Utilizing every nook and cranny in the spacious, refurbished warehouse building of the Goss-Michael Foundation, a nonprofit space dedicated to contemporary British art, this survey of Adam McEwen’s work ranged from the conceptual to the physical and phenomenological. Spanning from 2001 to 2011, it included 25 works in a variety of mediums, including photography, sculpture and painting.
McEwen, who currently lives in New York, is best known for black-and-white photographs of fake obituaries-which look like enlarged photocopies of newspaper pages-of movie and rock stars, artists and politicians. The subjects were still living when McEwen, a former obituary writer for the Daily Telegraph, produced the works (between 2001 and ’04); in this installation, the subsequent deaths of Malcolm McLaren and Marilyn Chambers were acknowledged by hanging their obituaries slightly below the others on the gallery wall. The somber tone and exacting biographical reportage elicit a double-take in the first-time viewer but are ultimately less evocative than McEwen’s mature work. Despite the project’s glib irreverence, its persuasive deception sets the tone for much of the show.
Positioned in the middle of the front gallery, Triton ATM (2011) introduced McEwen’s painstakingly realistic graphite sculptures (machine cut from solid blocks), which were dispersed throughout the exhibition. With meticulously rendered details, including an embossed keypad, Triton brand plaque, card slot and cash dispenser, the automated teller stands at the ready, impertinently broaching the subject of art and money. The smooth graphite is silvery gray and has a gently burnished look. It is particularly sensitive to light, which seems absorbed and reflected at once. When indirectly lit, the surface appears blacker, denser and less silky. Such was the case with Untitled (Friedrich), 2007, derived from the front cover of an air conditioning unit and installed high on the wall. At some distance from the viewer, its darkness was mysterious and weighty. Meanwhile, the grooved surface of the nonslip tread on the top step of Rubber Maid Step Stool (2010) distinctly captured graphite’s ability to resemble molded plastic.
McEwen’s subjects are the kinds of things we encounter every day without reflection. Chewed gum is here carefully arranged in a Rorschach-like pattern on canvas. Scattered across a temporary black wall, text messages in white letters prosaically laced with obscenities are enlarged to the size of small television screens. A doorway cut into this wall was left with ragged unfinished edges.
The room-size installation Switch (2009), consisting of 36 industrial fluorescent light fixtures suspended from the ceiling, occupied the large gallery at the rear of the building. In place of the bulbs are graphite tubes, located far enough above the viewer to appear rock-solid and coal black. The material is here used with authoritative finesse. Seeming to suck the light and air from the space, Switch is both beautiful and dreadful in its implications.
Photo: Adam McEwen: Triton ATM, 2011, graphite, 60 by 16 by 25 inches; at Goss-Michael Foundation.