In a quote from the press release to this solo show, his first at Paula Cooper, Norwegian-born artist/writer Matias Faldbakken speaks of “try[ing] to suck the air out of the room” with his artworks. His strategy, however, at the famously chapel-esque gallery seemed geared toward making viewers palpably aware of how much air there was around them. The work in the main atrium was crowded against one side of the space, while that in the gallery’s more modest front room was confined to a single wall. The use of limited cubic footage hinted at the impossibility of fulfilling the larger-than-life expectations set by the venue and, by proxy, the art establishment as a whole. It was a gesture typical of the poetics of resignation that defines Faldbakken’s diverse creative output.
Installed in the gallery’s front room, Five Flat Boxes (2014) is a group of collapsed cardboard boxes marked by occasional ink splotches and set in white frames. Pressed to comment, one might mention the artist’s interest in materials used for transporting commodities, or note how the barcode, which figures more prominently on the cardboard pieces than any marks made by the artist’s hand, serves for Faldbakken as an indelible reminder of contemporary art’s implication within the political-economic hegemony of market capitalism. Yet these dull sheets of cardboard held captive behind glass seem to resist not only literal but also figurative unfolding. One is left desiring more, even while being led to question the desire for interpretability.
Five Flat Boxes, according to the press release, was inspired by a Joseph Beuys work. But it was the show’s centerpiece, Ladder Pull #2 (2014), that most powerfully evoked the German artist. Three aluminum ladders placed through the gallery’s structural ceiling beams were bent downward, apparently from the weight of two concrete barriers resting on the floor and attached to the ladders by nylon ratchet straps. The work recalled Beuys’s Scala Napoletana (1985), a graceful installation—created by the artist in the final months of his life—in which a wooden ladder is held upright in a delicate balancing act with wire and lead weights. Swapping elegant components for objects associated with the construction and transport industries, Faldbakken offered a sort of historical materialist revision of Beuys’s meditation on precarity. Ours is a world held in balance by powerful forces, the work seemed to suggest, that might at any moment bring the roof tumbling down.
SEE YOU ON THE FRONT PAGE OF THE LAST NEWSPAPER THOSE MOTHERFUCKERS EVER PRINT #6 (2014) is the latest iteration of a project motivated by the impending obsolescence of print mediums. Newspapers printed by the artist and featuring sparsely scattered images from his visual lexicon (jerricans, burlap sacks, liquor bottles) were alternately unfolded inside frames on the gallery wall or stacked in piles on the floor for viewers to take. A few inconsequential ink doodles on the saleable works seemed to be all that distinguished them from their gratis counterparts. On the exterior of one of the framed pieces, Faldbakken has crudely taped another of his newspapers, “hiding” what is behind the glass. Like much of his oeuvre, these works seem less about transforming the expendable object into a precious artwork than about mapping a gray area between the sacred and the profane.