There was a black, black humor at work in the show “Where Cuckoos Nest in Autumn,” featuring Swiss artists Marc Bauer and Sara Masüger and Armenian-born Armen Eloyan. Though the exhibition’s title might conjure montages of mental hospitals (à la Ken Kesey’s great counterculture novel of 1962), the imagery on view was actually far more menacing. A well-edited selection of sculptures, objects, drawings and wallpaper featured prison bars, prisonlike walls, dying knights and seeming evidence of torture (chains, restraints), all in a black-and-white palette occasionally shot through with smears and spray-paint fogs of blood red. The effect was disarming: at once insidious and gloriously campy in its concentrated engagement with the dark side.
SAL’s diminutive gallery space was made even more claustrophobic by two walls erected by Masüger. Their whitewashed cinderblocks evoked a prison, while echoing the gallery’s actual walls of gleaming white tiles (echt mental hospital). Furthering the feeling of incarceration was a small, high window Masüger made in one wall, which gaped and taunted like a mouth, and the precise constellation of works that she hung nearby. An evocative and naive drawing of a mouselike woman with dark aviator sunglasses (more “Wanted” poster than innocuous portrait) hung near two rough-hewn black collars connected by a string and dangling from the wall. The effect might be described as Eva Hesse in bondage class. Masüger’s 10-foot-long bronze Chain (2010), meanwhile, hung from a hook near the ceiling, then snaked down the wall until it just grazed the floor. Its threatening simplicity belied its making: handcrafted in clay, then meticulously cast—a tortuous process if ever there was one.
Bauer’s large black-and-white drawing, digitally printed onto wallpaper in 16 sections, stayed on theme, but took things back a few centuries. Based on Knight Approached By Death (1918) by Theodor Baierl, who, in turn, based his painting on Albrecht Dürer’s engraving Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513-14), Bauer’s image depicts a wounded knight on a pale and spectral horse, encountering Death, who rides a darker steed. The drawing is a nightmarish landscape rich with Northern European art-historical ghosts. Nevertheless, the use of wallpaper as a support gives the work a playful decorativeness. Nearby, six affecting marker drawings by Eloyan offered a cartoonish take on the twisted vision at hand. Riffing on the Disney cartoon character Goofy, images of the dog sprawl and dissolve, and are showered with graphic sprays of red paint. Textlike black squiggles are similarly occluded by dark stripes suggesting redacted passages in declassified government documents (U.S. torture reports, perhaps?).
With its ominous poeticism and inspired range of violent visions, this show offered an undidactic response to the darkness of our times. And despite the artists’ diverging practices, the exhibition’s startling coherence—its deft thematic weaving together of disparate mediums and points of reference—made it unsurprising to learn that all three had studied together at Amsterdam’s Rijksakademie in the early 2000s. Though this is the first show bringing them together, one hopes it will not be the last.
Photo: Left wall, Marc Bauer: Untitled (Knight), 2010, digital print on 16 sheets of paper, 7 by 7¼ feet overall; right wall, three untitled pieces by Sara Masu╠?ger, all 2010; at SAL Projects.