I enter Mary Boone Gallery and momentarily think that I’ve stumbled into an exhibition in the process of being installed. There are no paintings on the white walls, no sculptures on the pavement-gray floor. A small black cushioned bench occupies the middle of the space. I look up and realize that the breathy triangular expanse of the trussed roof has been covered by a low-hanging grid of translucent plastic, which renders the sunlight an artificial fluorescence.
The gallery feels like an antechamber in a dentist’s office, I think, or a capacious hallway in a costly hotel. A plastic scent permeates the entire space. Newness smells like this; so does anxiety.
This is Jim Isermann’s Untitled (Drop Ceiling). The smell could be coming from the polystyrene that the California artist has vacuum-formed into translucent square modules; or maybe it’s the gallery’s natural odor and only now, when the space has been drained of color and movement, do I become aware of it.
Isermann has been creating minimalist installations that play with the sleek aesthetics of modern art. In the 80s, he made funky sculptures that moonlighted as lamps, clocks, and the kind of furniture that Austin Powers would lounge upon. Recently, decals and vacuum-forming have figured prominently into his work.
The ceiling continues his interest in simple utilitarian design. It exudes a corporate asceticism that reminds me of Terence Koh’s strange monkish performance involving a mound of salt, which took place here in the spring. That, too, was all white—and painful to watch as Koh inched around the salt on his knees.
My neck hurts after a few minutes of heavenward staring. I lie down on the bench, which fits one body just fine. Here I contemplate the strangeness of lying down in an otherwise empty room, in a vulnerable position, overlooked by the receptionist and other viewers ambling about. I observe the slight differences in the ceiling. Isermann’s panels vary in shade, depending on where they’re placed. Oriented toward the entrance, one notices that the right side is a Payne’s gray that lightens in value to a glowing white at the far left where the sun is more present. Each panel is twenty-four inches square, produced in four variations. The pinched-H design is either recessed or protruding and shifts direction in each row. Together, the divisions and lines create intersecting polygons that resemble a honeycomb pattern or the armored hump of a tortoise shell flattened into a plane.
There’s elegance in the humdrum design above me that is also oddly calming. I think about what Isermann is asking his viewers to experience. Like the filtered gray light, my thoughts could fill this room, too, I suppose. There are no beautiful standing or wall-bound objects onto which I can project my desires and anxieties, just a ceiling that can be found in any waiting room.
~Aldrin Valdez, a writer living in New York.
Images: Jim Isermann, Untitled (Drop Ceiling), Installation views. Copyight Artists RIghts Society/Jim Isermann, courtesy Mary Boone Gallery.