View of Lutz Bacher’s mixed-medium installation Empire, 2014, at Greene Naftali.

 

One always treads uncertain territory with Lutz Bacher, who has made a habit of elusiveness; assuming a pseudonym early in her 40-year career, she has maintained a slippery identity for herself and her work, issuing non-press releases, publishing dozens of virtually unreadable interviews and offering little help in general to those wishing to understand. Yet suddenly her avoidance strategy feels like an effective defense against an art world in which understanding can be so easily monetized as PR or collecting points.

Fully occupying both levels of the newly expanded Greene Naftali Gallery, Bacher’s recent exhibition harbored an ontological delicacy, an awareness of the precariousness of human existence. Several installations, two series of small ink drawings, three sculptures, a mural, framed photographs, two animations and a video made up this ambitious show, but one felt it could all collapse into an intimate psychological space—the artist’s own, no doubt, but one that is oddly familiar to most of us. There was a true sincerity in the show’s title, “For the People of New York City” (a reference, perhaps, to Blinky Palermo’s almost identically named painting cycle), though the gift was not untroubled.

In a courtyard at the entrance, the 10-foot-tall, vaguely dystopian sculpture Turbine slowly rotated a roughly hourglass-shaped, plexiglass-paneled structure within a rickety-looking metal framework (unless otherwise indicated, all works 2014). Curved plexi panels reappeared in the main installation, Empire, a melancholy homage 50 years on to Warhol’s eight-hour film meditation. Reducing the length to 43 minutes and transforming the black-and-white to color (the Empire State Building is lit here in red, white and blue), Bacher projected her own long take on two walls in a darkened ground-floor room containing 10 tall, cenotaph-like plexi panels, which reflected and refracted the shimmering spire in ghostly fashion. Each panel was anchored, poignantly, by a single sandbag, evoking measures taken to secure the city against Superstorm Sandy.

Beyond, one continued to find expressed the tenuousness of our efforts to control and protect our world. A pair of curved and stacked wooden armatures (Trestles) resembled roofs or bridges blown to the ground; around them, three walls displayed 43 drawings of a box (The Box, 1999) executed in a shaky line, in a constant state of becoming or incompletion. In an adjacent room, a framed, found photograph showed a shadowy figure (a child?) seated within a shelter of ice (crumbled Styrofoam?), surrounded by bare trees (enlarged twigs?) and joined by ice-covered companions (A Song of Ice and Fire, 2013). The figures gather around what looks like an extinguished fire. The floor of the room was in constant motion, thanks to an uncontained scatter piece of colored glass marbles and cabochons (Marbles, 2012).

One wall of the spacious front office was incompletely faced with molded cardboard shaped like flagstones (Ndovu), calling to mind the imagery of another artist wary of hermeneutics, Jasper Johns. A long diagonal crack in it was echoed in a photograph that hung nearby, showing a person, his or her face and body largely cropped out, reaching out to touch a crack in a plaster wall, as if taking its measure (For the People of New York City). Across the way was a photo of a toddler paralleling the gesture by touching its own image in a mirror (The Baby, 2012), identity by implication as fragile as Bacher’s architectural tropes.

The gallery’s eighth-floor space was largely occupied by a huge mound of white plaster debris—broken molds and positives of cheap tchotchkes you might find polychromed in gift shops and on lawns. It felt cataclysmic—not least of all in the title, How Will I Find You—as though the ceiling (or a Chicken Little sky) had fallen. Adding to the show’s atmosphere of vulnerability, a video in a room nearby showed a baby being carried by a man through a foggy park (Fog). The video continually stutters and stops, as the man repeats his steps toward an evanescent lifting of the fog—barely a second’s worth in the short loop. We felt an affinity in making our halting way through Bacher’s show, where clarity was at best a glimpse, and our effort all.