Entering Alicja Kwade’s New York debut, “The Heavy Weight of Light,” one encountered a sculpture called Matter of Opinion (all works 2012), exemplifying many of the questions that animate the Polish-born, Berlin-based artist’s work. A folding screen made of glass panes in a steel frame sat on the floor in the center of the gallery. On one side, which might be called the front because it faced the door, two illuminated globes were placed directly on the floor, their long black cords connecting them to an unseen power source. Each light appeared to be doubled by a matching lamp seen through the glass. However, moving to the other side revealed a clear crystal ball and an opaque sandstone sphere sitting opposite their formal doppelgängers. Placed at precisely the distance from the glass so as to be obscured from the front by the reflections of the lights, the crystal and stone looked remarkably dim in the afterimage of their luminescent twins. Light, normally a purveyor of insight and clarity, here became the source of obfuscation, and transformed the clarity of glass into a mirrored surface of illusion. Was this simply a sleight of hand, or a lesson about the deceptive tendencies of perceptual experience?
Nearby and using a similar formal vocabulary, 12.10.2012 consists of a thin steel rod leaning against a wall-mounted mirror. At the point where metal touches glass, the surface of the mirror appears to yield to the weight of the steel. It is an illusion, of course—the concave depression on the surface of the mirror has nothing to do with the rod—but their “kiss” is affecting nonetheless. Stylistically and conceptually indebted to Minimalism, Kwade contradicts the received wisdom of that art, particularly its entwined commitments to literalism and phenomenology, by emphasizing the difference between the physical properties of materials and the perceptual effects that such materials can produce.
Between these two works, in the corner, was Looking Glass, a sandy mound of pulverized mirrors. This pile of finely ground glass, stripped of reflective properties, made obvious references to a familiar set of precedents, from corner pieces by Robert Morris, Joseph Beuys and Felix Gonzalez-Torres to Robert Smithson’s mirror and glass works. A similar sense of recognition emerged from Heavy Weight of Light. In a row along one wall, narrow rods of copper, wood, bronze, iron and brass as well as oblongs of transparent glass, mirror and MDF, in varying lengths and widths, gently curved at the angle where the floor meets the wall. The effect was something like Dalí’s version of Home Depot. These “slouching” construction materials (prized for their tensile strength) were most interesting for their subtle anthropomorphism and their arrangement suggesting a demonstration, in the experimental and the pedagogical sense.
It is in the shift from physics and chemistry to mechanics that Kwade’s thinking feels most relevant. On opposite walls, framing Heavy Weight of Light, were Dimension +1-+9 and Dimension -1–9, two Art Deco clocks that tick faster and slower than a second. This slight alteration strips the clocks of their practical function without altering their decorative function, and can serve as a welcome, if disorienting, reminder that minutes and hours are only one possible measure of time. A similar sense of mystification emerges from Future in the Past, an installation of eight vintage pocket watches suspended from the ceiling on delicate metal chains, a small congregation of timekeepers. Each watch was attached by a thin black wire to boxy black speakers on the floor. This resulted in a symphony of anxious ticking that was never quite in sync.
Photo: Alicja Kwade: Matter of Opinion, 2012, powder-coated steel frame, glass and mixed mediums, approx. 71 inches wide; at Harris Lieberman.