SLOW NUMBERS, SHOW ROOM
Slow Numbers, on view through July 22 at Show Room in the Lower East Side, is about abstraction. Not the abstraction of Mondrian or color field painting, which eschews any sort of referent. Instead, five artists—Erica Baum, E.J. Bellocq, Bobbie Oliver, Alyce Santoro, and Jo-ey Tang—work across multiple medias to distort figures, words, sounds, and sites, maintaining these source materials as somewhat recognizable while composing images that intersect in poignant moments of harmony.
First-time curator Lauren Chinault structured the exhibition around a series of photographs by the legendary E. J. Bellocq. In 1912, the commercial photographer documented Storyville, New Orleans’ red-light district. His pet project remained unknown until undeveloped negatives were discovered years after his death in 1949. In 1970, photographer Lee Friedlander purchased the Storyville negatives and produced prints, which immediately gained acclaim in the art world. These photographs (and Bellocq’s biography) have spawned an aura of myth, inspiring the likes of novelist Peter Everett and incoming U.S. poet laureate Natasha Trethewey to imagine the lives of Bellocq’s subjects.
The Storyville photographs on view at Show Room are particularly haunting: scratches obliterate the women’s faces, forcing us to rely on body language and settings to learn about the subjects. In one image a busty prostitute, clad in a sheer robe, stands with her hand on her hip. Is this pose an indication of a defiant, feisty spirit? Or, as the black backdrop may indicate, is this merely an assumed attitude? Regardless, Bellocq frames the image beautifully: we see a sliver of the derelict room beyond the backdrop, suggesting multiple interpretations for his model’s narrative.
Erica Baum also peddles in photography, but instead of featuring women as her subjects, she uses words—and sometimes the lack thereof. Baum dog-eared and photographed pages of yellowed books so that the resulting compositions contain perfect squares of perpendicular text converging (and disappearing) at the diagonal. In each work, we can no longer read the page as intended by the book’s author. The words that remain visible—“to the corpse,” “stirred,” “has worn away,” “lips,” “struggled”—may have been plucked from a steamy sex scene or some tragic ending, either of which could be applied to Bellocq’s enigmatic images. Baum carries out her folding-and-documenting process even on a blank page: now, the abstracted typeset has vanished in favor of the uneven crease, magnified fibers, and mottled discoloration of the page.
While Baum translates the grainy book page to the smooth surface of her prints, Jo-ey Tang’s untitled series is textured through and through. Tang makes his “drawings” by rubbing sandpaper against his studio floor and walls, resulting in haphazard patterns of ghostly scrawls. While the pre-cut, 11 x 8 ½ inch sheets of gray are reminiscent of Duchamp’s readymades, his presentation skews toward the serialism of Conceptual Art. The five drawings, interspersed among other artists’ works, are hung in the gallery clockwise in the order in which they were made. More than anything, these drawings remind me of the actions Tang undertook to make them: rough surface chafing against another rough surface. Pairing Tang’s scratches with Bellocq’s battered portraits is beautiful, if obvious, but it’s more satisfying to consider both series as specific records of time and place.
Bobbie Oliver’s paintings are the most traditionally abstract works in the show, and are also the weakest. The paintings vary in size, the largest measuring 72 x 96 inches. In this untitled work, she covered the canvas in a light green wash, with darker patches resembling Rorschach blots or, considering the adjacent works, exposed photo paper. These paintings are supposed to evoke quiet contemplation, I think, but they lack any real substance to grab onto.
If Bellocq’s photographs are the starting point for the show, Alyce Santoro pulls all the works together. Sonic Fabric consists of a cardboard tube, hung horizontally from the vaulted ceilings, with a black shimmering swath cascading to the floor, reminiscent of the aforementioned backdrop in Bellocq’s Storyville portrait. (This is the first time Santoro’s sonic fabric—which she sells for $100 a yard and transforms into sartorial creations—is displayed as an object.) Its frayed edges reveal ribbons extracted from audiocassette, which Santoro weaves together with polyester thread on a loom. You can rub a dismantled Walkman, connected to an amp, across its surface, revealing an auditory collage. Like the truncated sentences in Baum’s photographs, the sounds are garbled and can no longer be read as originally intended. And like Tang’s sandpaper which records the surface upon which it was scratched, Santoro is interested in capturing a place through sound bites—in this case, ones she had collected throughout New York City.
The exhibition title, Slow Numbers, teaches us how to approach the works. Chinault borrows the phrase from Peter Everett’s Bellocq-inspired novel, Bellocq’s Women, in which he uses the phrase to describe slow-paced songs. Our own eyes waltz through the gallery, each work building off the next, with Santoro’s centerpiece installation as its elegant crescendo.
E.J. Bellocq, Storyville Portrait ca. 1912 (printed later), printing out paper, gold toned, initialed & printed by Lee Friedlander, 10 x 8 inches (sheet). Courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco
Erica Baum, Corpse, 2009 (Dog Ear), archival pigment print 9 x 9 inches, edition 3/6 + 2 AP
Jo-ey Tang, Untitled (1), 2011, sandpaper, 11 x 8 1⁄2 inches
Bobbie Oliver, Untitled, 2011, Acrylic on canvas, 72 x 96 inches
Slow Numbers Installation View, main room. Photo Credit: Jason Wyche