To mark the 20th anniversary of what is perhaps the defining traumatic moment in Daniel Arsham’s life—Hurricane Andrew as experienced from his Miami home—the artist’s new series of unnerving sculptures and paintings reflect the storm’s devastating aftermath. Reprising themes and materials from previous works, Arsham’s current exhibition features figurative sculptures made from broken glass, trompe l’oeil architectural interventions, and gouache on Mylar moonscapes.
Having just returned from a visit to my hometown, New York City, where I weathered Superstorm Sandy, Arsham’s motifs resonated with a sudden earnestness and relevance. In the past his work has come across as too slick and perfect to inspire empathy, but after a chaotic week during which the East Coast was inundated with water (and the rest of the plugged-in world with a loop of shocking televised images), Arsham’s measured perspective was quite welcome. With two decades of consideration and contemplation behind his own formative storm experience, Arsham articulates disaster on a personal and a global level using a visual language that is both elegant and provocative.
Daniel Arsham, “The Explorer”, 2012, Verrebrisé, résine / Glass, resin, 170 x 53 x 43 cm / 67 x 21 x 17 inches; Photo : Guillaume Ziccarelli / Courtesy GaleriePerrotin, Hong Kong & Paris.
Arsham’s use of glass shards—a symbolic reification of Andrew’s wake of smashed windowpanes—imbues his subjects with a sense of fragility and tenderness. The Explorer, 2012, represents an adolescent male looking off into the distance—one hand shielding his eyes while the other rests anxiously on his hip. The classic contrapposto stance as well as the facial detail and realistically rendered fabric folds are on par with virtuoso Greek marbles; but in this case the would-be hero appears to be vulnerable and insubstantial. The icy-green crystalline material gives the figure a ghostly presence—like a fleeting apparition that is liable to disintegrate at any moment.
If Arsham’s portraits aim to put a human face on the hurricane’s death toll, his glass-shard inanimate objects (picture frames and a camera, in this show) illustrate a more widely experienced impact of the storm. A salon-style hanging of empty frames of various shapes and sizes runs the length of the gallery wall, conjuring a post-apocalyptic realm, devoid of images. Post-storm there are no artworks or family photographs; there is no sense of history or home. All that remains are a few phantom vestiges of material cultural and personal mementos.
The idea that one’s home—a place designed to provide shelter and safety—could fail to physically protect against forces of nature is especially troubling for Arsham, who practices as an architect as well as an artist. His sculptures wherein human figures appear trapped inside walls are nightmarish reminders that a house can become a deathtrap. (After Hurricane Andrew damaged tens of thousands of homes in Florida, building codes and construction practices were revealed to be partially to blame.) In Hiding Figure, 2011, a male figure is discernable beneath an apparently gale-blown layer of sheetrock, which shrouds his entire body, drawing an immediate connection to the human forms preserved in volcanic ash at Pompeii.
Daniel Arsham, View of the exhibition STORM, GaleriePerrotin. Left to right: “Mooncut”, 2012, Gouache on mylar, frame, 144,5 x 189 x 6 cm; “Square Out of the Moon”, 2012, Gouache on mylar, frame, 163,5 x 163,5 x 6 cm; “Moon Slice”, 2012, Gouache on mylar, frame, 103,5 x 110 x 4 cm; Photo : Guillaume Ziccarelli / Courtesy GaleriePerrotin, Hong Kong & Paris.
The final component of the exhibition, a series of large-scale gouache moonscapes, feels the most personal among the works. Skillfully painted in black, white, and shades of gray, Arsham’s realist style might be mistaken for photography from afar, were it not for the fact that a precisely excised slice has been removed from each lunar sphere. The surrealist imagery is a powerful illustration of loss, but these paintings are also reverential—an ode to the artist’s source of nocturnal light during the month he spent living without electricity following Hurricane Andrew.
(Image on top: Daniel Arsham, Hiding Figure, 2012, Fiberglass,paint, joint compound, mannequin, fabric and shoe, 7.0 feet x 48 inches x 14 1/4 inches / 215 x 122 x 36 cm; Courtesy GaleriePerrotin, Hong Kong & Paris / Photo : Guillaume Ziccarelli.)