The 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit combined real and cartoon worlds to memorable effect. The introduction of cartoon elements into a live-action film multiplies the ways in which human actors can move their bodies, and the kinds of spaces they can inhabit. It bestows Looney Tunes-like powers upon people, such as the ability to throw inky-black ‘portable holes’ onto surfaces to provide a quick method of escape. It is in this blended world, somewhere between real and imagined space, where movement is elastic, that the SculptureCenter exhibition ‘Puddle, Pothole, Portal’ claims to operate, citing Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the art of Saul Steinberg (best known for his illustrations for The New Yorker) as its loose inspirations.
Artist Camille Henrot and SculptureCenter curator Ruba Katrib invited over 20 artists from the US and beyond to inaugurate the museum’s expanded, renovated building. Even in its new, more open iteration, the building still possesses some architectural quirks. Chief among them is its narrow, low-ceilinged basement – a space that does not immediately or obviously lend itself to displaying artworks. Henrot and Katrib prove masterful installers, however, creatively positioning the mostly sculptural works around the galleries. In the main space, objects lie across floors, jut out from walls or bisect rooms. In the catacomb-like basement, pieces are nestled into corners and nooks. A naturally dark enclosure becomes the ideal venue for screening a looping film.
But while their physical organization is impeccable, the works’ thematic arrangement leaves something wanting. Some pieces seem to follow too literally from the cited inspirations: with the exception of Steinberg’s funny, sharply observed drawings – undoubted highlights, shown in their own room – the works that riff off cartoons or cartoon imagery are ultimately less interesting than the broader interpretations of the theme.
Olga Balema’s clever series ‘Interior Biomorphic Attachment’ (2014) – comprising large, soft-hued Polyfoam biomorphs that ripple, amoeba-like, through the basement’s narrow passages – points to the cartoonish nature of organic shapes in abstract art, one of its major historical motifs. Other successful works explore how sculpture can be used to alter or test our perceptions of proportion, distance, depth and materiality. Judith Hopf’s Untitled (2014), a wood-framed Perspex sheet with a doorknob drawn on it, is a brilliantly frustrating piece: a door that reveals what is beyond it but cannot lead you there. Scattered at intervals along the walls of the main floor are Win McCarthy’s almost-missable small metal pipe fittings that shoot out what looks like water (actually glass) at leg level. Nearby, the same artist’s resin looks ripe for splashing in. And, by the entrance, guards offer constant warnings to visitors to prevent them stepping on Balema’s Long Arm 2 (2013), a comically long latex-and-fabric glove that is stretched out on the ground. Towering above the other pieces, and appearing to rise from a dizzying diagonal out of the floor (though actually suspended from the ceiling), is Chadwick Rantanen’s Well (2014): an enormous desk with artefacts of corporate work culture – for example, curly telephone wires and bottles of Purell hand sanitizer – dangling around it or embedded in its surface.
Given the mixed nature of the works on view, it is the general spirit of whimsy, fantasy and humour that ultimately provides the strongest connecting thread, even when, as in Jordan Wolfson’s vulgar inkjet prints, the humour at work is of a dark and abrasive nature. Wolfson’s intentionally puerile compositions – cartoon boys with their pants down in the background and banner ad-like lines of sexually charged text running across the foreground – trace an important line of continuity between the history of cartoon, mixed-media films such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit and today’s internet media landscape, but one that, lacking further significant consideration, gets a bit lost.
In the end, the greatest achievement of ‘Puddle, Pothole, Portal’ is its ability to show how the drawn world, unencumbered by the laws of physics, can inspire artists working in the inherently physical medium of sculpture – a fitting takeaway for an institution focused on the history and future of this art form. Where the show fails, however, is in its ability to convincingly articulate what, outside of sheer aesthetic enjoyment, the larger point of this is. Thinking about how media can affect and colour our understandings of space and body is a worthy pursuit in today’s internet-driven world, but only a few pieces, such as Wolfson’s, address the issue directly and the rest of the selected works are too scattered to make this revelation feel pivotal.