New York “Anthology,” Simon Patterson’s first full-dress New York solo show, presented a mini-retrospective of 23 varied works by the witty British conceptual artist (b. 1967) spanning 1987 to the present and incorporating a range of mediums. Included was his best known piece, the 40-by-50-inch lithograph The Great Bear (1992), a re-imagining of the London Tube map. Its title refers to the constellation Ursa Major, and its stations are named for Patterson’s own choice of “stars”: train lines are organized by such categories as musicians, saints, philosophers and explorers. The map, normally a means for the crisp conveyance of information, becomes funny, tender and idiosyncratic.
A different form of homage appears in Patterson’s “Name Paintings,” in which he has silkscreened a name in a black, typewriter-style font at the center of a white canvas. He always chooses people, like Che Guevara, who summon up canonical images. The series was represented here by its earliest examples, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (both 1987). In counterpoint to Warhol’s glamorous portraits, these are informed by Conceptual art’s clinical restraint—in this case dryly applied to subjects notorious for their excesses.
Forming another ambivalent tribute, six digital prints (each 4 or 5 feet on a side, all 2010) explore the life—and legend—of famed explorer Jacques Cousteau. These detailed black-and-white images have the great visual appeal of the antique British nautical charts they are based on. Below their handwritten titles, which appear like legends, are written synopses of Greek myths; across the waters are inscribed elegies, quotations from Cousteau, and biographical accounts of the Frenchman and his notorious brother, a Nazi sympathizer. Some of these accounts, according to press materials, are persistent Internet myths, so that the works juxtapose ancient and modern myth-making machines while, like The Great Bear, personalizing a vehicle for information.
Escape Routine (2002), a 33-minute video shown on a monitor, spoofs pre-flight demonstrations of emergency procedures. The customary oxygen masks and life preservers are supplemented by chains, straitjackets and handcuffs, which flight attendants impassively apply to each other and then escape, like in-flight Houdinis. A voiceover strays from the typical script to offer advice to magicians: regard all criticism as constructive, always be polite (“manners make fortunes”) and add humor to your act, but only if it is not forced. Since the advice could as easily apply to all creative types, Patterson seems to cast himself and his colleagues as escape artists.
Also shown were the “Landskip” series (2000-08), for which Patterson photographed pastoral landscapes after igniting smoke grenades, the colorful clouds becoming almost corporeal presences, and the “24 Hours” silkscreen series (1995), in which he applied Pop colors and various quirky systems to the periodic table. A few pieces were less successful, like the wallpaper The Day the Earth Stood Still (2010), which superimposes a line from the aliens in that sci-fi film (“Klaatu barada nikto”) over an image of the CERN hadron collider that it was briefly feared could be as destructive as interplanetary warfare. The cleverness of such works seemed more labored than lively. But as a whole, the show presented an artist, heretofore seen surprisingly little on these shores, who is evidently in full command of his multifarious means.
Photo: Simon Patterson: Escape Routine, 2002, video, 33 minutes; at Benrimon Contemporary.