Micah Lexier: Increment of One

at I Space, through May 27

Ann Hamilton

at Perimeter, through May 27

By Fred Camper

Micah Lexier and Ann Hamilton both start with an existing formalist tradition in these shows–for Lexier it’s the spare, clean, machine-made rectilinearity of minimal and conceptual art, while for Hamilton it’s rectangular wall-mounted fabric art. But each finds a different way of breaking out of the airy mystifications of art for art’s sake and into the realm of the specific. Both seem to articulate the old art/life split–and favor the “mess” of everyday life. And both do so with a wry humor, tweaking the monumental aspirations of much abstract and minimalist art.

Lexier’s eight pieces at I Space can be divided into two groups, which he informally refers to as “life expectancy” works and “age in years” works. Both sets convey a wider range of meanings and emotions than one might expect from their visual simplicity. The title of one in the first category is nearly a complete description: Self-Portrait as a Piece of Paper Divided Proportionately Between the Top Area Representing Life Lived and the Bottom Area Representing Life to Come, Based on Statistical Life Expectancy (1997). Born in Winnipeg in 1960, Lexier took the life expectancy for Canadian males born that year–75–and divided each of 20 sheets of paper with a horizontal line showing his proportion of years lived and years left to live. Though he had a bit more than half left, the two sides look almost equal; one has to measure to be sure which is bigger. Seven of the original “charts” are on view here, and each has a different dividing line. One uses a very thin pencil mark; another a pencil line covered by a trace of correction fluid; and a third a slender groove incised with a knife.

The juxtaposition of these seven sheets, hung side by side, affects the viewer in two opposing ways. On the one hand, there’s a playful spirit in the different means Lexier uses to divide the sheets of paper; he even cut one of them in two and taped it back together. Conceptual art usually favors the idea over the physical object, yet Lexier’s various choices draw attention to the physicality of the work. On the other hand, his different methods tend to cancel one another out, throwing the focus back on the idea–the proportions of the two sides of the paper stay the same, revealing how much of his life supposedly remains.

Leaving the sheets blank, Lexier pointedly tells us nothing about his life. His quasi self-portraits simply represent the ratio between two numbers, reducing his identity to the years he’s lived. Of course it’s impossible to know someone simply by his age. Nevertheless Lexier’s self-portraits occasion a gentle melancholy: life is mapped out as fixed, a playing field of predetermined size. Even though the title reminds us that we’re dealing with averages–and, as Lexier admits, the life expectancy for a man who’s already lived from 1960 to 1997 would in fact be longer than 75 years–the pieces still impose a sense of limits.

I immediately connected these pieces with the changed sense of time experienced by many people in middle age: you become aware of having restricted your horizons by the choices you’ve made and sense that you have only a limited number of decades remaining; the sense of infinite possibility common to adolescence is gradually replaced by a feeling of enclosure. Lexier didn’t fully endorse this interpretation (“It’s not that I’m freaking about my age–it’s a topic that I’m investigating”), arguing that he’s more interested in the “formal relationships” generated by the idea of life expectancy. But he also mentioned a reason for a heightened sensitivity to mortality: “I’m gay, and have had friends who passed away ‘so young’ from AIDS. It has to do with that change of expectation that happened to my generation.” Curiously, Lexier stopped making these works just before he passed the halfway point of his own life expectancy, though he denies this was due to any aversion to depicting his remaining time. And though AIDS references are not explicit in the work (“Being gay informs my work, but it’s not the subject,” he says), the papers’ physical limits convey an intense sadness. At least one other commentator has responded similarly: writing in the catalog for an earlier Lexier show, Pierre Landry felt “an extremely powerful emotional charge” despite Lexier’s “arguably ‘cold’ aesthetic.”

In the “age in years” pieces, depicting Lexier’s age at the time each work was made, he becomes even more playful. 39 Wood Balls (2000) is a row of wood balls arranged in order of their size; like the life-expectancy charts, the balls configure the years of his life as blanks, but the size change suggests some kind of growth–or diminishment. 39 Ounces of Paper (2000) consists of two stacks of paper each weighing 39 ounces; because one set of paper is a little larger in area than the other, the stack is a bit shorter. 38 Cents (1999) is a series of works, two of which are on view here, in which Lexier traced on a piece of paper the outlines of a group of coins adding up to 38 cents; one group includes a quarter, a dime, and three pennies while the other is a quarter, a nickel, and eight pennies. Once again Lexier manages to gently critique the idea that a person’s age actually reveals anything about him even as he hints that there are many ways of parsing–and, by inference, of passing–one’s years. Leaving out the details, he leaves room for the viewer’s imagination, suggesting that life is ripe for self-invention, a picture one can draw for oneself.

Ann Hamilton is an artist of international repute known mostly for her large installations who’s also worked in sculpture, photography, performance, and sound and who got her undergraduate degree in textile design. Of the five fabric-based pieces in her show at Perimeter (which also includes three photographs), all but one were made in the years between her 1979 BFA and her enrollment in grad school at Yale in 1983. These not only reveal the origins of her later art but also suggest that even then she was pushing the limits of wall hangings. A 1981 untitled work is a lined rectangle interwoven with light brown fibers that protrude from the surface and extend into a kind of loose fuzz at the piece’s sides. These fibers implicitly critique minimalism by projecting into space and by introducing a tactile “mess”–they seem to represent an escape from strict rectilinearity. And though visually the fibers couldn’t be more different from Lexier’s lines in the life-expectancy pieces, their effect is similar: the stuff of actual life–or actual choices about filling one’s years–complicate minimalist purity.

Hamilton’s Banner (1982) takes the form of a giant flag on a pole, both mounted on the gallery wall. Here the critique seems to be of grand symbols and imperial ambitions. While the banner is mostly dark, there’s a lighter tan area near the center, where the symbol of a proud nation would most likely be. But this tan reads more as empty space than as an assertive shape. Small gray pieces of wood are attached to the surface in five rows on either side of the tan, and five red or pink ceramic triangles are fastened on or just outside the tan area. One wonders if these refer to the symbol first forced on homosexuals by the Nazis and now often used to express gay pride. Hamilton says she didn’t consciously intend such a reference, and this work’s looseness makes it the antithesis of today’s brightly striped gay pride banner.

The show’s largest piece is Pants Lose Perspective (1981), a pair of shorts almost six feet high that look more like women’s clothing than men’s. Shorts are of course an everyday object–but toothpicks, looking something like nails, protrude from this piece of clothing, and some have attached to them a small blue strip of wood. Just to the left of the crotch two shoes stick out from the surface, one just the toe but the other most of the front half (the protuberant-shoes motif shows up later in work by Robert Gober). Hamilton turns the shorts not only into sculpture but into a kind of encompassing environment that dwarfs the viewer, and she seems to make a phallic (or antiphallic) joke: the protrusions assert in an almost threatening way “I can be phallic too” even as they make the whole idea seem silly.

In one of Hamilton’s most impressive installations–Offering (1991)–she took over an abandoned three-story house and added dripping wax, 30 live canaries, and smoke to blacken the windows, among other things; the result was vaguely scary. (It was presented under the auspices of Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory, a magnificent institution for installation art unlike anything in Chicago, City of the Big Cows; images from and a description of this piece can be viewed at www.mattress.org/Catalogue/hamilton.html.) Offering was awesome in many ways, but because it was so enveloping it lost the sense of straining against limits that informs this earlier work, which both articulates boundaries and manifests a desire to exceed them.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tom Van Eynde.