Pun intended: Adam McEwen’s Nighthorses at Gagosian Beverly Hills

We begin in a room with a phosphorescent resin cast of a sheet of 4’ x 8’ plywood with a large funnel resting on it, cast from solid graphite. The sheet is resting on a sphere (also of graphite) giving it a slight curve from one end to the other. On the walls, mundane objects are cast at life-size in graphite and adhered to photographs of the artist’s unmade bed, printed on large sheets of cellulose sponge. From here, an interplay of meanings that jumps, pun-like, from the indexical to the metaphorical and back again. The sponge, as an industrial cleaning product, but also in the sense of “like a sponge.” A towel holder and a hand dryer, a toilet reservoir, an oar, and a straight ladder are all represented here, affixed to a spongy backdrop. In some pieces, the backdrop makes sense as a landscape. In others, it works to invoke its connotations as a bed. Overall, there is no single sense in which it makes sense.

Object-word play abounds.

The docent tells us that McEwen studied at CalArts. I’m not surprised. But I am amused. The visual tautology of TBT (Cymbals) is perhaps the crowning achievement here – it begins by jumping off from Warhol’s Disaster series, but ends in a closed-loop of self-reference between the crashing cymbals and the smashed Tesla. It’s funny, but I’m not sure I should be laughing. Throughout the works, art-world references exist alongside those personal to the artist, but they are too numerous and diffuse to add any real grounding significance. So, we are left with what’s on the wall (and the floor) to make sense of it. The pieces refer to each other formally, but any attempt to find a thematic or narrative through line is frustrated. McEwen has evoked here the feeling of a waking dream state – a world of meaningful objects connected in not always meaningful or consistent ways.

The main room has a 7” diameter sphere of graphite on the floor. The title of this piece, Korrection, is another nod to the futility of finding meaning in the show. The small item is compelling in its simplicity and its opacity. To an artist, graphite is such a charged material; this sphere seems am object of mystical significance, hiding a secret in its impenetrable sphere. But it isn’t, and it’s not. Still, I want nothing more than to pick it up, to scrape it along the white walls, to make an image, to make a something from it.

Also in this room hang the centerpieces of the show – meaning by association, meaning in absentia – large, thin rectangular frames in the dimensions of a box truck cast from various materials – one phosphorescent resin, one graphite, two stainless steel, and one brass. One is aware of the particular dimensions because with in the frames are door latches cast from the same material. Again, the viewer is taunted by the suggestion of “unpacking” the meaning of the pieces. We have the suggestion of the frame as a cargo space, available for meaning to be “packed in” – but the frames are empty, except for the taunting handle that would open them.

If only there were something inside.

The titles of these works – Clean Me, How’s My Driving, Also Comes in White – are invocations of smarmy bumper sticker and vandalism humor. In bringing attention so explicitly to the superficial, the viewer is almost dared to try and find deeper meaning. And yet, though the frames appear to act as a legend to the show, they only ever refer to the show itself, or back to the referents already present elsewhere in the exhibition. A public telephone lacking a receiver (Payphone) is of no help either – the piece suggests an ability to connect (drop in a quarter, dial the numbers) but not to communicate (no handset). The graphite, aside from being an elemental material in art making, has a number of commercial and industrial manufacturing uses.

Perhaps the languages and materials of art and industry are always inextricable. Certainly such a gorgeous space as Gagosian occupies in Beverly Hills would suggest as much. The title of the exhibition is Nighthorses – a punning alternative to “nightmares.” It’s a fitting epithet – the work escapes the terror of finding meaninglessness where one expects to find meaning in humor.

But as with any good pun, the laugh comes with a cringe.

Nighthorses is delightfully unsettling, and on view through June 9, 2018 at Gagosian.
456 North Camden Drive, Beverly Hills

Photo Credit:

TBT (Ladder), 2018
Inkjet print on cellulose sponge, graphite
76 x 110 x 4 1/4 inches
193 x 279.4 x 10.8 cm
© Adam McEwen. Photography by Jeff McLane. Courtesy Gagosian.

TBT (Cymbals), 2018
Inkjet print on cellulose sponge, graphite
76 x 110 x 2 3/4 inches
193 x 279.4 x 7 cm
© Adam McEwen. Photography by Jeff McLane. Courtesy Gagosian.

Nighthorses, Installation View, 2018
Artwork © Adam McEwen. Photography by Jeff McLane. Courtesy Gagosian.