Josh Kolbo's current exhibition at Société, his third solo showing at the gallery, introduces complexity to the Brooklyn-based artist's longstanding engagement with photography. The four types of work found in the exhibition reflect Kolbo's now well-established aptitude for creating visual textures and presenting them in commanding, three-dimensional arrangements; but they complicate the elegant simplicity of both visual information and form: For example, the series of cardboard encasements––hung with plexiglas panels adhered with images––exhibit an intricate articulation in both their structure and their visual referents, which in fact characterizes all the works in the exhibition.
The way that cardboard and plexiglas are used in these works constitutes a convoluted system of
interlocking parts (how this cardboard edge connects to that one; how this arm of the plexiglas fits snugly over the cardboard frame). This is paralleled by the way that visual information bleeds through from one layer of plexi to another, or that images and words sometimes seem to cache themselves within the work's own formal structure: The words “AL-”, “CIA-”, and “DA” slip behind the cardboard encasement and reveal themselves only upon close inspection. This process relates to the logic of finding hidden meanings that themselves constitute a larger, looming, secret plan––a conspiracy like equating Al Qaeda and the CIA (try reading those sound bites aloud).
An impending sense of conspiracy, of a grand web of interconnections not immediately perceivable, pervades Kolbo's exhibition; and it serves as an allegory for the way that meaning is structured in contemporary art at the same time that the allegory has real political significance. In our era, where the legacy of public protest and dissent has been whittled down to Occupy and distress without change, we live our lives under the constant threat of terrorist attacks from outside and equally egregious––as well as unexpected––attacks from within. Think, for example, of online invasions of privacy like surveillance and data mining. Such a sense of paranoia is given form in Kolbo's work: from Untitled, 2013 's ominous lone helicopter in the sky, to Untitled, 2013's image of a thumbtack being poked through a condom still in the wrapper, to the same work's depiction of the American urban legend that you can fold a twenty-dollar bill to look like the World Trade Center towers under attack on 9/11 (they are actually the White House bushes turned around).
Public reactions to threats perceived as immanent can take multiple forms: Some people try to hide any incriminating evidence, while others might try to hide themselves––think of contemporary strategies of online anonymity or the age-old romance of dropping off the grid. A well-known allusion to that 1960s countercultural dream is New York-based artist Seth Price's book How to Disappear in America, from 2008. Kolbo taps into the same narrative vein in his exhibition, as in the series of works made from dollies mounted with plexiglas sheets laser-etched with images taken from the 1984 book How to Hide Anything. The Pringles potato chip cans lodged on the front of these sculptural works make implicit reference to the practice of stashing drugs in these containers, which here also seem as if they could have some sexual use or connotation––given their being strapped with latex and mounted at waist height.
These sculptural arrangements perhaps represent Kolbo's most innovative departure from his earlier, wellknown drapings of large-format prints (also seen in this exhibition, though in new forms and with new attention given to the mechanics of their construction).
In pulling back his attention from the total experience of an object to its delineation on a structural level, Josh Kolbo is making room for his subject matter to play out in a remarkably subtle manner. This exhibition's invitation to attend to its detailed articulation extends throughout the formal territory that Kolbo has already shown himself to be fully capable with. Still, Kolbo's newest works are uncanny, at once familiar and foreign––perhaps functioning in a way similar to the socio-political frame of reference that underlies the exhibition: What appears most familiar might be but a door opening onto terrain that we won't fully understand until it all plays out; still we are swept along with it.