Critical Reflections: Barry Le Va - Silent Diagrams

Dwight Hackett Projects<br /> 2879 All Trades Road, Santa Fe

Date June 30, 2008 at 10:00 PM

Publication THE magazine

Categories Performing Arts


Over the course of more than four decades, the art of Barry Le Va has proven unusually adept at merging precision with obscurity and static order with turbulent action. The artist first drew attention in the mid 1960s for his expansive distributions of felt, flour, and other debris whose emphasis on horizontal scale and fragmented form proved an engaging response to the slick and tightly contained fabrications of the then prevailing minimal aesthetic. So radical was his approach that on the morning that his first exhibition in a group show, New Comers '67, organized by Larry Urrutia, was scheduled to open, a janitor-failing to recognize it as art-had swept up

his work.

Since then, his compositions have emphasized an increasing engagement with constructive limitations; though diminishing in scale, they continue to foreground labyrinthine sites of accumulation whose cryptic relational logic persistently challenges viewers. Continuing this trajectory, Silent Diagrams witnesses the artist configure his work within four six-by-six-foot areas--the tightest parameters within which he has worked to date. The exhibition's diminutive scale and reference to silence may well be informed by a recent essay on Le Va by

Paul Virilio titled "Art as Far as the Eye Can See,"€ in which the cultural theorist suggests that expansive installations engender a sort of audiovisual rapture that sweeps us into a culture increasingly vulnerable to oblivious acceptance of image-based propaganda. Immune to such criticism, the tight-knit organization of Silent Diagrams demands our full attention.

In this vein, it is important to chart the specifics of the compositions on display. Each of four Silent Diagrams consists of a variable number (usually about twenty in total) of clustered aluminum, resin, and cast concrete elements whose parts remain consistent in shape throughout. None exceeding two feet in height, the aluminum and resin pieces are essentially rectangular, while the concrete sections are modeled on a geometry that evokes a compound of Le Va's past works. Suggesting the outline of a cleaver tilted on its side, these concrete figures recall the formalized violence of his threatening installation at the 1970 Whitney Sculpture Annual, Cleaved Wall, which consisted of rows of cleavers hurled into the top and bottom of a single wall. Given their mass and medium, the concrete slabs also recall Le Va's "Bunker Archaeology"€ series of drawings (begun around 1995), whose imagery is based on photographs by the aforementioned theorist exploring modern architecture's adaptations to a world familiar with brutality. Should this rather morbid decoding strike one as peculiar, keep in mind that it would be difficult to ignore Le Va's history of working with--in addition to meat cleavers--such materials as bullets, shattered glass, and traces of his own skin and blood.

Color is seldom considered to be of more than ancillary concern in Le Va's oeuvre; and, standard to his practice, Silent Diagrams initially appears uncompromisingly achromatic. Nonetheless, closer inspection reveals a subtle coloration that emphasizes the artist's compositional judgments. Tinted the deep magenta of black cherry sorbet, the resin elements of Le Va's structures achieve a muted luster that--where shaded--both underscores areas of volumetric recession and grants visual precedence to the undisguised cast-concrete and aluminum coordinates in his compositions. Where illuminated by either the gallery's overhead skylights or by the upward-projecting reflections of the adjacent, low-lying brushed aluminum elements, it reveals a series of swirls and lateral strokes that evidence the hand of a conscientious, but not transparent, fabricator. In contrast to the pristine, anti-gestural manufacture that characterizes the traditional minimalist ethos--and which so readily evokes the deadening pervasiveness of industry--these marks steer closer to individual action than clinical process. Moreover, though brooding cement gray, strident aluminum, and dusky magenta constitute a reserved color palette, they effectively reinforce the works' legibility in relation to the gallery space, whose ashen concrete floor bears stains of garnet that pale in places to a light rust--hues that, like the shapes that rest upon them, draw out sinister associations.

Ignorant of Le Va's history, it would be easy to appreciate Silent Diagrams as one would any other well-considered coordination of formal elements. Taking notice of the ink-on-paper diagrams that inform and accompany the sculptures, one could simply marvel at the artist's skill in mechanical drawing. Far from alarming in aspect, these overhead plans evidence an unrelenting interest in compositional experimentation married to an intuitive sense of exactly when to lay his pen aside. Nonetheless, in the end, the exhibition points to the intractable limits of a different order: more than the disposition of structures, the silent finality of death.