A beautifully spare presentation at Lomex, New York, uses a tangle of haberdashery-esque materials to invoke transcedent scenes
There’s so much elegant detritus in ‘Cosmo Freak’, Robert Bittenbender’s second solo show at Lomex Gallery in New York. Tangles of metal cages, fairy lights, an errant shoe, assorted plastics, miscellaneous hardware. Dressmakers’ pins and bits of ribbon, fringing, fabric scraps, decorative trim and other fripperies, as if the artist was party to a heist at a haberdashery. In one corner hangs Electric Thirties (all works 2018), with its smoothed-out colored foils, sellotape and skinny, coppery metal strips and push-pinned scraps all working together to suggest a kind of forensic pinboard. There are plenty of visual references to the world outside Bittenbender’s complex nests: contour lines that recall survey maps ripple elsewhere in the show, and forms are often echoed across materials within the same frame. Painted circles continue as pushpins in Gethsemane. In Broadway Flesh, meanwhile, laddery graffito scars are repeated elsewhere on the canvas with red thread that resonates rewardingly with the red wires, red dots, and red scraps of fabric in other works. Above, red pipes run along the gallery’s ceiling.
Viewed from one angle, the dense thatch and upright shopping trolley of Cracked Actress suggests a getaway cart; a slight turn reveals its frame to be part of a wrought iron gate. Two lengths of piping form a corner like a broken frame, but only when viewed dead-on. The domesticity intimated throughout the space is refigured, from this perspective, to suggest an apron or an iron stood on a shelf. Perhaps it’s an exuberantly maximalist homage to Man Ray’s Cadeau (1921). But instead of a rusty metal brutality, Bittenbender’s piece posseses instead a lovely lightness, even daintiness, to it as well as the five other works that comprise this show.
It’s a beautifully spare, if inscrutable, presentation. The works are so gracefully-constructed, and yet they evoke a sense of boredom, too – as if sprayed with a protective coat of ennui. There is no accompanying exhibition text, and only the titles of works offer oblique clues, pointing by turns to musical theatre or Mediterranean towns. The blue-inset Saturina appears to be a Tuscan spa-town known for its thermal springs. The gilded, chain-draped sound-system-like panels of Gethsemane invoke a garden in Jerusalem where Jesus and disciples prayed the night before his crucifixion and also its namesake song in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar.
Lomex has moved down a floor from its initial location in Eva Hesse’s former studio to occupy the apartment directly underneath, and its residential bones remain. A handsome fireplace, for example, or wonky cupboards under a deep window ledge or a dividing wall framed for what once might have been double doors and a taller, thinner frosted window. The works in the show are careful and the gallery space is careworn. Grimy moldings add to the feel that the movers, or perhaps burglars, have come and gone, and only the wall art remains.
Listen, there was probably never any ransacking of a haberdashery. I’m no detective. Yet despite its cohesion, it seems to want you to wonder about its story. It’s filled with so many little piles of build-your-own-plot fragments everywhere. The show wears its mystery so close to the skin; looking for narrative threads feels like dusting for fingerprints. And perhaps this active resistance to supplying any entryway or touchpoint is a kind of alchemical liturgy too, one that elevates trash into both refuse and refusal.
Robert Bittenbender: Cosmo Freak was on view at Lomex, New York, from 3 May until 24 June 2018.
Main image: Robert Bittenbender, Alphabet Soup, 2018, mixed media, 64 × 99 × 36 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Lomex, New York