Originally published in ArtCritical. ◊◊
Greene Naftali’s presentation at the Frieze Art Fair in May featured a new sculpture by Gedi Sibony that exhibits all the quint essential traits of the artist’s work. Humorously and enigmatically titled, The Sleeve Lifter (2013) is a free- standing wood plank roughly the size of a narrow door, pinned to a curl of brown paper. In this simple construction, Sibony makes the plank and the paper seem serendipitously coupled, their respective curvature and rigidity becoming illuminated in the presence of the other. In works such as this Sibony shows himself to be a master formalist in three dimensions, one that regards chaos as coincidence. In speaking about his working process in a 2005 interview, he explained how he “liked having an object that was incomplete or broken, because it relieved me of having to succeed with an object. So, I could play, look at relationships, and orchestrate something more broadly, concentrated in the spaces between objects.”
Sibony has established a distinctive oeuvre of lyrical and plaintive objects assembled from typically utilitarian or industrial materials. Recurring members of this unassuming cast include insulation board, carpeting, garbage bags, sticks, MDF, packing tape, and plywood. In the hands of Sibony, raw materials become earnest protagonists not quite forceful enough to be heroic, but with a specific gravity and elegance. For these reasons, critics and curators have discussed his work in relation to Minimalism, Arte Povera, and process art. In his current solo exhibition at Greene Naftali, however, Sibony moves into an unfamiliar visual arena. The 21 new works feature representational imagery and often a painterly sensibility not present in his previous iconic bodies of work. My efforts to retrace his mental steps only became fruitful once I remembered that Sibony was an abstract painter before he was a sculptor, and that as an undergraduate, studied semiotics with a particular fondness for Ludwig Wittgenstein. Armed with this knowledge, the cryptic epithet atop the exhibition’s press release, an excerpt from a Beatrix Potter nursery rhyme about a mole, becomes a keyhole through which to see these new works: “He digs and he delves. You can see for yourselves. The mounds dug by Diggory Delvet.” In this exhibition, digging is Sibony’s act of revealing semiotic and linguistic structures, and their foils.
Through this lens, the centerpiece of the exhibition starts to cohere. Ceaseless Episodes of Blossom (2013) is a monumental triptych suspended on the backsides of dark, dully gray carpet, on which Sibony painted a non-sequential pattern of five white icons signifying the seasons. This work embodies both order (in the uniform semiotic system, performed in a grid) and anarchy (in the arbitrary correlation between five signifiers and four signified concepts, in unpredictable repetition) with impressive succinctness and simplicity. The same could be said of a slightly earlier work All Ants Live in the Wild (2011), a swath of carpet containing the alphabet scrawled out of order, with the first 13 letters in white paint and the last 13 in red marker. Both Ceaseless Episodes and All Ants corrupt autonomous systems, and in doing so, reveal their construction while opening them to alternative applications.
Much of the exhibition thereafter unfolds in word play. In spite of the gravity of his preoccupations, Sibony has always had a wry sense of humor that is most evident in his peculiar title choices. I chuckled at First There Was This (2013), a freestanding light box with an abstract cutout that, during my two visits, was not illuminated, and is thus poised forever in that biblical moment just before light was cleaved from darkness. Sibony makes a cheeky pun in Migratorius (2013), a framed Audobon-style print of two birds that have been uprooted from elsewhere and settled now in Sibony’s visual landscape. By drawing a line between appropriation and migration, Sibony not only pokes fun at his own action, but also delivers a light jab at the conceptual practice of re-appropriation.
The works making the most powerful implications about the limits of language in my opinion were, ironically but not surprisingly, those in which Sibony performed the simplest intervention. In a small room near the gallery entrance hangs a suite of nine framed works on paper (all 2013), which we assume were once prints or drawings. We cannot be sure because Sibony has reversed the paper, revealing sun-bleached outlines, glue-stains, tape scabs, cardboard and mats. These hidden marks made visible are beautiful in a shy and haphazard way. As we come to understand more sides of the object, as it were, we simultaneously experience a slippage in distinctions of front and back, finished and unfinished—By what name do we call the side we are looking at, and can these works still be classified as “drawings” or “prints”?
That I experienced difficulty writing about and ascribing language to Sibony’s work proves to me the success of his undertaking (and of taking us underneath, that Diggory Delvet!). Even as he robs us of our immediate descriptive powers, Gedi Sibony offers us glimpses of the sinews of our vocabularies, and proffers poetic examples of its potential.