There’s so much elegant detritus in ‘Cosmo Freak’, Robert Bittenbender’s second solo show at Lomex Gallery. 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. It’s 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 coloured foils, sellotape, 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 fabric scraps 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, 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 (Gift, 1921). But, instead of a rusty, metal brutality, Bittenbender’s piece possesses a lovely lightness, even daintiness, as do the five other works in this show.
It’s a beautifully spare, if inscrutable, presentation. The works are gracefully constructed yet they evoke a sense of boredom, too – as if sprayed with a coat of ennui. There is no accompanying exhibition text: only the titles of the 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 his disciples prayed the night before his crucifixion as well as its namesake song in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar (1970).
Lomex Gallery has moved down a floor from its initial location in Eva Hesse’s former studio to occupy the apartment directly underneath. 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. Grimy mouldings add to the feeling 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, this show seems to want you to wonder about its story. It’s filled with so many little piles of build-your-own-plot fragments everywhere. This exhibition 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