that vision is never simply observation because it is first of all implication.
Wysocan is at his best when he neglects the truisms of post-structuralist thought and builds on his own ideas. Into the back wall of the gallery, the artist embedded casts of a coin minted by Diogenes, the Greek philosopher and notorious counterfeiter. He also scattered through the space reproductions of found figurines of beggars – once a popular kitsch object, repurposed here as an allusion to Diogenes’s peripatetic lifestyle. This connection between value and the body continues in the series of paintings on display in a back room (all works Untitled, 2013), which employ a compound utilized in the interior lining of telescopes. A hallucinatory black, they absorb 99.99 percent of the visible spectrum. The reference here is to colour-field paintings and Ad Reinhardt’s experiments with the differing ‘values’ of black pigment. However, Wysocan seeks to reconfigure our fundamental idea of abstraction by pushing the art form towards its zero degree of perception. In isolation, the stakes of this project might remain unclear, and so it is decisive that the paintings are presented alongside a set of dark vitrines. In each vitrine Wysocan arranged a single currency – euros, dollars and counterfeit Greek drachmas – and positioned an infrared lamp overhead, a common technology used to identify counterfeit bills, which lack the fluorescent bands embedded in official currency. To the viewer, two of the three currencies appear as a faint geometric glow. (The counterfeit drachma lacks this technology as, in fact, did the real currency.)
The conceptual matrix of value, abstraction and sensation is crucial for understanding our contemporary moment. For Wysocan, the abstract does not amount to the refusal of figuration, as commonly presumed, but instead names those values that operate at the furthest limit of sensible experience. The most intense abstraction – surplus value – is therefore the most insidious, because it functions outside of the sensible and severely complicates our ability to represent and resist its operation. The suggestion here is profound, and I found myself considering the significance of what Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi calls ‘sensibility’, the mutable complex of thought and affect, which sets the parameters for our collective habits of perception. From this standpoint, economic and aesthetic discourses are not distinct but offer two perspectives on a single undertaking, the task of locating value in the world. Wysocan insists that the practice of radical politics must be grounded in the capacities of bodies – here is a vital thought, and a rejoinder to capitalist spleen.