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May we suggest

Reviews / December 2, 2010

Paul Butler and Lynne Heller: White-Cube Wit

Lynne Heller Chelsea Girls #1 2007

Paul Butler and Lynne Heller were paired recently at Gallery 44 in an exhibition that was an ironic, self-critical display of, well, exhibition space.

Butler has built his recent career on his own brand of institutional critique. His Collage Party events were an attempt to demystify the studio space and smash the gallery wide open, and his recurring Reverse Pedagogy residency encourages collaborative play over individual enterprise. Similarly, the Gallery Intervention series at Gallery 44 upended some art-world conventions to ask questions about institutional spaces and values.

For these four Intervention works, Butler cut the art out of basic gallery installation shots. What remained was a twofold representation of the much-disputed white wall, as the gallery’s own wall was visible through the cut-out spaces while the photographed wall framed same. This is where some complications emerged. On the one hand, the incorporation of physical gallery space seemed to undermine the revelatory aspects of the suite: How successful is a critique that relies on its own target? What made the works effective, however, was the exchange between artist and viewer that resulted from this layering. One laughed easily at these works—but one also had the feeling of being laughed at, as if the joke were on us.

Lynne Heller’s photographs of pristine Chelsea-gallery reception areas take a parallel stab at prototypical gallery space and art-world hierarchies. Her Chelsea Girls series takes its name from a split-screen film by Andy Warhol that documents the lives of down-and-out residents of New York’s Hotel Chelsea. The art-historical reference is ripe with class commentary, since contemporary “Chelsea girls” are typically fixtures in upscale commercial galleries like Gagosian and Pace.

Though men do appear in Heller’s series, it seems obvious that her subject is the “gallery girl,” an art-world staple that suggests a deep-rooted tradition of gender profiling within the industry. In Heller’s series, the attendants are so obscured by their fortress-like workspaces that they are absorbed into them. The implication is that the attendants are just like their surroundings: beautiful, cold, white and rich.

In short, this Gallery 44 exhibition was a veritable wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing: biting commentary buried beneath what initially seems like a whole lot of nothing.