A pink triangle sits captive behind bars in Peter Halley's The Big Jail, one piece in the larger group exhibition, which is divided into "Cellblock I" and "Cellblock II," two distinct but related shows now on view at Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York City. This prison motif is everywhere in Halley's work, who first rose to prominence in the gritty East Village in the eighties, using unconventional paints like Roll-a-Tex (usually reserved for interior decoration) and eye-searing Day-Glo.
Halley is joined by an impressive roster of artists with works from the 1960s onward, including the sculptor Alice Aycock, the Belgian poet and painter Marcel Broodthaers, the French author Jean Genet, and, quite prominently, Robert Motherwell, of the New York School, which also included Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. They all explore the idea of the cell, some more literally than others. Artur Zmijewski's Repetition plays on a loop, a re-creation of the disturbing Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971. The 10 black rectangles in Sterling Ruby's Pelican Bay stand as stark commentary on solitary confinement in super-max prisons.
Not all of the social commentary is that direct, though. Most of the artists play with ideas of confinement and space in more abstract terms. Kelley Walker scans ordinary bricks and then silkscreens them over busy collages, which act as mortar for the faux walls. There's Jackie Winsor's sculpture of a black, three-dimensional cube collapsing into itself (representative, apparently, of her strange dreams), and the chaotic landscapes of Robert Smithson take on new meaning in relation to other works on view.
It's a diverse show that inaugurates Andrea Rosen's new, second location and spills over into the primary gallery farther down 24th Street. Still, the exhibition feels coherent, thanks to curator and art historian Dr. Robert Hobbs, who brings Halley, Motherwell, Ruby, and Walker together "in a culminating and expected way . . . with more depth, both in relation to each other and in regards to their individual pieces." If the subject matter leaves you feeling a little claustrophobic, don't worry; there are plenty of places to escape to in the Chelsea neighborhood.
Painting (above): Rectangular Prison with Smokestack, by Peter Halley (See purple DIARY for more exhibition images)
"Cellblock I" and "Cellblock II" at Andrea Rosen Gallery, 544 W. 24th St., New York City; through February 2
—Keith Wagstaff is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Follow him @kwagstaff.