David Stein’s repurposed taxi-service signs – The Absurd Effort To Make the World Over (2014) – marked both a greeting to Regina Rex’s new neighbourhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and, perhaps, something of a white flag in the face of the bruising progress of the real-estate transformation that pushed the gallery (run and owned by artists) out of its previous home in Bushwick, Brooklyn. This signage piece formed the gateway to ‘Two Two One’, a four-artist exhibition that inaugurated Regina Rex’s ground-floor space. Taking the street number of the gallery’s address for its title, as a new bar might in order to ingratiate itself with the locals, the show featured works that were mainly site-specific, nodding more or less directly to the Lower East Side district.
The Absurd Effort ... comes from a pejorative comment made by William G. Sumner, a late-19th-century apologist for the societal inequities of America’s gilded age. Stein uses the presentation of this text to address the vernacular aesthetic of the Lower East Side: the in-your-face illuminated hanging signs that are everywhere fixed to the facades of residential buildings. The disjunction of layered typographic styles in this piece implies waves of different inhabitants and changes in the social structures of the area. Stein engages the left-behind lettering of the building’s former taxi service by laminating the words that comprise Sumner’s phrase directly onto the five panels that previously made up the firm’s signage. This nasty quote, now turned on itself – the phrase becoming something of a motivational slogan for artist and gallery and embellished with punchy green, orange and purple in a blocky, retro-looking font – competes with the simple lettering of the (now-defunct) DDA Car Service, which loudly but dully promises an eternal 24 hours of service.
EJ Hauser’s two series of canvases, ‘Pile 55’ and ‘Shield for Seven’, make a similar investment in the power of font and abstract symbols to stimulate a network or chain of automatic responses. The ‘7’ placed on a shield in Shield for Seven (Two) and Shield for Seven (Three) (both 2014) immediately invoke racing cars and quarterbacks, while the legitimizing shape demands respect from viewers familiar with this visual trope from markers on America’s highways and interstates. Hauser toys with degrees of recognition by filling the interstitial space between numerical and graphic symbol with indeterminate forms. Bars and droopy lines form swathes of fabric and segmented objects as the mind tries to make sense of the lines in oil, enamel and marker pen. The grid-like pixilated technique at work here heightens the quality of vagueness, which is fitting, as heraldry has always existed at the intersection of abstraction and rigid representation.
Dave Hardy’s long and narrow installation, Untitled (2014), runs the length of Regina Rex’s largest room and is composed of plates of glass and folded, undulating sheets of foam bedding, which are wedged, with anxiety-inducing tension, between the floor and the ceiling. Whether the materials are actually found or not, Hardy enjoys the grunginess and ephemerality of his varied ‘DIY’ medium. He deliberately uses the foam as a support that cannot last forever: the sponginess will eventually fail and the material will lose its ability to exert pressure – whether it will continue to keep the threateningly precarious sheets of glass in position is the rather self-conscious concern here. Hardy drives the point home by choosing crudely cast tourist souvenirs of the Leaning Tower of Pisa as spacers for his glass uprights.
Just as it started on the street, ‘Two, Two, One’ also ended outside the gallery’s official space, in a dusty, pigeon-soiled, 1.5-metre-wide light-well to the side of the building, with a breathtaking installation by Corey Escoto. Amazing Grace (2010–14) suspended letters made from reflective grey ribbon on tightly stretched lines of nylon cord, echoing (and beautifully expressing a nostalgia for) the laundry lines that would once have hung across this dark, canyon-like space. The letters together spelled out a dour, two-line narrative about the will to painting that fitted the melancholy of the location, in which the smell of cigarettes and the constant staccato conversations in Chinese coming from neighbouring windows created a wonderfully encompassing experience. Moving between the street outside and the gallery, ‘Two Two One’ touched upon questions of social engagement, site-specificity and theory-based gymnastics. Despite this meandering progress, the show managed to bind a number of curatorial aims together into a coherent whole, albeit relying on a set of connections as potentially fragile as Escoto’s wind-blown lines of letters.