Sarah Sze at the Fabric Workshop and Museum

Through April 6, 2014


By Jacob Feige


Sitting at a desk can be productive for an artist, a way of generating new ideas or taking care of logistics. On the morning that I saw Sarah Sze’s exhibition at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, I had sat at own my desk for several hours, accomplishing mundane things, allowing twenty minutes to spill over into several hours that I meant to spend in the studio. The first thing that one sees upon entering Sze’s installation is the museum’s desk for gallery attendants and guides, transferred to the center of a first floor gallery and dramatically lit. For a moment I felt my morning lost to deskwork take on vague poignancy, the way a banal activity might in a dream. My guide through the museum made a quick call on the phone and adjusted a potted plant before showing me to the next room, where a wire framework sculpture precisely resembles the nearby desk in dimensions and size. Ceramic shards, pantone swatches, cut-up copies of the New York Times, and other bric-a-brac fill its interior space, easily seen through the wire structure. The desk sculpture becomes the artist’s potential energy, the site of idea-making at its earliest, most convoluted stage made (literally) transparent.


Of the three installations at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, this one most closely resembles the work that Sze is best known for: vast constellations of everyday materials, assembled into a lattice of complexity on the scale of neural networks. It is also a preparatory sketch of sorts, revealing aspects of the two upper–floor installations Sze has completed for the museum. Each of these strikes out into new territory for the artist, investigating simulated surface and the subjectivity of time, respectively. There are gains and losses in each as Sze departs from her signature structural approach.


In the second floor gallery simulated stones sit in a pleasingly irregular formation, with larger boulders overlapping gracefully in the viewer’s sightline upon entering the space. Paper printed with a rocky texture covers each, the subtle variations in color from one to the next lending an ersatz naturalism. As if to keep the viewer from making assumptions of inauthenticity, actual stones have been intermittently placed among the simulated ones. To one side of the space, a row of stretched fabrics printed with the same faux mineral pattern rests against the wall, various primary colors and natural greys the only difference among them. The fabrics act as a catalog of the colors in the rocks’ surfaces: taupes, granite greys, and vivid process colors to mix them with.


There is an underlying cynicism to Sze’s work, which often suggests that the world is too full of mass-produced crap. But from that mass-produced crap, which might include toys, rulers, and hardware supplies, usually comes something genuinely new and transcendent in Sze’s world. In the case of the boulders, cynicism of a familiar sort about inauthentic objects (articulated in Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, 1981) wins out, with the obvious devaluation of the faux finished surface sounding a louder note than the whimsical appeal of the feather-light boulders. This work stems from Sze’s project for the Venice Biennale, where she represented the United States in 2013. There are no large stones in marshy Venice, so they must always be brought in, the artist discovered. “Why not fake it?” Sze likely asked herself. Since an earnest fake is taboo for artists who must now answer to Baudrillard’s biting criticism of the fake replacing its authentic referent, self-aware irony necessarily becomes part of the strategy of the fake. Irony never was, and still isn’t, what Sze does well. Nonetheless, there is an unsettling beauty to this work, of the sort that makes me feel that the inauthentic—however empty in relation to the original—takes on new substance and vision. Sze is to be commended for making such a risky change to her widely praised working method, even if that change raises fresh problems that she has yet to solve.


On the eighth floor of the museum, Sze tries something new and gets it right. The front pages of the New York Times, from a period of several months corresponding to the artist’s work on the project, sit in an irregular grid on the floor of the gallery. Photographs have been carefully removed from the papers, revealing prints of natural patterns that Sze has placed below. Above a caption about former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, an image of the cosmos shows through. A headline about Syria shows flames, and another cracked mud. The world events of a particular day, of such weight in the moment, seem fleeting in the scheme of the geological time of stars, stone, and fire. The texture of these prints activates the texture of the gallery floor itself, with irregularities in the cement becoming craters and gullies. Newspapers become the cartographer’s grid of human development in this landscape. Pebbles, ceramic chips and other small items populate the landscape, lit casually by halogen lights on stands meant for construction. I feel simultaneously that I’m looking at someone’s studio scraps and looking down on the earth from the window of a plane.


The newspapers in the eighth floor installation flow in chronological order from the windows of the space towards the interior, where they become sparser, petering out some twenty feet from the back wall. The provisional, unfinished quality of the piece suggests a state of becoming, in harmony with the force of time so vividly postulated in the paper cutouts. In one of the last papers in the chronology, a large cover photograph has been cut out, revealing the texture of the floor beneath. After so many faux-finish textures, it took me a moment to discern that I was indeed seeing the floor, not a similarly textured print of a desert or the moon. As in her earlier work, Sze transcends the humble, everyday quality of her materials here, suggesting the structures of chemistry and geology. Whereas complexity itself was often the endpoint of her earlier work, it is in service of a more substantial idea here: that time is a slippery and subjective experience, always unraveled, compressed, finite, yet unresolved.


Jacob Feige is an artist and Assistant Professor of Art at the Richard Stockton College of NJ. His work has recently been seen in Jacob Feige: Paintings 2008-2013 at the College Gallery, Stockton College and A city(ies) that walked at Tiger Strikes Asteroid and Fjord in Philadelphia.