Tainted White

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Le Corbusier wrote When the Cathedrals were White: A Journey to the Country of Timid People after his first trip to the United States in 1935. Whether the tome's resoundingly sour tone reflects the architect's failure to secure commissions or his anxiety, as Koolhaas later theorized, at finding in Manhattan the half-brother of "La Ville Radieuse" remains unclear. In any case, Le Corbusier's critique of the puritanical cleanliness he sees as a "national virtue" has provided important insight into the underbelly of the American architecture and "the psychosexual charge of the white wall," a locus of repressed desires given preeminent form in the white cube. Justin Beal's current project at New York's Bortolami smartly delineates these related histories within a broader libidinal economy, inclusive of "design, politics, advertising, language and aesthetics." Five rectangular sculptures, fronted with glass and sided with untreated aluminum, sit as low pedestals or hang flush with the walls, explicitly mimicking the proportions of corporate office windows. Backed with opaque sheets, the glass doesn't offer a view onto any subject, but rather remains flat and affectless, in keeping with the impassive radiance of the surrounding walls. In Beal's previous sculptures, fruit functioned as surrogates for human bodies, their gradual decay offering counterpoints to the Platonic precepts underpinning the sculptures' source architectures. "The mold, the drips, the flies," Beal once wrote, "illustrate the inevitable impossibility of containing a human organism within a structure made of glass and steel and sheetrock." At Bortolami, Beal presents a further degree of removal, introducing glory hole-shaped cuts in the glass, stuffed with dirty cotton rags, and sex toy-like objects, in steel, with what look like plaster casts of oranges on either end. The sheer banality the white cube presently connotes all but hides the way it imbues its objects with the air of the fetish, yet Beal's accomplished objects and installation make this latent process manifest. - Tyler Coburn

Image: Justin Beal, The Whites: Untitled with rag, 2008

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