ORSHI DROZDIK, in objects and photos on display at CEPA Gallery through Dec. 23, muses on an earlier era of scientific investigation when, in the euphoria of new and startling discoveries, the complete harnessing of the physical world seemed not only possible but likely.
This is a show about lost faith, initial optimism settling into inevitable disillusionment. The lumbering and perhaps only slightly ironic title of this intriguing exhibition, "Adventures in Technos Dystopium: Popular Natural Philosophy," itself casts a certain gloom over the installation. (A dystopia, the opposite of utopia, is an imagined state in which life is flat-out dreadful.)
The show is made up mostly of old scientific apparatus encased in plexiglass boxes or set out in rows on steel shelves. More antique scientific gadgetry appears in wall-filling photographs, some given a sinister tone with their views of plaster molds of human faces in conjunction with apparatus. Shiny-surfaced and attached to dowels, the photos themselves conjure up images of lacquered roll-down instructional charts and add to the grim didactic atmosphere of a by-gone age.
All the objects seem to be weighted down by their own physical makeup. Leyden jars hang on crude metal stands and capped by inert black knobs sealed with tin. The thick wires of an ancient ammeter perfunctorily break through their plexiglass enclosure while a text and diagram behind explain some scientific procedure. Even a row of ordinary livestock salt-lick blocks is given an uncomfortable inertness by its context.
There is a deadness to all these revived objects that is in direct opposition to a science that once so enthusiastically sought to master the physical energy of the world. Here, energy movement -- the slightest implication of development or change -- is stilled.
Lurking in this installation is another disillusionment, another failed "faith" -- namely, contemporary art. Drozdik employs a materialistic aesthetic popular with the avant-garde of the early '70s. In those heady days sculptors attempted to bypass all conscious organization, instead letting the sense of the materials themselves carry the burden of expression. The thought was that whatever its shape or spatial disposition the quality of, say, steel against felt had a particular effect on a viewer.
I suspect that Drozdik is attempting to parallel the spent energies of an old science with those of this recent art movement. The 18th century mechanistic view of the world is made to collide with one manifestation of 20th century materialism.
As good as Drozdik is in creating an overall atmosphere, she resorts to a picturesqueness when it comes to the individual pieces. There are echoes of all the big and medium-sized guns of '70s sculpture here -- Robert Morris, Dennis Oppenheim, Bruce Nauman, and in the photographs even a touch of the late Paul Thek.
The artist tends to neaten up and miniaturize the ideas of these artists and makes too much of the craft of her assemblages. She asks us to study a calculated artfulness in her constructions while the subject -- what might be simply called the decay of ideas -- suggests some vigorous and open-ended form.