Just as a bar’s allure resides not in its efficient exchange of money for alcohol, but in its ability to be a pleasant setting for individuals to be together, a gallery’s strength resides in its ability to become a social space, where the art becomes a campfire around which people can mingle, chat, and maybe even have fun. Yet, from the ugly sterility of the architecture to their employees’ perpetual air of disapproval, galleries—to little surprise—are rarely comfortable places to mingle and chat. Alice Könitz’s exhibition Commonwealth at Commonwealth & Council has achieved a feat of bare-bones comfort. For the first time, the gallery has given over its entire space to one artist, Könitz, who has installed angular, geometric elements of a civilizational outpost: a food dispensary, information kiosk, and lookout station.
Periscope (2016), the first work encountered when entering the gallery, is installed in the skylight. The rudimentary structure is made simply from mirrors, wood, and foamcore board, and rotates on top of a purple metal tabletop that symmetrically bisects the space. Viewers are able to look into the handmade periscope and peep anonymously into the windows of nearby apartments. In the next room, three bright nylon hammocks hang from the gallery walls, with a triangular table hanging in between. The table has three holes punched in the middle—presumably cup holders—that are reminiscent of a coconut’s holes, creating an atmosphere of beachy casualness exemplified when participants lounge akimbo adjacent to each other. While visually and materially in tune with Periscope, the hammocks sap the viewing device of any kind of nefariousness normally associated with invisible surveillance.
In the third room, a casually dressed volunteer who announces himself as the “space operator” sits inside Kiosk (2016), a booth made of wood and PVC pipe and designed with an eye toward the tacky American futurist architectural style, endemic to Los Angeles, known as “Googie.” The space operator hands out paper plates and plastic forks, which participants can take over to Pantry, where they can then fill their plates with the world’s saddest buffet items. Pickled vegetables and spiced nuts sit in a couple of cups propped up on a bamboo scaffold held together by copper pipe fittings and buttressed by a dirty orange milk crate. Used forks go in the half-open, empty can of coconut water.
The show cobbles together high-modernist forms with a low-tech modesty that deliberately underwhelms like cringe comedy. Visually sparse and materially contingent, Commonwealth is a deadpan rendering of a failed utopian imaginary. The exhibition is also Könitz’s most recent return to her interests in the creation of a functioning society and the boundaries of public and private space. In 2006, for a solo show at Susanne Vielmetter, Könitz presented four proposals for public sculptures informed by Century City—a wealthy, highly manicured neighborhood developed in the 1960s on the backlot of Fox Studios in Los Angeles and designed to be “a city within a city,” a glamorous outpost in the midst of greater Los Angeles. For the 2008 Whitney Biennial, Könitz offered visitors $4 raffle tickets for a chance to win a three-day trip to Los Angeles to visit the failed highway project above Glendale Boulevard, a monolithic highway overpass to nowhere.
Far from a sterile white box, Commonwealth & Council, run by artist Young Chung since 2011, provides an interesting background for Könitz’s sculptures. Remnants of past exhibitions breathe life into the space, and in turn, into Könitz’s work. These residues include the shadow of a burned-out stairwell, undisguised wood studs, the raised floor left over from Kristine Thompson’s installation, and the outline of a removed bathroom and tub, in which a previous tenant was found dead from a heart attack. Könitz’s work, both visually and thematically, fits neatly into the scrappy, tastefully raw gallery space.
In Commonwealth, Könitz seduces the viewer into a pathetic encampment with clumsy, ungainly, and slyly passive-aggressive objects that are aimed to allow us, the viewers, to remain together, surviving off the foodstuffs one would normally find fallen behind the shelves onto the dusty floors of a forlorn bodega. With the hammocks, viewers have the chance to lounge in repose, while the periscope provides the ability to keep a lookout for whatever is beyond. The quiet unpretentiousness of the materials and sad references to a past communal optimism convey a sense that a failed utopia is as inevitable as it is phlegmatic. This is the devolution of a brave new world: a space to witness an unassuming metaphor and living example of a body politic barely functioning.
Alice Könitz: Commonwealth is on view at Commonwealth & Council until April 16, 2016.