I wasn't particularly expecting to like Swiss artist Urs Fischer's installation "Mary Poppins" at the Blaffer Gallery. I'd just seen his work in the Whitney Biennial, in which he removed a chunk of wall in a gallery and hung branches from the ceiling with lit candles on the ends. They rotated and dripped wax, creating circles on the floor. It seemed more one-liner than subtle, but admittedly, I staggered through his installation after slogging through dozens of other works packed cheek by jowl. I may have been suffering from group-show overload, but it just seemed like one more gimmick in the midst of way too many others.
At the Blaffer, Fischer has the whole downstairs all to himself; there are no other artists shouting around him. The exhibition was organized by the Blaffer's Claudia Schmuckli, and Fischer produced the work here in Houston. But the Blaffer is in no way an easy space for most exhibitions or installations. It has a long side gallery with a staircase stuck in the middle, an awkward side hall and an impossibly tall two-story space in the center -- all of it paved with '70s-era brown ceramic bricks.
Fischer has managed to use the space extremely well. He painted the floor with a thick rubbery layer of black paint that starts to run up the white gallery walls. The walls themselves seem to be fighting back with brushy white strokes and drips that seek to obliterate the encroaching floor. Through his treatment of the floor and walls, Fischer has managed to activate and integrate them into the installation. The strategy works especially well considering that there are only five objects in the almost 4,000-square-foot space.
"Urs Fischer: Mary Poppins"
Blaffer Gallery, University of Houston, 120 Fine Arts Building, 713-743-9530.
Through August 5.
The center gallery is surprisingly successful. The cavernous space is completely void except for an empty hard pack of Camel Lights. At first viewers may think some chain-smoking UH student dropped the pack, but then it starts moving. Look up high at the ceiling, and you see a rotating metal arm connected to the pack with a thin fishing line, dragging it in a slow, jerky circle, like a cartoon slapstick of someone with a $1 bill on a string. Its top is flipped open like a gaping maw of need. You expect to see some hapless nicotine addict diving after it, being led round and round. It's a simple but effective work.
Working along the same kinetic lines, the side gallery has Chagall, a ladder with each leg resting on a tiny spring so that it wobbles ever so slightly. There's a piece of plywood resting across a step and a crossbrace supporting a cardboard box. On closer inspection, you realize it's not actually a ladder, but a ladder replica crafted from polyurethane foam and painted silver; the box and wood are fake, too. A rotating metal arm protrudes from the bottom of the "plywood," causing the shaking. Spray insulation foam has been dripped over the ladder and box for realistic worksite detail. Fischer could have used real materials, but the lightweight foam vibrates more easily, and because he has taken the time and effort to fabricate these banal things, they seem more precious. He also effectively negates their function. You know that your first step onto the ladder would snap the whole thing like a breadstick. It has a delicate tension similar to that of the ghostly cigarette pack.
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Addict has its own fragility. Fischer has precariously stacked a chair on top of an etagere table, then topped off the chair's tattered velveteen seat with a box of Hydrocal (casting plaster). The worn furniture is curved-legged and slightly rococo. The table and chair seem a little wonky, and upon closer inspection you see that both the furniture and the box have been fractured numerous times. Each has been carefully pieced back together but bears the signs of its trauma, like a limping man with a broken leg that never healed right. The fact that even the box of plaster -- something associated with setting and healing -- is broken offers little hope for real restoration.
Also referencing fragility, even though it's a solid chunk of plaster, is a brown egg that has been pierced with a pencil. The shell seems distorted and elongated, as if the pencil stretched it out as it passed through it. Here, the plaster casting becomes a kind of death mask, freezing an act of violence in time.
The idea of piercing also occurs in the work in the hall gallery. A rococo table base, similar to the one in Addict, has been carved from more polyurethane foam. A wire rises up from the table to support a long, carved horizontal piece made from more foam. At one end is the lower half of a face with an open mouth. At the other end is a squared-off section of someone's ass; the puckered hole of the anus runs in a direct line to the mouth, like some kind of human annelid. The two orifices in a straight line become interchangeable ends of a continuous tube. More than scatology, it conjures up a kind of monotony, in which eating and shitting are indistinguishable.
Fischer's installation is a collection of objects and gestures that speak to the haphazard, the precarious, the awkward and the unfinished. It's work that asks you to spend a little time with it, to be open to its nuances and tangents. I tried to imagine Fischer's Biennial piece in the calm spaciousness of the Blaffer. I don't know if I would have liked it more, but I would have liked some of the works in this show less in the Biennial's cacophony. Thankfully, the folks at the Blaffer gave Fischer the space and quiet his work needs, and Fischer has paid them back generously.