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  • Source: Art Critical
  • Author: Wallace Whitney
  • Date: January 9, 2019
  • Format: DIGITAL

On the Verge of Failure:

Brian Belott at Gavin Brown

A Brian Belott show is an occasion that can resemble the release of a long-awaited book from a reclusive scholar, and his current exhibition at Gavin Brown’s enterprise is no exception. At once a mini mid-career survey spanning 20 years of production and a showcase of things he just cooked up, there are lessons here for neophytes and refreshers for devoted followers. While the solo shows can feel far apart, Belott is an important driver in the New York art scene. Best known for his more or less constant flow of performance art pieces (both his own projects and as participant in the work of other artists) and as a pied piper for the neo-beat wing of the downtown art scene. It seems fitting that Belott looks to highlight the variety of his very various practice in his current show, but Belott shines most in the more recent work, as he pushes his practice into strange new territories.

Brian Belott, Untitled (Fan Puff), 2016. Mixed media, 85-1/2 x 75-1/2 x 5 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise

“Puuuuuuuuffs,” a group of recent, large-scale collaged paintings (two are in the 85 by 75-inch range, big for Belott), are extremely inventive materially and totally odd. The title comes from the oversized cotton balls Belott slathers in paint and uses to frame the paintings, like non-structural stretchers. The works are formally tight but never fussy. They feel like they skidded into existence: paint, paper, string, glue all landing inches away from disaster, as if he slammed on the brakes in the nick of time, or is playing a jazz solo just on the verge of failure. The biggest pieces in the series have actual box fans inserted into their surfaces. Wobbly, spray painted and lacking grills, these blow recycled air of questionable freshness on the viewer and serve as formal devices referring to geometric abstraction and heaps of post-summer garbage. You can peek through the spinning blades and spot the bricks, pipes and windows behind the partition walls of the gallery. Despite the simplicity of the devices themselves, the works are oddly disorienting, yet the confident scale and the subtle color are declarative and welcoming.

Belott embodies the model of artist as archivist and hoarder, finding a use for everything. Looking at the show it is easy to sense the mountains of material he must have pawed through in order to arrive at just the right assortment of detritus. Can Opener Keyboard is made of up vintage electric can openers attached to a board that’s invitingly set up at table height, awaiting a fool who has learned to play such a faux-fancy instrument. The idea of incorporating and elevating such a diminished object as electric can openers to art status startles. Never one for subtlety, Belott underlines the abjectness by leaving dashes of petrified tomato sauce on the yellowing retro appliances, leaving one wondering whether to laugh or cry.

Installation shot of the exhibition under review with three untitled works from 2018, each with found objects in ice suspended in freezer with hardware. Courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise

The show reaches its crescendo in a darkened side gallery containing three large, mysteriously lit, commercial stand-up freezers with glass doors. Inside, clamped to stainless steel poles, stand multi colored rectangular hunks of ice containing a kaleidoscopic assortment of flotsam and/or metaphysical talismans. A plastic hand, nesting measuring cups, an abacus, old doorknobs, puzzle pieces and bits of yarn are folded into a frosty enigma. Belott lists his materials lovingly on the gallery checklist. These small portrait-sized surrealistically formal concoctions evoke Arthur Dove and Ed Kienholz in equal measure. To look on the Belott’s frozen works is to sense both the absurdity and depth of his project. He succeeds in implicating himself, the audience and his culture through his screwball ode to waste, novelty and a life spent sifting trash in the pursuit of art.