The current exhibition of works by Monica Bonvicini and Tom Burr is an odd coupling, estranged yet intimate, and feral at a studious remove. If the similarities in the two artists’ bodies of work are obvious—sculpture that infuses minimalist forms with an eros both feminist and homoerotic; a blunt insistence that familiar objects (power tools, S&M-type equestrian items, men’s shoes) act as objective correlatives; a nervy awareness of institutional critique and the fetishism of the built environment—the way curator Nikola Dietrich paired the work is less explicit. The shared introduction to the artist’s dueling catalogues explains that the exhibition is not so much “an arranged marriage” as a “limited-time affair.” Even the latter description indicates too much involvement: The artists were given separate floors of the museum, and even separate catalogues. A more accurate analogy might be a one-night-stand in a hotel long ago, followed by oddly parallel lives (in a parallel black-and-white palette) lived in the same apartment building, on separate floors.
Tom Burr, Installation view of the Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Basel. (Circa ’77, 1995/2009; Recline II, 2005; Worn Out,2005; Sleeves, 2009; Derailed 2,2005)
Burr’s work occupies the ground floor, where his creepy, anesthetic treatment of materials is immediately evident in the sleek lines of his surfaces, and in the neat accordion folds of painted wood and amber-colored mirrored Plexiglas and glistening petals of black vinyl. Even an old straw hat, jauntily hung over a photograph of a young Truman Capote with his head in his hands, seems embalmed. The first room’s spare arrangement feels like a Dutch still life; in place of a table with waxy slabs of fish and fowl, curls of lemon rind, blood-red chalices of wine, here are Burr’s objects, by turns fetishized and elegiac. A tree in a plywood planter sits in close proximity to two hinged plywood sculptures neatly festooned with Capote images and worn Persian carpets. In a neat line across the nearest wall, Burr hangs an elegant series of black-and-white photographs depicting the public bathrooms in New York City. The doors read “MEN” or “WOMEN,” thereby quietly collecting and organizing the activities by genders (namely, for sex) and making explicit the installation’s homoerotic pathos.
Monica Bonvicini, Blind protection, 2009. Installation view Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Basel.
In the galleries in back, Eva (2009), a triptych of black wood boards, each with a circular glass mirror at its center, features collages of nylons, record sleeves, and an article about Eva Hesse from the Summer 1983 issue of Art in America, affixed to the boards with push-pins. Burr’s deeply affecting “Put Down” works, with their black arrangements of equestrian tack-girths, stirrups, glittery silver bits-initially invoke bondage but primarily articulate that the spectral figure who should have been at the center of so much equipment is palpably absent. Less moving to my mind were examples of the artist’s corridor and closet-like works-which can recall Bruce Nauman’s own corridor installations minus the menace-and which laconically sport designer clothing and IDs from various hotels: Mumbia’s Taj Mahal, Paris’s Hotel le Bristel. Burr is at his best in abstraction, and by subtraction. When he becomes more explicit-invoking himself as a posh flaneur-artist, or the commercialization of minimalist architectonics—the work feels restrictively narrative.
A faint recording seeps in from the floor above to give Burr’s installation an appropriately shadowy soundtrack—and marks the only real meeting (immaterial though it is) of the two artists’ work. Ascending the stairs to Bonvicini’s galleries the song becomes more insistent. The source, the 2003 video Shotgun, is installed behind alight curtain in a back gallery. Passing images of Los Angeles streets (bleached light, gated storefronts) are scored with a seductive, menacing guitar and cello track that blurs into snippets of talk radio (“It’s called shotgun fungus,” a radio host amiably professes) and the beeping of an alarm. Outside the gallery, the LA- and Berlin-based artist’s Places of ID’s (1996), an installation of 15 drawings of buildings and erotic couplings, hang in frames from the ceiling. Further on, a series of black leather tools, displayed like jewels in perfect glass compartments, reference Burr’s work directly. With their sewn seams, all those little black X’s pulled tight, the work was a witty, physical retort—and salute—to a homoerotic ethos.
Two recent works in the following gallery are more insistent about the primacy of the physical body as a place not just of disappearance but of damage. Blind Protection is a bundle of white neon tubes hung, turned on and blaring, from the ceiling; a low pedestal presents White Socks, a pair of black men’s work boots with a pair of white gym socks peeping out. The light hurt my eyes and the starched socks (absent a worker) made me laugh and shiver. Viewed in the conext Bonvicini’s other works—including Kill Your Father (2001), an arrangement of stenciled sayings both profane and pedantic (originally by rock musicians and Valie Export), and Turning Walls (2003), a stolid sculpture of various architectural walls—the artist’s showing made Burr’s floor fairly teem with feeling. But Burr’s work is also generous enough to let Bonvicini’s, cool and hard as it is, come to life with dark, deft humor.
The Kunstmuseum Basel is located at St. Alban-Graben 16. Monica Bonvicini / Tom Burr is open through January 3, 2010.