by Renny Pritikin
The married collaborators Lenka Clayton and Phillip Andrew Lewis, known for their wit and distinctive way of manipulating found objects, group together more than two dozen works in their exhibition, One thing after another thing. It’s a charming hodgepodge of “things” that break down to the following: four clocks, three nets and a suite of prints about nets, three videos, rocks, a bird cage and several prints of bird cages, three distressed books, and several painted columns. These found objects are manipulated through a process in which aesthetic research becomes serious fun. The result, as the title implies, is a miscellany of things that cohere.
Let’s start with the analog clocks, generic wall decor seen ubiquitously in institutions from offices to schools. The artists’ intervention involves detaching their numbers, which, once removed, pile up as a scrum of “limbs” at the bottom of the clock faces. The artists aim to satirize the tyranny of time and clock watching but are unsuccessful because we don’t need the numbers to tell time; the hands of the clock do it for us. Freedom from the oppression of regulated hours will need a stronger fix than missing numerals. Like these clocks, much of the work in the show examines how our apprehension of the world is habitual and ingrained.
Cage Cage Cage Cage — four small bird cages made to hold a canary in a coal mine, each imprisoning the others — hangs from the ceiling behind the reception desk, casting a dramatic shadow and calling to mind the folk-art magic of a ship in a bottle. Photogravures of other bird cages appear around the gallery. Taken together, these iterations — the object, its shadow and the prints —imply different types of captivity: a caged bird, a shadow trapped on a wall, and a print’s dependence on illusion to represent three-dimensional objects in two-dimensional space.
A second theme involves the deployment of readymades to aesthetic ends. Here, Clayton and Lewis’s shopped the internet for nets, each intended for wildly differing tasks. In Net to Catch Everything I, II and III, the couple combines their finds into hybrids that extend the idea of containment. One zany result is a net designed to capture, in alphabetical order, arrows, blackbirds, catfish, cricket balls, deer, humans, leaves, lobsters, oranges, pheasants, pigeons, robins, seagulls, sparrows, starlings, tennis balls. A suite of works, collectively titled Accumulating Nets, consists of 16 etchings. They start with one net and then pile up, one atop the other, to form a gamut of prints that roam from transparent to nearly impenetrable.
Counting is also the basis of a fascinating video installation, Five Hundred Twenty-Four, in which 21 different choirs sing the numbers 1 through 524. Participants hold their palms to the camera to indicate the number at which they have been assigned to stop singing. One person sings “1,” two sing “2,” and so on. Throughout, we hear singers from all the choirs, but the video shows only a portion of those actually singing. The result is a disconnect between what’s seen and what’s heard. This weirdly beautiful, complex work bears comparison to several other landmark video installations seen in recent years: the Complaint Choirs by Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen wherein people aired their grievances in joint song; The Forty Part Motet, a reworking of Thomas Tallis’ Spem in Alium (1573) by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller which has 40 loudspeakers reproducing the sound of 40 separately recorded voices; and Candice Breitz’s 19-channel video installation, I’m Your Man (A Portrait of Leonard Cohen), showing 18 of the singer’s fans performing one of his signature tunes.
Displacement forms another of the exhibition’s themes. Three small weather-related books were left outdoors for an entire winter. The result: books that physically embody their content and refer to the difference between indoor and outdoor conditions. One Rock and One Stone III, a two-channel video with sound, consists of visual love letters the couple exchanged while working in separate parts of the world. Each vignette is a clever game of wordless one-upmanship involving rocks that become comedic stand-ins for the artists separated from each other. They, too, invoke art historical precedents ranging from Robert Smithson’s Red Sandstone Corner Piece and Dan Graham’s Pavilions to Will Rogan’s One Thing I Can Tell You is You’ve Got to be Free.
Remainder, a video sight gag, conjures containment’s obverse. It opens with a large ceramic jug on a table. As the camera pans left to right, the vessel disappears, only to be replaced by increasingly smaller containers. Into each, a gloved hand pours black sand from the previous receptacle, overflowing the bounds of the vessels. It’s a deadpan and touching metaphor for how communication between people can fill one up and overwhelm one’s capacity. While Clayton and Lewis’ work never takes itself too seriously, it engages us with gentle astuteness, recalling David Ireland’s aphorism, “You can’t make art by making art.”
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Lenka Clayton and Phillip Andrew Lewis: “One thing after another thing” @ Catharine Clark Gallery through January 21, 2023.
About the author: Renny Pritikin was the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from 2014 to 2018. Before that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years, he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, and in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner. The Prelinger Library published his most recent book of poems, Westerns and Dramas, in 2020. He is the United States correspondent for Umbigo magazine in Lisbon, Portugal.