Brad Troemel’s deceptively sparse installation at Tomorrow Gallery was awash in lurid color. On one wall were three novelty-size checks, each painted with a giant rose in a garish shade of yellow, red or pink. Across the narrow space hung a row of nine rectangular plexiglass ant farms, all suspended from the ceiling by wires. These clear boxes were filled with vitreous, crystalline goo, within which actual ant colonies were busily tunneling away. The goo was a nutritional substance originally developed by NASA and marketed as “Ant Chow” to hobbyists beginning in the 1990s. Troemel had dyed the stuff in a translucent patchwork of rainbow-sherbet colors.
Troemel’s artistic career has been bolstered by a considerable Internet presence, which includes The Jogging, an influential Tumblr account that he helps oversee. Likewise, the New York-based artist’s sculptures seem to reflect a Web-specific epistemology, as if they were designed less to inhabit real space and more as a pretext for generating images that can circulate online. He has previously crafted brash assemblages of perishable readymade commodities, such as a Taco Bell taco closed shut with a small lock. That and similar works, all vacuum-sealed in plastic packages, could theoretically be purchased directly from the artist through a now-defunct Etsy store. In practice, however, browsing Troemel’s images in the online marketplace proved far preferable to owning a bag of rancid fast food.
At Tomorrow, Troemel highlighted the opaque sales mechanism of the brick-and-mortar gallery. There was money at stake in the exhibition, and not just for the artist and his gallery. Unbeknownst to the ants, each colony was competing with the others to dig the deepest and most numerous tunnels. The colony that won would route 10 percent of the exhibition’s proceeds to one of three media and social justice nonprofits selected by the artist, including the Chelsea Manning Defense Fund and Teach for America.
The Ant Chow in each farm had been dyed with food coloring to match the logos of the organizations that its ants were playing for, giving the scurrying insects the mien of tiny NASCAR drivers. However, it was with this detail that Troemel treaded close to a trope associated with what has problematically been called “post-Internet art”—namely, this use of splashy color actually looked better on a computer’s screen than it did in real life. The color-coding, which would have been indecipherable without its explanation in the show’s press release, seemed to aim for a formalist appeal that conflicted with the real-life base materialism of the sculptures. The crisp, color-corrected installation shots on the gallery’s website, which were also widely shared on Twitter and Tumblr, were devoid of the half-digested mounds of off-brown chow and the considerable number of dead insects inside each farm. The Bataillean affect of the in-person experience of the work seemed to oppose the show’s online presentation of a neat conceptual framework.
All of the charities Troemel had selected also fit neatly into the art world’s politically progressive sensibilities, purging from the exhibition much sense of risk, antagonism or critique. The paltry sums earmarked for each charity (a third of 10 percent of a small gallery’s revenue) amounted to little more than a feel-good gesture for buyers, similar to the way big brands allocate nominal percentages of sales to a charity as part of a marketing strategy. The check paintings, with their kitschy embellishment, seemed to point self-consciously to the saccharine promise of the transaction.