New York

I Dropped the Lemon Tart at Lisa Cooley

Though failure has an unfavorable definition, interpretations of the word fluctuate dramatically between negative and positive connotations, depending on whom you ask. While some people may consider failure as something to avoid at all costs, others recognize—and even welcome—the possibilities that arise when something does not go exactly as planned. The seventeen artists in I Dropped the Lemon Tart at Lisa Cooley examine the many faces of failure, resulting in works that range from cheeky to cynical.

Jenny Holzer. SURVIVAL SERIES: IF YOU AREN'T POLITICAL YOUR PERSONAL LIFE SHOULD BE EXEMPLARY, 1998; cast bronze; 5.1 x 10 in. © Jenny Holzer. Courtesy Artist Rights Society (ARS), Cheim & Read, New York, and Lisa Cooley, New York.

Jenny Holzer. SURVIVAL SERIES: IF YOU AREN’T POLITICAL YOUR PERSONAL LIFE SHOULD BE EXEMPLARY, 1998; cast bronze; 5.1 x 10 in. © Jenny Holzer. Courtesy ofArtist Rights Society (ARS), Cheim & Read, New York, and Lisa Cooley, New York.

The title of the show comes from an anecdote about the Italian chef Massimo Bottura and his sous-chef Takahiko Kondo, who, in one fateful moment, dropped a lemon tart as it was leaving the kitchen to be served. While the terrified Kondo recalls wanting to end his life then and there, Bottura saw in the wrecked dessert a chance for innovation. The tart inspired Bottura to create the now-famous dish (named “Oops, I Dropped the Lemon Tart”), in which the components are scattered across a plate, intentionally disarrayed. In an interview about the event, Kondo reflects that, “in life, to move forward, you learn from mistakes.”[1]

The lessons we are supposed to learn from our mistakes are not always as recognizable as Kondo’s, and the failures in this exhibition aren’t always easily spotted. The press release explains that the show is not meant to celebrate failure but rather to highlight the ways in which it permeates all aspects of being. Taking this statement as a directive, I found myself determining each work a failure or not based on what I would like to believe was informed judgment but was probably more intuition. My examination quickly became tangled, with contradictory trains of thought: If I deem a work a failure, then is it a success within the parameters of the exhibition? Conversely, if a work did not seem enough of a failure, then would it be a success? Can an artwork ever be an absolute failure or success? Needless to say, instead of defining the works on a scale ranging from failure to success, considering the show in this way revealed the arbitrary characteristics by which we qualify something as a failure or not.

I Dropped the Lemon Tart, 2015; installation view, Lisa Cooley, New York. Courtesy of Lisa Cooley, New York.

I Dropped the Lemon Tart, 2015; installation view, Lisa Cooley, New York. Courtesy of Lisa Cooley, New York.

The exhibition includes a diverse group of works by Josef Bauer, Gene Beery, Leon Benn, Vern Blosum, Todd Bourret, Mathew Cerletty, Gelitin, Jenny Holzer, Ray Johnson, Sean Landers, Mernet Larsen, Scott Reeder, David Shrigley, Emily Mae Smith, Ben Vida, Yonatan Vinitsky, and Amy Yao. But the works by Holzer, Landers, and Shrigley stood out as the most successful illustrations of failure. Jenny Holzer’s cast-bronze plaque, IF YOU AREN’T POLITICAL YOUR PERSONAL LIFE SHOULD BE EXEMPLARY (1998), which features the same text as the title, acts as a poignant reminder of the ways in which many people fail to rise above complacency in their everyday lives. The plaque insists that it is not enough to simply allow life to pass us by; we must actively work to better the world.

Sean Landers. To Whom it May Concern, 1991; ink on paper; 5 leaves, each 11 x 8 1/2 in.; overall 11 1/2 x 48 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Lisa Cooley, New York.

Sean Landers. To Whom it May Concern, 1991; ink on paper; 5 leaves, each 11 x 8 1/2 in.; overall 11 1/2 x 48 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Lisa Cooley, New York.

Contrasting Holzer’s typically punchy aphorism, Sean Landers’ To Whom it May Concern (1991) is a significantly more lengthy and self-reflective work, offering a description of Landers’ personal failure to pay back his student loans. The piece consists of a bill from the Massachusetts Higher Education Assistance Corporation and Landers’ four-page, handwritten response, explaining he wants nothing more than to pay back the loans—as it would confirm his success as an artist—and the reasons why it is not possible for him to do so, confirming his continued status as a failure.

There are many beautiful and profound messages in the show, but David Shrigley’s drawing, Untitled (Shit) (2011), is undeniably the most affective and relatable, largely because of its simplicity. A circle containing the word SHIT sits in the middle of the paper, surrounded by radiating concentric circles, as though it were a pebble dropped into water. The piece summons the immediate, sinking feeling most people have experienced, to varying degrees, after dropping the toast buttered-side down, or realizing that a mistake will cost thousands of dollars to fix, and everything in between.

David Shrigley. Untitled (shit), 2011; ink on paper; 17 x 11 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Lisa Cooley, New York.

David Shrigley. Untitled (Shit), 2011; ink on paper; 17 x 11 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Lisa Cooley, New York.

I Dropped the Lemon Tart demonstrates a particular type of curatorial organization, one that employs a single idea to connect otherwise disparate works. Though it is a popular tactic, it often fails: The concept described in the press release is often more interesting than the installed works. The Lisa Cooley exhibition, however, achieves equilibrium between the meaningless and the overly didactic. It allowed me to ruminate on the positive possibilities of failure, something I previously considered to be wholly negative. In that way, it is a success.

I Dropped the Lemon Tart is on view at Lisa Cooley through August 21, 2015.

 

[1] Boardwalk Pictures and City Room Creative, “Massimo Battura” episode, Chef’s Table, distributed by Netflix, 2015.

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