The Unwinding

22 November – 1 February 2015, Cookie Butcher, Antwerp

By Sam Steverlynck

Charles Harlan, Concrete, 2014. Courtesy the artist and JTT Gallery, New York

In the not so distant past, the area around Antwerp’s Central Station was home to a thriving Jewish community. Nowadays only a handful of shops remain, like the Hoffman fishmongers, the Steinmetz bakery and the famous kosher restaurant Hoffy’s. That feeling of decay is also strongly embedded in the exhibition The Unwinding, curated by collector Philippe Piessens for the private not-for-profit space Cookie Butcher, situated in the middle of that neighbourhood.

Named after George Packer’s eponymous 2013 nonfiction book – a portrait of various Americans, and the societal changes they dealt with, which seems to imply the decline of the American Dream – the show combines work by three younger American artists with images by the late New Topographics photographer Lewis Baltz. Industrial-looking objects are scattered throughout the exhibition space, like props in a postapocalyptic landscape. A plank covered with thick layers of plaster leans against a wall (Virginia Overton’s Untitled, 2014); cement bags without wrapping, cast in concrete, are stacked on top of each other (Charles Harlan’s Concrete, 2014); a long yellow cable hangs aimlessly from the ceiling (Michael E. Smith’s Untitled, 2014). In the background, one can hear the mechanical rattling of what sounds like a concrete mixer in Smith’s video Trouble Stand (2008), which functions as the perfect soundtrack for the show. Should it come as a surprise that the artist was born in Detroit?

Many of the displayed works are objets trouvés. Overton, for example, cut a square out of parquet that now no longer lies on the floor but hangs on the wall like a painting (Parquet (a), 2013). A bit easy, if you ask me; more convincing is her other contribution, a mirror-surfaced rectangle of pliable material bent backwards with a strap (Untitled (Convex), 2011). It’s a work that contains a kind of Matias Faldbakkenesque violent gesture while dealing with sculptural issues of tension and countertension. Smith also uses found objects, but does so more appropriately than Overton. By simply turning a weathered bowl upside down, he manages to set a feeling of menace emanating from what now looks like a shamanic, ritualistic object.

The work of these younger artists does, in any case, match very well with the atmosphere in Baltz’s series of black-and-white pictures. Redoubling the tone of decay and waste, Baltz closes in on deserted areas in the city, wastelands and industrial settings, including buildings with blocked-off doors and windows. In a way the show can also be regarded, retrospectively, as a tribute to Baltz, who died on the day of the opening and whose influence and preoccupation with abstraction and degrading can be felt to a certain extent through the work of this younger generation. Which makes you wonder: what do these guys actually add to existing traditions? They ‘refer’ to Postminimalism, but aren’t they just recycling it – both regarding materials and ideas? OK, the US is no longer the industrial powerhouse it used to be, hence the artists work with cheap, leftover materials instead of massive metal or steel like Carl Andre or Donald Judd used to do. But still.

Yet, strangely enough, while individually the works might not always convince, together they create a strong, mutually reinforcing unity. They’re brought together in such a way that The Unwinding almost feels more like a solo show than a group exhibition. Or, perhaps, a lesson in how one can still make a striking show using works that wouldn’t necessarily stand up on their own but which, combined, create a compelling mood of dereliction. 

This article was first published in the March 2015 issue.