Is That a Rectangle in Your Pocket, or Are You Just Happy to See Me?


I suppose it happens to anyone attempting to have a more thoughtful relationship with fine art. It's a kind of rite-of-passage discovery that serves as a touchstone for deeper dialogues. It's the moment when you realize the secular geometry of the rectangle. A terrain of 90-degree angles that is not only the realm of architecture, books and painting, but, within the context of now, operates fully as the screen. Tablets and computers, cell phones and televisions -- each of these objects are an illuminated plane, transmitting signals for processing, a frontier of seeing-into, and are mundane in their ubiquity. As much as I privilege painting, often unwittingly, I wonder if I have the capacity to be engaged, much less impressed, by its historic rectangular functions.

William Villalongo's Sista Ancesta exhibition at Susan Inglett manages to spark an inquiry that reaches all the way down to the vibration at the bottom of my purse, and answers the call right before it goes to voicemail. Although his stylistically confirmed approach to the black body is on full display, it is his experiments with video and digital collage that glisten with possibilities. The entryway of the gallery showcases a large digital print of a Central African statue of mother and child, a motif that is repeated throughout these works. Set upon a background of deep space, the figures are beyond Earth Mothers; they are revealed as Universal Nurturers. Indeed, the masks that they wear, a curated selection of Frank Stella, Josef Albers and Ad Reinhardt, among others, acts as a kind of macaroni necklace, an earnest gift to the primordial muse. That the work references the Modern Art History canon is secondary to its appeal as both a dismissal and appraisal of linear time. The digital layers impress a physical reality, the universe came first, but we see these elements simultaneously, collapsing the actual process into a single moment. In addition, the mask of the rectangular plane is a compelling commentary on the digital age, emphasizing our own partitions of social networking, email, smartphones, television and online video, as the polygon through which we see the world, virtual and otherwise. Speaking of video, Mr. Villalongo's foray into that wilderness (Water Root) proves less fulfilling, reading more like a bootleg version of Xena: Warrior Princess than a worthwhile contributor to the conversation of the exhibition. I didn't appreciate the attempt to dramatize the paintings; I had done a much better job of that for myself, and so it felt needlessly redundant. But, even with that said, a brief POV shot through the mask of one the video's performers provided a reorientation unconsidered when I first viewed the paintings. Instead of a casual observer, I became a sprite on the figure's shoulder; a tiny Fred Flintstone dressed in a red devil suit, peering through the eyeholes and around the boundaries of the rectangle into the world. This new positioning locates a perspective of a virtual self, flipped onto the internal surface. Perhaps this experience could be enough incentive for further investigation.

The exhibition runs until December 15th. Bring your smartphone. Turn it to vibrate.

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