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It doesn’t take much to grasp the recent enthusiasm for that cross-section of art, architecture, and design from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, now codified as hippie modernism. The converging interests in ecology, media, and technology at the heart of the hippie modern corpus provide a compelling antecedent to our own techno-optimism and 21st-century bad trip of impending environmental collapse. Equally, the hippies employed a heightened vernacular aesthetic—prismatic and geodesic—which they often wrought in the materials and processes of consumer commodities, just as the fetish of the digital in much of today’s art frequently entails a fascinated mimesis of current styles of consumption.
Carl Cheng’s ingenious little machines and enclosed ecosystems, on view at Cherry and Martin’s survey of this pretty much-unknown Los Angeles artist’s early work (Nature is Everything – Everything is Nature) would have done just fine in the Walker’s exhibition Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia. There’s molded plastic, colored Plexi and blacklight—hints of Pop, mod, and psychedelia. There’s organic matter—water, grass, insects, rocks—housed in Space Age dioramas, glossy little gizmos that evidence Cheng’s time in the industrial design program at UCLA in the mid-‘60s.
There he also studied photography under Robert Heinecken, and the earliest works in the show combine the two disciplines: the artist clipped images printed on photographic transparencies and then vacuum-sealed the cutouts, creating swollen, smooshy forms, arrayed in clear Plexiglass cases. Sculpture for Stereo Viewers (1968)— included in MoMA’s 1970 exhibition The Photographic Object—features an identical pair of cutout pictures of a man holding aloft a vast bouquet of balloons. The figure has been photographed from behind, and one has the urge to peak around and glimpse his face. But the work, exhibited against the wall, has an orientation closer to that of a picture and plays on the seen and unseen, the proximate and distant, two- and three-dimensionality. With images filtered through successive layers of transparent plastic, Cheng’s photographic sculptures read as neither exactly photographic nor sculptural, suggesting instead the subsumption of content and form within a kind of McLuhanite televisual media ecology.
The photo works serve as a prologue to the sculptures that constitute the bulk of the exhibition. In plastics—again, of several varieties—they mimic the look and feel of the era’s highly designed consumer electronics, while enclosing material, and life forms, extracted from the natural world—as if in quotation. Supply and Demand (1972) contains two chambers encased in translucent green Plexi, one a breeding ground for insects, the other a patch of Venus flytraps. A tube connects the two Plexi canopies, the larger of which arches high in the back and slopes down toward the viewer, recalling a turntable dustcover. It’s all set into a dark, dense plastic base from which protrude three thick green switches that look like they came from the control panel of a cartoon rocket ship.
Though we might see these electric-kinetic microcosms as successors in a legacy of mechanical sculpture, they share neither the exuberance of the modernist “machine aesthetic” (for example, Moholy-Nagy’s Light Prop for an Electric Stage, 1930), nor the mordancy of Jean Tinguely’s Metamechanics. Rather, Cheng’s sculptures evince a cool and ambivalent take on the consumer commodities whose forms they assume and distend. Made under his corporate pseudonym, John Doe Co., they come across almost as camp, a mannered performance of commodification and consumption in the age of polypropylene and integrated circuitry. At the same time, he says of his machines that they “model nature, its processes and effects for a future environment that may be completely made by humans.”1
But that future doesn’t look so bad. The four Erosion Machines (1969), for example, seem to take pleasure in the malleability of nature. These plastic yellow boxes are divided vertically into two compartments, each exposed to the viewer through windows. The left contains a refrigerator-like display of handmade rocks of compacted sediment, covered in Day-Glo paint. They sit on metal racks, bathed from above in black light, while in the adjacent compartment, water continuously cycles through as a rock slowly disintegrates. Or take Emergency Nature Supply Kit (E.N. Supply, No. 271-01) (1971), in which a small base holds a two-inch square patch of grass, fed by a tube, while a cute little speaker, of roughly the same dimensions, issues bird sounds. The highlight of the piece is the intricate and clever packaging and the velvet-lined, pyramidal carrying case: The fate of nature may be in doubt, but the future of the commodity form looks bright. More than ecological warning, Cheng’s sculptures seem to demonstrate Fredric Jameson’s claim that late capitalism marks the “moment of a radical eclipse of nature itself” 2: the Sublime contained in Plastic.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 5.