One gathers it was no small thrill for Tom Burr to stage an exhibition in the building Marcel Breuer designed for the Armstrong Rubber Company in the late 1960s. As previous works like Brutalist Bulletin Board (2001) attest, Burr has long been fascinated with Brutalist architecture, numerous iconic examples of which—including this building—were constructed in his hometown of New Haven when he was a child. For a short time starting in 1988, Armstrong Rubber’s successor, Pirelli Tire, occupied Breuer’s concrete edifice, after which the building languished abandoned; its only practical use in recent years has been to display the billboards of its current owner, Ikea. Installed on the ground floor, Burr’s exhibition—the third project in Bortolami Gallery’s “Artist/City” program, which has previously brought artists to sites in St. Louis and Miami—comprises sculptures and installations (all 2017) made in dialogue with the derelict site, whose safety restrictions serve as one of the show’s organizing principles. The first piece visitors encounter doubles as a guardrail the artist was required to install at the edge of the space’s sunken entryway. Engraved along the railing is the text of a speech Jean Genet delivered at Yale University on May Day of 1970 in support of then-imprisoned Black Panther cofounder Bobby Seale, in which the writer called on the intellectual class to go beyond symbolic gestures and engage alongside the Panthers in revolutionary struggle. The piece is one of numerous works on view that together comprise an alternative history of the Elm City.
Genet, the consummate queer antihero, figures prominently throughout the show. Bae Genet/Grey Genet, for instance, consists of a pair of aluminum prints depicting the author—in his youth and in his twilight—on opposite sides of a urinal divider found in one of the building’s former restrooms. Another figure Burr spotlights is Anni Albers, the Bauhaus textile designer who moved to New Haven in 1950 when her husband, Josef, became head of the design department at Yale. In Cubicle, aluminum prints showing the designer and one of her textile patterns lie kitty-corner to each other amid rectilinear traces of tiling on the building’s floor.
Burr was just a preschooler when the Doors’ Jim Morrison was arrested onstage at the New Haven Arena and charged with obscenity and inciting a riot, but the noteworthy event in the history of male sexuality as a threat to the establishment has found a recurring place in his work. Two aluminum print installations, People Are Strange (Touch Me) and Love Me Two Times, depict Morrison at the moment of his detainment. In a separate work, an image of a tommy gun-toting J. Edgar Hoover—who closely monitored the May Day events at Yale—offers a variation on the themes of authority and (over)performed masculinity.
Three sculptures in which articles of clothing hang on metal racks allude to less public histories. One incorporates a seersucker blazer and trench coat that belonged to the artist’s father, a former Yale dean. The other two feature a pair of blue work shirts (an allusion to the workers who once toiled for Armstrong Rubber and Pirelli) and a white shirt formerly worn by Burr (a candid acknowledgment of his white-collar background). The works recall previous “portrait” sculptures by Burr, in which clothing serves as an index of personhood. Given, however, the overt reference to class division and the proximity of the sculpture displaying Genet’s Yale May Day speech, they read as an enjoinder to the white and well-off to denude themselves of class affiliations, or, in Genet’s exhortatory words, “to behave in ways that would tend to erase their privileges.”
The mood was set for Tom Burr’s latest solo exhibition by Black Storm Door, in which a man’s old black overcoat hung from the knob of a simple wooden door that leaned against the wall in the gallery entryway. Many of the works were similarly casual-seeming ensembles from which one got the feeling that, as Burr told the Art Newspaper last year, “the actors have left the stage.” Ten sculptures and two collages from 2009 and a photo work from 2006 demonstrated Burr’s interests in quasi-figurative sculpture, the nature of identity, and the way persons and their times are understood through their material traces.
Departure and return, a theme introduced by Black Storm Door, was taken up in Caged Kate, a collage on board in three parts (each 24 by 48 inches). English singer-songwriter Kate Bush appears in press clippings and on album sleeves, including the cover of her hit 1985 record Hounds of Love, all held in place with prominent thumbtacks. Several clippings from 2005 refer to a new release after a 12-year hiatus. Also pinned to the board are a pair of Dior stockings, which were echoed in slumbering object of my sleepless attention, a white, 12-foot-long hinged wood panel that reclined on the floor nearby, as if posing sexily, with a pair of men’s Dior pajamas thumbtacked to it.
Continuing Caged Kate’s alliteration was languidly lingering a little too long. A low, 13-foot-long wood platform and some steel poles form a wardrobe in which dangle cheap hangers and a frayed, inside-out Helmut Lang overcoat. The 46-year-old Burr has previously used his personal Lang clothing as a surrogate; in view of the overstayed welcome of the title, the garment here suggests a joke at his own expense.
Also gently self-mocking is the 2006 Burrville, a group of 21 small black-and-white photographs, arranged in a grid, that depict a “defunct” town near Burr’s Connecticut studio. The pictures represent blank billboards, empty wintry landscapes and cracked blacktop. Two photos show the town’s name in signage. If these artworks can serve as signs for the namesake artist’s identity, Burr drolly suggests, we can read little in them.
The four-panel hinged wood screen of Golden Age alludes to human presence by recalling furniture that offers a fragile privacy. Piled on the floor to one side of it were five copies of the boosterish 1973 book Doctor, Make Me Beautiful!, authored by a plastic surgeon. While Burrville offers vacancy where identity should be, Golden Age suggests a mask.
The various threads wove throughout: 12 Steps to Hell echoes the allusion to Kate Bush’s 12-year sabbatical, the battered Adidas in two sculptures call back to Dior and Lang, and the unplugged headphones—in American Master, an homage to John Cage—indicate we’ve shown up a little too late. The show’s title, “sentence,” sums up the way these works relate—each piece seems to follow from and link to the others. That the word could refer as well to a term of punishment, also resonating with the theme of absence and return, makes the designation all the richer.
Photo: View of Tom Burr’s exhibition “sentence,” showing (foreground) slumbering object of my sleepless attention, 2009; at Bortolami.