A review of
In Image We Trust by Miguel Palma
Nicholas Robinson Gallery
The show is center-pieced by a large carousel placed in the front atrium of the Nicholas Robinson Gallery in Chelsea. Charmingly crude in its construction, a sturdy tripod holds up a circular disk while a small, quietly humming motor works to spin everything at a snail's pace. Splayed on top is a frantic bricolage of old - not quite nostalgic to everybody - models, toys, and found objects; arranged as if it were your father's childhood diorama of some great, but exclusive, narrative. Old US fighter planes fly over generic buildings precariously thrown on top of fake hills and cartoon landscapes; one such building is isolated in a birdcage at the center of the disk - an annoyingly poetic phrase in the midst of the fray. Bulldozers, army tents, skeletons, and astronauts all play out their little scenes while the world continues to turn.
Looking further, you'll find a surveillance camera on the nose of one of it's planes - an amusingly (in a good way) proportioned appendage in contrast to the fighter's sleek design. The plane is one of the few items that remains static, hovering above the disk. This is important only after you visit the basement to find a projected video of what seems to be a streaming feed from the same surveillance camera - you can never find out because of the distance and geography of the two pieces. Regardless, seeing the 'world' from this vantage is an altogether different intimation on the pieces title: In Image We Trust. Two dimensional, the chaos is contained and presented to us at a mediated pace and scope. The objects are translated into image and as they float by they are, in the least dramatic way, center-staged and little moments where Palma's facility and grace as a (dare I say) storyteller really comes through. A quick look through his large body of work will confirm this. If we buttress this against Baudrillard's interrogation of reality and his writings on the sovereignty of objects and their production we begin to see the possible theoretical underpinnings of this show; whether this rings hollow is yet to be seen.
Immediately after, as you pass the receptionist's desk, is another large sculpture. A robust mechanical structure holds in place two things: An A380 airliner at 1:50 scale and a large rectangular screen connected to a vacuum tube. The airplane is skewered to a motor, which sets it in place spiraling lazily upward towards the screen; whose center depicts a gray circle [of dust?] the exact size of the vacuum tube. When the vacuum is on it simultaneously simulates the sound of the plane's turbines and creates a concave half-sphere - ending with an image of something not unlike our Moon. The title Black Hole puts the cherry on top; shrouding the piece with a gentle hopelessness and awe.
The rest of the show strikes a comfortable balance in terms of scale and medium - nothing is out of the ordinary here. There are modestly scaled drawings and collages that reference the larger sculpture's mechanical forms and objects. The circular movement of line-work in these pieces serve to further illustrate an underlying premise that everything is cyclical - the continuous spiral, the eternally spinning disk, the looping video. Combined with the choice of objects you can almost hear Vonnegut whisper, "You want to know something? We are still in the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages — they haven't ended yet."(Deadeye Dick, 1982) Altogether the show is cohesive and sound; which makes for good TV, but not necessarily much else.
The two larger sculptures, In Image We Trust garnering the shows title, are the stronger pieces in the show and provide the meat of it. They work together to contribute to what I consider the thrust of the work. And it begins, as I began this review, with the title. Immediately, Palma sets up the framework whereby we can begin to interpret this work. The replacement of 'God' with 'Image' shapes the conceptual terrain of this work in two significant ways. The first is that this is about an "old America" - this fact is obvious once you see the actual pieces. The second that it is also about media; or more specifically the psychological and societal effects of media and its production on our developing worldview; which we can conveniently assume is an American worldview, or less conveniently, the greater worldview/psyche of our epoch (you know, the internet and stuff) - this fact is less obvious.
So, before we delve into this rabbit hole, lets move beyond the title for a second and view the show beyond language. If Palma is dealing with media (as it pertains to communications), it doesn't show anywhere worth mentioning. We can say that it may only apply to the sculpture In Image We Trust but even then it doesn't really work. The projection, as a medium, is dated at best and the objects ooze more so of "All of this stuff is American!" than "We represent the Machine that made us!". To quote the tired academic tweet, "The medium is the message." And aside from a very few things, Palma loves to coat his message in vintage appeal and the good ol' US of A. Even the title did this. And I fell for it because the title, the show, and Palma's entire body of work are always well executed. He's been around and knows what he's doing. The work here, like just about all of Palma's works, is competently cohesive and competently executed; this show merely continuing his decade's mature body of work.
I bring all of this up to suggest a critical failing in Palma's work. It is framed, theoretically and literally, very nicely but fails to move into anything deeper. I am not saying that this is a requirement for good work; I am saying that the way this show is presented, titled, and whose attitude is specifically reliant upon the content of what its objects represent, it sets up for itself an internal logic that correlates with it dealing with a lot of the ideas I implied - Baudrillard, media, the American military-industrial complex...etc - when in fact it only does so superficially and is more concerned with relating to these things than engaging them. It uses them as an intellectual crutch in other words; a fact that I suspect is perpetuated by his addiction to either nostalgic-y objects or his use of toys and childhood fixations.
While Palma presents us with elaborate sign-ridden pieces, the real focus is actually in the suspension of the moments presented. The action, not the implications. That the pieces are stuck in a continuous cycle takes primacy over their latent significance. Everything here is on display, Palma's Action Plan and Nautical Installation doing so in customary fashion. He stretches out these moments and forces the pieces to 'perform' for us ad nauseum. And while a lot of the construction suggest a proclivity towards technology, the show is overwhelmingly dated - that is to say, of a bygone era. Indeed, it was an era where our faith in technology allowed us to dream and reach; here Palma almost mocks that sentimentality and reminds us that we'll never get that proverbial carrot, or escape the routines of our drab lives where homes are more like prisons than foundations.
By freezing these instances in an eternal loop Palma simultaneously abandon's the cycles effects - forcing us to re-live the moments until we burn through every semblance of referentiality they contained - while rear-guarding his own position of criticality, or rather, his aversion to criticality in favor of sentimentalism; a rope-a-dope that allows him the wiggle room needed for his nostalgic poeticism to leak into an otherwise heavy-handed show. Black Hole for instance, is more about the hopelessness intuited in the controlled death/hope spiral of the A380, striving out of control and reaching forever toward the carrot, than the potential connections of Airbus, and its parent corporation EADS, to the production of military resources not so different than the models used in this show. These images are made irreferential, hooking us in with the prospect of criticality or some witticism about our great nation and delivering us a limerick instead of a expose.
Unfortunately, the limerick just idly humors America's aged obsession with reaching for the stars, ourselves, the size of our penis/accumulating excessive amounts of things to compensate for it, and how inherently militaristic our culture is. And its delivered as gimmicky as a limerick - which is only afforded by trading in the strong stance that would have moved the work past one/two liners. What results in this curation of Palma's works is something like a Shel Silverstein-esque commentary on American optimism.