The Back Door, Park Avenue Armory, June 8th-August 7th, 2016—
It may be 2016 but it is still surprising to be confronted by the medium-less methodology of truly conceptual artists. Even today, as the lines between art and culture blur daily, artists who define themselves by concept rather than medium, continue to be unique. The latest installation at the Park Avenue Armory by the conceptual British artist Martin Creed (b. 1968), teases viewers with every form of art imaginable. There are videos, wandering minstrels, paintings and drawings, “sculptural interventions,” installations, balloons, metronomes, and woven textiles, making the exhibition seem like a surrealist carnival. Within this massive body of disparate works are as many compelling pieces as there are throwaway gestures, and as a viewer Creed’s work commands a level of attention akin to multitasking.
Martin Creed: The Back Door, aptly titled after an installation that involves the literal opening and closing of the back door, is the largest survey of Creed’s work in the US to date. Known for using existing materials and spaces to create “modifications” rather new artworks, Creed utilizes the entire first floor of the Armory in unexpected ways. Acting almost like a city map, the program guides viewers though the space, from the “Mary Divver Room” to the “Board of Officers.” Though it’s hard to tell if the building is recontextualizing the art or if the art is recontextualizing the building, Creed’s installations overtake the space in an inviting but challenging manner. Like most site-specific installations, the tension between the site and the artwork becomes inseparable, and however foreign or familiar Creed’s artwork might be, it takes on a new dimensionality in this particular retrospective.
If The Back Door mimics like a surrealist carnival, it’s one that has been designed to confound rather than entertain. Curtains automatically slide open and shut, an ornate piano slams itself closed, and lights flicker on and off. These individual installations act as obstacles and barriers while asking viewers to reconsider the space itself. In one piece, A large piece of furniture partially obstructing a door (1996-2002), Creed creates a literal barrier out of a mahogany grandfather clock. The Armory, so ornate and historical, has the look and feel of old money and exclusivity, and here Creed has carefully stuffed it full of playful artworks. Going so far as to modify the overall appearance of the building, Creed painted over the sienna-colored walls of North and South Corridor with thick black and white stripes. Set against the dark wood molding, Creed recasts the walls as a modernist backdrop to the Armory’s historical paintings.
Modifying the building even further, in Half the air in a given space (2015), Creed fills the “Colonel’s Reception Room” with oversized, white balloons. Inviting and childish, the room induces a kind of claustrophobic awareness, as viewers must move balloons to make way for their bodies. A series of action-based works installed in the Armory’s library trophy cases are almost mocking in their simplicity. Placed next to silver goblets and inscribed platters, the artworks have descriptive titles like A sheet of paper crumpled into a ball (1999), A sheet of paper crumpled up and flattened out (2004), and A sheet of paper folded up and unfolded (2005). Numerous tongue-in-cheek readymades, like a chair pyramid or a row of cacti arranged by size, command strange kind of thoughtfulness, and pose questions about what belongs in a given space and why. The more time spent inside Creed’s repurposed Armory, the less out of place the artworks seem to be.
If Creed favors any one medium of expression over another, it’s his videos. Ranging from obnoxious and gross to provocative and romantic, his shorts make up the strongest and weakest pieces in the exhibition. Though filling the Armory’s famous drill hall with a looped projection of women showing their chewed up food feels like a waste of space, numerous compelling videos fill the adjacent rooms. Absurdist counting is the soundtrack to a wonderful display of numbers and fonts in 1-100 (2012), while on another screen a neon highlighter traces the lyrics of a maudlin song titled You’re The One For Me (2012). With a knack for kitschy tunes, Creed’s films can often appear more lighthearted than his visuals lead us to believe, and underneath his witty sentimentality is the possibility honest emotion.
In Flower Kicking (2007), a man destroys a beautiful bouquet of flowers with a furious and passionate purpose, yet in Thinking/Not Thinking (2010) dogs trot innocently in and out of the frame without a care in the world. From defecation to erections and vomiting, behind the absurdity and shock value of Creed’s films is a careful and observant eye. His videos demand to be scrutinized at face value, and that’s exactly why they are captivating. We marvel for a moment at a body’s ability to rush enough blood into a penis to make it erect, while discovering the strangely beautiful pattern and color of projectile vomit. Creed’s art isn’t meaningless, as many of his critics pose, it’s obvious, and that could be its most subversive act.
There is currently a maximalist mentality circulating in American culture, and The Back Door seems to pander, in scale and quantity, to this expectation. Years ago, installations inside the Armory’s drill hall were just that: a singular piece of art made for a singular space. For all Creed’s manipulations and interventions, this exhibition acts more like a museum retrospective. If Creed had created just one work for the drill hall, would the exhibit have been any less impactful? Is offering a little bit of everything really the best way to engage? Standing outside the Armory’s back door as it opened and closed before a bewildered group of pedestrians on Lexington Avenue, gaping as they glimpsed the inside of the drill hall, I found myself missing a true commitment to installation.