Florian Pumhösl - Saltern - Miguel Abreu Gallery - September 8 - October 27, 2019
It's telling that the press release for this exhibition says nothing about the content of the art itself. The first paragraph outlines Pumhösl's interest in the form of the saltern, a system of canals for making sea salt, which he refers to as a "man-made landscape between sea and inhabited territory with modules characterized by flow and stagnation," and "an abstract image par excellence, because it is able to dissolve everything that appears manifest in it into relations." The first line is clear, a sort of updated Robert Smithsonian preoccupation with natural systems that includes a more contemporary Urbanomic-style philosophical concern for the ways in which the human and the natural are indistinct. That's valid; salterns are interesting. On the second quote I think I'd agree if I knew what he was talking about, but unfortunately I can only guess at what the "everything that appears manifest in" a saltern is, and what those "relations" they dissolve into are. My guess would be that the dissolving has to do with how salt production is based on the function of evaporation, and that the relations have something to do with capitalism. But that feels a bit like a pun so I think I'm missing something that the press release fails to offer up. Anyway, the second paragraph exclusively explains the technical means for constructing the pieces. So we're left to wonder what exactly the works in the exhibition exactly have to do with the landscapes and abstract images of actual salterns.
As for the pieces themselves, they're monochrome slate gray squares with little raised lines on them, outlining the edges of the square or dividing the surface into rectangles. Some of the lines have notches in them which I assume are canal gates through which the water enters the pools in the salterns, which is itself an assumption because it's never explicitly stated that these compositions are topographic layouts of salterns, though that's the implication. And now we reach the crux of our discussion. What the fuck? With all due respect to Miguel Abreu Gallery, who represents some fantastic artists, and as someone with no bone to pick with the history of Modernism and Minimalism, this actually is what people who hate Minimalism think Minimalism is. It's like taking Mondrian but thinking he's too complicated so you take away the colors, and then you offload the problem of composition to copying a map. Or from the other end, taking Robert Smithson but you think dirt is too dirty so you limit yourself to just thinking about landforms that other people have made, and you go back to your studio and copy a map. The problem is, if you take the composition out of Mondrian you've just got some lines, like a map, and if you take the dirt out of Smithson, you're just making maps. I sincerely, earnestly, beg someone to explain to me how these works are more interesting than a map. In all fairness, also in the show are studies for the final works made in acrylic on aluminum, and by virtue of the aluminum's delicacy there's some irregularities in the textures and semi-geological lines that give a bit more of a sense of the natural to those works, but not much. The impression of the exhibition is a shallow thud, a minimalism that, instead of paring down art to some idea of the essential, has reduced itself so much that it begs the question of what the art has to offer in distinction from the things it is supposed to be about.
A week or two after going to Miguel Abreu I went to the Paul Klee exhibition 1939 at David Zwirner, which had this piece, Schleusen (Locks). According to Google Translate, "schleusen" refers specifically to boat locks, which makes this drawing, broadly speaking, thematically similar to Saltern. Klee painted and drew boat locks a number of times throughout his life, so clearly he had some sort of interest in them. The drawing is abstract of course, but as a collection of lines it expresses something of the dimensionality and the modulation of volume about boat locks that is what I think attracted him to them. That is to say, the artist conveyed his interest in this "man-made landscape" without the aid of a quote in a press release. I had immediately assumed the piece was about boat locks and only confirmed it later, and I wasn't previously aware of his other works of boat locks. The work itself told me all I needed to know, and I not only understood conceptually but was left with an affective impression of the artist's experience. I'm not sure if this position is outspoken, but by my reckoning all art is representational inasmuch as it represents the artist's experience, whether or not the work figuratively represents something in the world. No matter how conceptual one's practice is, the work should be able to speak on its own. Why should I care about how hard you thought about the ideas surrounding your piece if they failed to become a part of the piece itself? My issue with Florian Pumhösl's Saltern is that there seems to me a complete lack of correlation between the purported subject of the exhibition as stated in the press release and that of the work. Man-made structures, such as salterns or locks, that work based on a careful channeling of the greater-than-human force of the ocean are indeed interesting, and I don't doubt that Pumhösl has thought a good amount about salterns. In this work, however, I see none of that thought. What I see is a mid-career artist who has built up a body of thematically consistent work coming up with a justification for making more thematically consistent work that is somewhat different from they've done before, but not too different.