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Artforum

Peter Coffin: Venus Over Manhattan

September 2012

Artforum

Peter Coffin, Untitled (Unfinished OK Hand), 2012, wood, wire mesh, bolts, screws, 12' 7 1/2“ x 6' 5” x 11' 6".

Peter Coffin: Venus Over Manhattan

By Jeffrey Kastner

In a conversation between Peter Coffin and Maurizio Cattelan published in 2007, Coffin warned against the “tendency to clutter things up, to try and make sure people know something is art, when all that’s necessary is to present it, to leave it alone. I think the hardest thing to do,” he continued, “is to present an idea in the most straightforward way.” Coffin’s recent show at Venus over Manhattan showed the broadly curious Conceptualist practicing what he preaches, but also demonstrated that leaving things too much alone can risk leaving the viewer behind.

The pointedly uncluttered installation featured eight works (all 2012) in video, sculpture, drawing, and sound, as well as a bit of sly architectural intervention, and it contained certain individual moments of interest: Untitled (Dog), a faithfully rendered Great Dane inflated to humorously Brobdingnagian proportions; Untitled (Sun), a modified geochron in which all political borders and points have been erased, leaving the day to pass its transit across a great undifferentiated terrestrial mass; an untitled, easily overlooked cut made into one of the gallery walls whose bottom edge was incongruously finished with a pale marble ledge. Yet taken together, the ensemble appeared almost willfully disjointed, a rather self-conscious enactment of the artist’s aversion to anything resembling a unified style or thematic through line—as though such qualities would too bluntly signal a misguided intent to make sure people knew what they were seeing was art. Of course, being opposed to art-world tics and tropes may be an admirable position, but it’s not necessarily the same as eluding them altogether. The more time one spent with the work, the more Coffin’s antiposture began to feel like just a different kind of posture, the show’s strenuous reluctance to signal any form of organizational intentionality making what in the past has seemed a refreshing brand of happy eclecticism here begin to tilt in the direction of diffusion and diminishment.

So was the pervasive disjunction of the show—titled, for reasons that remained characteristically unclear, “A, E, I, O, U,” the same five vowels exclusively utilized to craft the jokily unintelligible, wholly useless press release that announced it—a strategic success or a failure of nerve? The generousness of spirit that Coffin’s work has often embodied, and which was in surprisingly short supply here, was to be found in Untitled (Pet Store), a speaker mounted on a high stand and set in the middle of the room, where it broadcast a real-time audio feed of the squawking and scuffling of a shop full of friendly fauna—a spatiotemporal connection that opened onto a world beyond the artist’s own. But it was Coffin’s commitment to straightforwardly leaving things be that was the more dominant mode: in Untitled (Ribbons), for instance, a rack of colorful streamers simply set on a wall, or in a middling academic charcoal of a woman’s bare torso, also untitled, that was hung upside down across the room.

Perhaps the question of whether these were meant to be taken as earnest forays into figuration and the readymade or as comments on the exhaustion of such modes should be understood as beside the point. Coffin might well claim they are simply unfiltered artifactual instantiations of his imagination—“idea art,” as he has frequently called it, invoking Gregory Battcock’s formulation in a not altogether persuasive attempt to place his work in contradistinction to conventional Conceptualism, in which the artist has claimed to detect a surfeit of idealism. But having an idea is obviously not the same as having a novel or interesting one, as these works, or Untitled (Slow Motion Campfire), a looping video of precisely that, projected close the ground in a corner of the space, made abundantly clear. Meanwhile, the show’s centerpiece, at least by measure of size and centrality, was a large hand fashioned out of wood and mesh. The thumb and forefinger of the work, which stood over twelve feet high, were curled into an instantly recognizable sign that, at least in one of its ambivalent meanings, was perfectly apt for Coffin’s effort here, its message functioning less as a sign of reassurance than an assessment of bare sufficiency: OK, just OK.

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