516 Arts, Albuquerque
December 1, 2017 – January 13, 2018
The word “installation” can often be unsatisfying, so much so that some artists have invented their own words to describe what they do with media composed in space. German artist Monika Grzymala created the word Raumzeichnung to describe her large “spatial drawings” with black, transparent, and silver reflective tape. Likewise, the act of installing requires new language—for Grzymala, the conception and execution of the work collapses into the same moment, something the artist calls “physically thinking,” her spontaneous collaboration with the materials she brings into the gallery.
To inhabit Karl Hofmann’s exhibition at 516 Arts, In the Balance, is to see the artist “physically thinking” through his relationship with the abstraction of empty space. The two storefront windows of the gallery are each occupied by one of Hofmann’s tower structures—comprised of sawhorse fragments, shop lamps and a trash can, concrete footings, playful cuts of plywood, and yards and yards of thin, reedy poplar strips that seem to take flight from these structures and lift weightlessly into the two-story space of the gallery. The forms present in this ambitious installation are echoed in Hofmann’s paintings, seven of which are on view in the second gallery. Though they preceded the installation by several months and clearly foreshadow its composition, these paintings have the abstract quality of maps: their common language is comprised of sinuous watercolor lines surrounded by black, inky forms interrupted by pools of color, all ambiguous references to natural or human constructions.
These paintings underscore the fact that the exhibition insists upon abstraction as a theme. And yet Hoffman’s dynamic work is very real—and it is celebratory of this realness. Along the length of each poplar strip is physical evidence of its manipulation: small clamps and small weights. Though deeply referential of the paintings in their playful abstractions of color, form, and texture, these installation members cannot be read as separate from the world that we live in—this compelling installation is construction site offal, and Hofmann’s exhibition is a chance, if we will accept it, to think about this waste anew.
Waste is produced through consumption, but also through boredom. Planned obsolescence has become a familiar phrase as we cycle through even novel technologies faster than underwear. Such waste produces abstraction, as writer Ian Bogost has noted of the transformation of the once-revolutionary iPhone into something novelist Claire Donato refers to as “the rectangle,” a flat, lifeless environment from which we download recipes while half-heartedly stalking frenemies on social media (which, itself, is yet another abstraction). In an Atlantic headline underscoring this, Bogost announces once and for all: “The iPhone is Dead. Long Live the Rectangle.” The iPhone will inevitably recede to the background, joining the other once novel, rectangular-shaped technologies we’ve now forgotten—the VHS tape, the cassette tape, the VCR, the Walkman. The quiet brilliance of Hofmann’s exhibition is that it echoes this sentiment: if we are unthinking, waste and abstraction go hand in hand.
If abstraction in art is the inevitable consequence of a world in which our lives are deeply, and often painfully, structured by the abstractions of money, legal formalities, and bureaucratic impersonalization, then Hofmann’s exhibition is a reminder that this still leaves room for playful, inventive gestures. These abstractions are, after all, nothing without our common agreement that they exist. Every day, we organize or invent our relationship to abstractions—determining how we invest our time and our money, what words we use to describe our work or ourselves, decisions that are as tangible as inventing a turn or a twist with a strand of poplar, which, in turn, invents a place for the viewer’s imagination—a place that transcends its abstraction to become, in Hofmann’s words (and perhaps even in our minds), lucid.