Back Door Man: Martin Creed at the Park Avenue Armory
Martin Creed: The Back Door at the Park Avenue Armory
June 8 to August 7, 2016
643 Park Avenue (between 66th and 67th streets)
New York, 212 616 3930
Middlebrow culture has long been a contentious territory: it was critically viewed by Modernists as an ineffective attempt to water down and vulgarize innovative cultural endeavors, to produce a faux intellectual lifestyle that can be mass-produced for its status and entertainment value. Post-Modernists deemed the middlebrow edgy, clever, knowing, stylish, and formally inventive in its eclectic appropriation of the pretenses of a high culture, and their insertion into the everyday world of its audience. Turner Prize-winning artist Martin Creed embraces middlebrow culture: his art is for those who want to be in on the joke. One painting is a joke about Jackson Pollock, a video refers to Piero Manzoni’s cans of the artist’s shit, stacked chairs and battered cardboard boxes nod to Sol LeWitt and Minimalism, his paintings in varied styles are about taste(less-ness).
“The Back Door,” now at the Park Avenue Armory, surveys work from Creed’s more than 20-year-long career. The exhibition’s title can be taken in any number of ways — servants, trades people and less than respectable visitors come to the back door. It also has some naughty sexual connotations as it refers to anal sex. While I’m sure that this title was meant to conjure up these associations, in this case it quite literally, refers to the actual rear door of the Armory, which Creed has motorized so that it continuously opens and closes. That piece is titled Shutters Opening and Closing (2016) and offers three events in one: the slow opening of the doors, the simultaneous dramatic shedding of light into the almost empty, cavernous interior of the 55,000-square-foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall, and finally a glimpse of people walking by on Lexington Ave. This brought to my mind the allegory of Plato’s Cave, in that Creed implies that we, the audience, live in a shadow world and that without his reminder, we would not be aware that just outside, real living beings go on with their lives unconcerned with what is going on in the Armory.
There are four other pieces scattered throughout that employ the on/off, open/close theme; one is in the big corridor, where a massive set of curtains, usually decorously tied back, hang loose, endlessly opening and closing. In the elaborate Veterans Room, a white grand piano on an oriental rug, slowly opens only to immediately slam shut with a resounding bang. The other is the backdoor to the Parlor Room, called A Door Opening and Closing (1995), behind which, in the Parlor, The Lights Going On and Off (1996) is enacted by two rows of white, globular lights hanging from the ceiling. In combining these two works he has synchronized the so when the door is closed the lights are on and when the door is open the lights are off.
The only thing that occupies the Drill Hall is a large screen hung from the ceiling on which six videos are screened. These three-minute-long videos play alternately with the opening and closing of the rear door. The videos are of different women of various ages and in varied settings. The camera slowly zooms in on each woman’s mouth; when it arrives at its destination she opens her mouth and sticks out her tongue to reveal half-eaten foods stuffs, then closes her mouth to swallow. The seemingly obvious reference for these benignly undignified videos are those porn films in which women showily take cum in their mouths and then swallow.
In a series of small rooms along one side of the Drill Hall, a retrospective of Creed’s videos has been installed, one to a room. In one, against an immaculate white ground, young Asian women squat to take a shit, in another video we are again given a clean, white space in which different women enter the frame to repeatedly induce vomiting so as to produce a Pollock-like “painting” on the floor. A third video gives a close-up of a single female breast as a disembodied/decontextualized sex object. As for videos of men, there is one in which a man angrily smashes bouquets of flowers against the floor and another, shot like a home movie, in which the artist in bathing trunks is shown at the beach, wiggling about striking various pin-up poses that allude to both male and female, soft-core porn. These videos, which are meant to represent Creed’s investigation into the basic tenets of human existence, though often pathetic and dehumanizing, actually verge on the banal.
Beyond the videos, Creed has painted the upper walls of the Armory’s grand corridor and staircase with a pattern of diagonal black bars, which break for the many portraits, architectural woodwork, display cases and his own paintings. In the rooms along this corridor, Creed has installed his paintings and sculptures. Subsequently, in the Colonel’s Reception Room he has installed Work No. 2497: half the air in a given space (2015). It promises to be a crowd pleaser, the room half-filled with large white balloons is a tight squeeze for visitors moving through it. The work is akin to an oversized ball pit, like those children play in at Chuck E. Cheese restaurants. In other rooms, such as the Library and the Field and Staff Rooms, he has installed sculptures made by stacking battered cardboard boxes on top of one another in descending size. Others consist of likewise stacks of secondhand furniture. Other sculptures use stacking and repetition, as with an 8 foot high stack of half-inch-thick sheets of plywood, which is as high as the sheets are long. In the Library, he has placed numerous small objects, among them a progression of potted cacti (Work No. 2376, 2016), and a nod to the days of protest against the military and war, he has installed in a display densely packed with mostly silver trophies, two small clenched fists — one gold-plated, the other bronze — as such reminding us that context is everything.
Creed is part prankster, designer, dilettante and entertainer, and he’s completely serious about the sampling of borderline banal contrasts, ludicrous situations. So much of Creed’s work refers to easy art, and to easy, tchotchke-like “folk” forms — virtuosity is antithetical to his homemade mode. Staged as a non-spectacle, this survey of new and older works is intent on engaging and potentially provoking his audience to consider each work or encounter as an act of (perhaps bad) faith. All of this is so well balanced as to be indeterminable as to whether it is implicitly culturally critical in its silliness, or if the joke’s on us for thinking so. All of this brings me to the conclusion that Creed is clever in the ways he turns the challenging endeavors of his predecessors into something accessible and playfully minor. But, then again this is part of the definition of what it is to be middlebrow.