Joseph Havel

Yvon Lambert, New York

John Ewing

Joseph Havel, Seven Variations of Nothing, 2008-10; woven shirt labels, Plexiglas, wood; 7 parts, each: 42-1/2 x 42 1/2 x 1-1/2 inches; courtesy the artist and Yvon Lambert Paris, New York; © Joseph Havel

Joseph Havel, Seven Variations of Nothing (detail), 2008-10; woven shirt labels, Plexiglas, wood; 7 parts, each: 42-1/2 x 42 1/2 x 1-1/2 inches; courtesy the artist and Yvon Lambert Paris, New York; © Joseph Havel

Finding out how artists come by their signature materials would make for a fascinating study. What was it that prompted, say, Mark Bradford to pick up beauty-shop end papers and apply them to canvas? How did El Anatsui come to see art in liquor bottle caps? What is it about a shirt label that first captivated Joseph Havel, and continues to this day?

That question is subsumed somewhat beneath the optical pleasure of nothing., Havel’s small suite of works at Yvon Lambert (surprisingly, the first New York City solo show for this award-winning artist and longtime Glassell School of Art director). Here, hiding in plain sight, Havel’s custom-made shirt labels are packed tightly by the thousands into six shallow Plexiglas boxes that are the size and shape of (and hung like) conventional paintings. Arranged edge-out into straight rows, diagonals and concentric patterns, the white labels and darker unfilled gaps around them create the illusion of faint marks that, from a distance, accrue into subtle compositions. These clearly suggest the grid-based paintings of such reportedly admired forebears as Agnes Martin and Frank Stella. But even more sensually, they evoke the opulent, richly textured “nothing” captured in the brushstrokes of Robert Ryman’s “white paintings.”

Up close, however, Havel’s works become less about what they evoke and more about what they actually are, which to this viewer’s eye ultimately limits their effect. Though there are variations of staggered placement, whorls and bends here and there, the shirt labels appear constrained into a narrow, repeating set of possible expressions (a fate that wouldn’t befall a more dynamic material like paint and brushstroke, but Havel certainly scores points for material inventiveness).

More importantly, a discrete shirt tag is pulled out here and there into full view to make explicit the identity of the material, revealing the word “nothing” in white-on-white embroidery. Unlike more traditional mediums, signature materials like a shirt label carry their own specific cultural baggage outside of the history of art, and thus establish powerful internal dialogues within the artist’s oeuvre. Consequently, before anything else can be considered, there is the unavoidable question: what does this material have to do with that artwork (or art “idea,” in the current parlance)?

For Havel, the shirt label is not only a material for artmaking but a reductive capsule that holds the traces and concerns of his earlier work with white dress shirts, which initially represented the constraints of male gender roles. In Havel’s bronze sculptures, his most successful works to date, the soft and flowing nature of fabric is transformed into something rigid and imposing, like water turned into ice—a change of state that transcends conventional associations in order to sharpen or refocus our attention.

Yet here, with the shirt-label works and a single sculpture (a copy of the book A Void by Oulipo writer Georges Perec with all text excised except the word “NO!”), Havel’s engagement with the concept and practice of constraint comes off as coy rather than incisive. In the midst of such evident workmanship, and failing to wholly embrace or transcend its chosen materials, nothing. feels more like an as-of-yet unfocused something.

John Ewing is a New York-based writer and editor and Copy Editor of Art Lies.

The exhibition will be on view through December 23, 2010.

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