Remaining Calm

When the new year began, you couldn't go anywhere without hearing about Y2K. Even daily newspapers and the Red Cross were advising people to hoard water, food and cash. Y2K is closer now than it was then, but most of the daily reminders brought on by the year's rollover have died down. A premillennial calm has taken hold. And it is that calm normalcy -- of a pregnant woman napping, of hikers idling in a flash-flood canyon, of a night nurse checking a patient's heart rate to see that it is regular -- that this year's exhibit of work by the Museum of Fine Arts Core Fellows inhabits. Like one of those suspense-strung movie scenes in which small, everyday actions such as ironing a shirt or paying a cashier become fraught with tension because the audience knows something is about to happen, every piece in "Core 1999" manifests a deliberateness that makes it well worth a close look.

Some have read the calm surety as increased professionalism. The fellowship program, which gives a stipend and studio space to eight artists a year, has in recent years attracted a more international pool of applicants, many of whom already have their master's in fine arts. The bulk of the Core Fellows are here for their second and final year in the program; perhaps that explains why the show looks so definite and hangs together so well.

The piece de resistance is Leandro Erlich's The Swimming Pool. A masterpiece of simulated experience, from the outside the pool looks like a giant white cube. Step inside, and you are suddenly walking around in the soothing blue of a backyard swimming pool, complete with the curving walls and light-refracted patterns so familiar during a summer in Houston. Look down, and you can inspect the drain. Look up, and you can see a toy football floating on the surface, which is actually a thin layer of water on top of a clear Plexiglas barrier. Viewed from above, despite the fact that you can see people walking around inside it, the pool looks so real it beckons you to dive right in. Inside, you get an intimation of that weightless, soundless world in which humans locomote horizontally instead of vertically.

Much of Erlich's work has dealt with this kind of illusion. Last year, his old-fashioned elevator sitting on the gallery floor appeared, due to a mirror trick, to have a shaft extending both up and down. He also converted his studio into a living room that had one mirror that reflected you and the rest of the room, and another "mirror" that was actually a window into an identical living room, so that when you walked in front of it your reflection was unexpectedly absent, and you were left gazing at your own not-there-ness. Erlich's work calls into question the viewer's relationship to space, and some of his earlier work had the creepy edge of creating vacancy or "disappearing" the viewer. (Although Erlich himself doesn't bring this up, and it's not crucial to know it, he is from Argentina, where the government "disappeared" political dissidents.)

The pool, on the other hand, is much more about presence than absence, generously providing both the sensual pleasure of the swimming pool and the cognitive pleasure of knowing exactly how Erlich provides the illusion, even down to the fans that make ripple-shadows scud along the walls of the pool. Spectacle is a large part of sculpture, from Nancy Rubins's suspended airplane parts to Richard Serra's giant curving walls of steel. But Erlich's brand of spectacle is so dedicated to the viewer's delight, so not about itself, that I have heard people question whether The Swimming Pool is actually art -- a question that seems ridiculous, since we accept so many different things as art, and betrays a deep suspicion of art's capacity not just to convey experience, but to produce it. There is still a difference between Erlich's piece and a real swimming pool or even, for that matter, a theme-park version of a swimming pool. That the difference is narrower than that between, say, a painting of an object and the object itself makes it all the more interesting.

Beyond the pool, the entryway to the Glassell gallery is graced by Todd Brandt's compulsive "paintings." Brandt makes large grids (or almost-grids -- the rows are offset slightly like rows of bricks) by screwing clear plastic film canisters to a board. Then he forms patterns by popping in creamer containers, which happen to fit exactly into the film canisters, which is the thing I find most interesting about Brandt's use of commonplace materials. That is to say, somewhere in the enormous universe of nonessential objects that we humans manufacture (the creamer containers are ordered from WinPak Portion Packaging, a company whose catalog of this-and-thats is, I imagine, a subgalaxy of emptiness), there is a governing secret law that says: Yes, creamer containers will pop nicely into film canisters, and, yes, Todd Brandt will be the one to discover this.

Before he pops them into place, Brandt pours paint into some of his creamer containers. Pink, orange, black, green -- the colors of Chinese jacks -- spike his elegant patterns, which have been fussed over, with some elements perfectly regular and others slightly random, until they are teasingly difficult to trace.

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