For his solo show ‘Switch and Bait’, which was housed in a large, temporary project space, Adam McEwen made clear, yet again, just how much he likes to turn things up, down and around in order to try and see them anew. McEwen has previously employed masticated chewing gum to map air raid bombing patterns on canvas, and created obituaries of living celebrities. Here, the two sculptures that comprise the exhibition are fabricated from machined graphite, an industrial form of carbon associated with artistic, military and solar applications.
Like the gum paintings, Switch (both works 2009) constitutes a singular form that is repeated to chart the area in which it is located. Comprised of 45 standard fluorescent light fittings suspended in five equidistant parallel rows of nine units, each is outfitted with light tubes made of solid graphite.
Self-Portrait as a Credit Card, a carbon replica of the artist’s own American Express Platinum Credit Card, sits upright on a plinth in an adjacent room. McEwen not only risks potential theft by exposing his account information; he complicates the work’s reception in the process. If McEwen believes that determining the value of art has become indistinguishable from its commercial function, it is troubling that he identifies himself among those having to shift gears and take ‘credibility on credit’– that is, in lieu of monetary gain – to survive in an art market gone bust.
If Self-Portrait as a Credit Card offers a skewed perspective of present conditions, Switch turns this upside down – or right side up depending on your point of view. In referencing light, McEwen owes an obvious debt to both Dan Flavin and Walter De Maria. Compositionally, Switch bears a striking resemblance to De Maria’s The Broken Kilometer (1979), which is now permanently installed at the former gallery of the founder of the Dia Art Foundation, Heiner Freidrich, at 393 West Broadway. As in McEwen’s sculpture, the piece is comprised of 500 solid rods, although De Maria’s were manufactured in bronze, and placed in increasing spatial increments on the floor in five parallel rows to create the effect of light cascading over a wheat field. Another Dia commission, De Maria’s The Lightning Field (1977) also comes to mind, as does Richard Wilson’s Saatchi Gallery oil pool, 20:50 (1987): all these works use manufactured processes and incorporate the presence or absence of light to create an optical effect that evokes a kind of post-industrial sublime.
For McEwen, non-reflection is also a metaphor to analyze the space itself. Already rife with artistic, commercial, historical, theoretical and subjective associations, McEwen’s void offers the possibility to ‘absorb’ as well as ‘reflect’. This provides added weight to the work given the current threat of art spaces having to relocate or close down, and how artists are adapting to the situation at hand.
As such, McEwen’s show title notably reverses ‘bait and switch’, a phrase referring to a common swindling technique whereby cheaper items are advertised to lure potential buyers who are then offered more expensive goods instead. Whether this laments the current state of the global economy and its effect on art or extends the hope for another outcome remains debatable. Works like Self-Portrait as a Credit Card highlight what ‘Switch and Bait’ ultimately provides – the possibility of both options being within reach.
First published in Issue 124