Curator Robert Nickas asked viewers to approach 'From the Observatory' as 'an essay in real space', but if you had taken this high-minded instruction at face value, then you would have to judge his study of looking and of being looked at as a failure. Muddled and unwieldy, it asked no clear questions and, unsurprisingly, drew no clear conclusions. But just as it is easy to overlook an imperfect script for a movie spiced with stars and special effects, so it is tempting to allow the incoherence of the show to obscure the strength of many of its individual works, as well as the odd neat set piece. Nickas may ultimately come off as a rambling professor, forever going off at tangents to his primary text, but the result was nothing if not entertaining.
The gallery's main space was reconfigured via the introduction of a central chamber, initially visible through Sam Samore's Bewilderment into the Abyss (2002). The media of this grandly titled installation is listed as 'two-way mirror, frame, walls, room, viewers, interiority, exteriority, etc', and, indeed, it did seem to suck everyone and everything in. The spectacle of two people standing on opposite sides of the glass suddenly making the cognitive adjustment necessary to realize that they were staring not just at their own reflections but also at each other was as enjoyable as anything in the show, and as demonstrably relevant to the theme at hand. The chamber's interior is dominated by Sol Lewitt's ABCD 5 (1968), a floor-bound arrangement of steel frames and boxes, each of which echoes the layout of the room.
This kind of reflexive spatial play was also a feature of the works installed on the walls to the sculpture's left and right. In Portal to Another Dimension (Deborah)/Negative (2001) Ricci Albenda plugged a hole in the wall with a smooth, geometrical fibreglass form that sank into the wall, then projected outwards like an ultramodern integrated shelf. Opposite was Schism's Kiss (2002), a diptych by Stephen Perrino. Its left panel is a smooth white monochrome canvas, its right a crumpled version of the same. Bunched around a central orifice, it seemed to be on the verge of being sucked into parallel dimension, a third space beyond the gallery-within-a-gallery from which we find ourselves peering out.
One would expect the gallery's frontage and window to be thoroughly exploited in such a show, so it was ironic that Nickas managed this space far less effectively than the centre of the interior. Perhaps he was simply overwhelmed by the possibilities. So while it's difficult to argue with the appropriateness of Lawrence Weiner's wall text As Far As The Eye Can See (1988) for the exterior wall, Olafur Eliasson's neon sculpture The Red Doughnut (2002), Jessica Diamond's wall painting Rainfall with Language (1998) and a selection of flower photographs by Sherrie Levine looked as if they had strayed in from another show. John Miller's stern-looking dummy Mannequin Lover (2002) glared defiantly out at passers-by, but, on the opening night at least, it was the girls playing with an array of Barbie dolls right next to it that attracted the most attention.
Of the paintings on show, canvases from the 1960s and 1970s won hands down over more recent efforts. The reasons for this are as many and varied as the pictures themselves. Paul Thek's Untitled (1972) is one of a legion of images made unexpectedly poignant by the events of last September. A sketch in acrylic of the view from a downtown window, it depicts the World Trade Center under construction. Meanwhile, the deadpan humour of Roy Lichtenstein's Mirror Four Panels #1 (1971) is as light and likeable as ever, and Philip Guston's Paw (1968), still represents Bad Painting. Even Adrian Piper's LSD Steven Shomstein (1966), a slightly faded psychedelic portrait, has earned its place here. A succinct reminder of the period's debate over the effect of drugs on perception and creativity, the suspicion that it may now be something of an embarrassment to the artist subtracts precisely nothing from our own appreciation.
Photographers William Gedney, Diane Arbus and Peter Hujar were all represented by several examples of their work, but the importance of their medium to the subject at hand remained an underdeveloped theme. Certainly there were some great prints included here - Gedney's study of Arbus snapping bodybuilders, for example, or Arbus's own Three Boys on a Porch, Beaufort County, S.C. (1968) - but others seemed less pertinent and diluted the overall effect. Douglas Huebler, who made use of photography primarily as a conceptual tool, was better used. Variable Piece #70 (in process) Global 598 (1975), part of a series representing his attempt to document photographically the existence of everyone alive, is shot through with Foucaultian wit. Approaching a clearly impossible task with straight-faced rigour, Huebler's effort as artist is a more self-aware counterpart to that of Nickas as curator. Like the most compulsively watchable reality TV, it implicates both the person behind the lens and the person in front of it, the viewer and the viewed.
First published in Issue 68