ART REVIEW + ESSAY: From Henry Clay Frick to Gilded Matzah, Observing the World in Glass Cases

Upon entering Joshua Reiman’s inventive new show Glass Houses at the Napoleon Gallery, the first thing that strikes you is one of sound rather than vision: a steady, persistent drip-drip-drip of water into a tank. The setup is part of “Frick and Frack,” one of five works consisting of elevated Plexiglass vitrines and their contents, which range from rotting, black-flecked cheese to shiny, immaculate steel sculpture.
"Rock and Roll"

In “Frick and Frack” (2015), the vitrine contains a clay bust of a man, with the aforementioned water flowing from his mouth through a pile of rubble into a large tank below. Immediately with this work Reiman makes his playful nature apparent — “Frick and Frack” condemns fracking in Pittsburgh and, by extension, Henry Clay Frick, whom the bust depicts, the infamous Pittsburgh industrialist/philanthropist. Frick’s wealth came from mining coal and manufacturing steel, and so Reiman connects these environmentally damaging actions of both the past and present, reminding us that just as the water running from the bust’s mouth will eventually wear down the clay and thus destroy part of the bust, that fracking is an important issue contributing to the destruction of land and quality of life wherever it is conducted. Located in a corner of the gallery, “Frick and Frack” permits the viewer to really only observe the work from one point of view — the front — and as a result comes off as a declamation and condemnation that the viewer tacitly accepts.
"Frick and Frack"

“Cheese and Crackers” (2015) offers a similarly strong political message. The work consists of a gilded cast of a piece of matzah, with a slowly decaying piece of cheese on top, all lying on a bed of gritty, golden-brown sand. This seemingly disparate collection of objects is meant to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as the cheese originates from a Palestinian company and the sand is taken from the Kotel, or the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Matzah is traditionally the Jewish bread of affliction, which tradition dictates is eaten during Passover to commemorate the Jewish people’s time as slaves in Egypt and their hard-won freedom. At first glance, the representation of matzah and Palestinian cheese seems to indicate a kinship between both Jews and Palestinians, all sitting atop the sand from Israel — the land that is so contentious between Israelis and Palestinians. Yet considering the work further, the meaning becomes less and less clear as new questions emerge. The matzah is gilded with 24-karat gold, contrasted with the rather plain cheese that before the viewer’s eyes seems to turn moldy. Is Reiman making a statement about the relative societal positions of Jews and Palestinians within Israeli society, where Israeli Jews have a higher per capita income than their Palestinian neighbors? Or is Reiman contrasting the permanent nature of the matzah cast with the fleeting ripeness and eventual destruction of the cheese to make another point entirely? And while the placement of “Cheese and Crackers” in the room allows the viewer to take a nearly 360-degree sweep of the artwork, the Plexiglass vitrine prevents the viewer from getting truly close to the contents — the cheese is safely contained, perhaps protecting the viewer from really engaging with the realities depicted by the piece.
"Cheese and Crackers"

The next work, “The Collection” (2012), consists of five chrome-plated steel sculptures located in a vitrine against one wall. Upon closer inspection, three of the five sculptures are actually abstracted representations of the Super Bowl football trophy, the Stanley Cup hockey trophy, and the NBA basketball trophy, arranged in a line with two modernist forms inserted beside them. While one of the two sculptures recalls Brancusi, it’s not clear what this combination of five objects, all placed in the same vitrine, is trying to get at. Is this work comparing sports and art through its representations of trophies and vaguely artistic pieces? “The Collection” seemed to me the least successful piece in a show mostly brimming with charged ideas.

“The Bones,” the work elevated the highest in the show — a good few inches above eye level — consists of a pile of cast-iron forms on top of a worn, dark wood that recalls a treasure chest. While “Frick and Frack” and “Cheese and Crackers” provide relatively easy narratives to follow, or inspire the viewer to at least consider certain specific questions, “The Bones” is more abstract and less specific in its meaning. It requires the viewer to take more than one view of the work, as several elements of the piece are only visible from certain sides. The cast-iron shapes echo the Brancusi reference in “The Collection” and look like stems attached to casts of one of the artist’s hands and feet, and to a miniature skull. Lying atop the Brancusi-esque stalks is a ladle the artist used for throwing hot metal, and buried underneath the pile is a cast-iron impression of an alarm clock. “The Bones” presents itself as a modern-day vanitas — with its combination of human body parts, the clock, and the resilient iron, the work plays with temporality and the fleeting nature of life; at the same time, the parts of the artist on display are meant to last — the materials will outlive him, but the rusted nature of the metal also indicates decay and death, as does the small skull.

The last work in the show is actually the first one the viewer sees upon entering the gallery. “Rock and Roll” contains Reiman’s mother’s copy of Billy Joel’s Glass Houses album, along with a carved marble depiction of a Kaiser roll. From the back of the gallery, the viewer immediately makes eye contact with Billy Joel’s wide-eyed gaze on the back of the album cover. Yet Billy Joel’s image stands behind a shattered glass wall placed within the vitrine, creating a juxtaposition of pristine, whole Plexiglass and the photograph behind broken glass, creating a tension between being pulled into Billy’s gaze and prevented from getting too close due to the dueling layers of glass. Looking at “Rock and Roll” from the other side, the viewer observes the marble Kaiser roll and the front of the album cover: a figure throwing a stone at the window. And if we look past this vitrine, straight ahead, we see that it lines up perfectly with the window in the gallery, making it as if Billy were going to shatter his way out of the glass container and out of the gallery itself, onto the city streets. The Kaiser roll, rather than molding and rotting, is permanently carved of marble. In “Rock and Roll,” Reiman contains a moment of the past, where Billy and the marble can exist indefinitely, whereas the cheese and crackers of “Cheese and Cracker” will eventually decay, as will the bust of Henry Clay Frick in “Frick and Frack.” Yet what is being preserved is Billy’s act of destruction as he throws the stone against the window

Glass Houses is a thought-provoking and meditative show that draws in the viewer, but only up to a point — purposefully. The vitrines create a sense of disconnect and distance between the viewer and the realities depicted — often of pain, death, destruction, and time — and they remind the viewer that even though the best art connects us to experiences we do not have and worlds we have not visited, there is always a lingering gap between what exists in the world and how closely the viewer can truly grasp it. The job of art is to attempt to bridge that gap, and Glass Houses is a strong argument in favor of straddling that line.