For this exhibition, the Italian-born, Berlin-based artist Monica Bonvicini bisected Mitchell Innes & Nash’s main space with a temporary wall supported by two small, dildolike “sculptures” in Murano glass resting on the floor. The installation, Structural Psychodrama #2 (2017), succinctly encapsulated the central theme of her work over the last twenty years: the imbrication of sex and architecture through relationships between the body and its shelters, barriers, props, and frames. As Bonvicini put it in a 2004 interview, “You have something under your belt and something over your head. And you need both.”
The central wall, left conspicuously bare, served primarily as an obstruction, blocking the viewer’s movement through the space as well as the sightlines between the exhibition’s other works. At first, I didn’t recognize it as an artwork at all: fitted seamlessly between the building’s existing structural columns, the pristine white wall running down the middle of the gallery seemed to suggest an ill-conceived interior renovation––irritating, but not out of place––until I glanced at the floor and noticed the glass phalluses peeking out underneath. This subtle architectural intervention hints at the influence of Bonvicini’s former CalArts professor Michael Asher, whom she has often cited as her most significant mentor, but here institutional critique is crossed with a Surrealist-style sight gag. Structural Psychodrama takes up the association of architecture and construction with male virility-a frequently recurring subject of Bonvicini’s work-and makes it both comically literal (a wall built atop a foundation of dicks is an apt metaphor for much of the modernist architectural canon) and antagonistic (dildos are dicks that can be claimed by women).
Several works exploring similar territory were arranged on either side of the installation. One of the gallery’s permanent walls was dominated by what appeared to be a large, bland abstract painting recalling a Rorschach test (Mountain Town 2015, 2017); as it turns out, it depicts the charred skeleton of a California house destroyed by a wildfire. Straddling the adjacent corner was a sculpture made of black leather belts knotted together to form two linked, testicular spheres (Belts Ball [double ball], 2017). On the other side of the wall, a neon light sculpture framed by aluminum scaffolding (No More #1, 2016) bore the insistently ambiguous phrase no more masturbation, alternately suggesting a repressive injunction, a rallying cry for the undersexed, and, as the press release would have it, an inquiry into the role of productivity in sexual pleasure under capitalism (admittedly, I find this last interpretation a little tenuous). Another antagonistic light sculpture, Bent and Winded (2017), hung from the ceiling, composed of a tangle of LED lights so aggressively bright that it was virtually impossible to look at directly for more than a few seconds at a time. Echoing the painting on the opposite side of the gallery was a black-and-white photo-based mural (Untitled [Two Men Building a Wall], 2017) depicting two construction workers viewed from the back as they erect a brick wall in some generically gritty urban enclave, left purposely unidentifiable.
When Bonvicini began working in the 1990s, her frank engagement with fetishism and BDSM––particularly as a female artist––carried a far more transgressive charge than it does today. What I found most unsettling in this show wasn’t the leather, cocks, and chains, but the mural, with its anonymizing gaze at day laborers dwarfed by layers of brick. Many of Bonvicini’s most notorious works have explored a libidinal investment in construction: the video installation Wallfuckin’ (1995) features a nude woman grinding against the edge of a wall; for What Does Your Wife/Girlfriend Think of Your Rough and Dry Hands (1999), she surveyed construction workers with questions about the erotics of their profession. But now when I think of a man building a big, beautiful wall, I am not aroused, but terrified.