Consider the Box Fan

Anne Libby in Pipe Dream

May 5-8 Rachel Uffner/Night Gallery

by Joshua Caleb Weibley

 Sometimes the most revealing question one can pose to something is simply agreeing with it vigorously. For example; if really all Burger King is asking is that one “have it your way,” as the still used 1974 ad jingle suggests, a customer who says “I’d like a large Diet Coke and no cup,” articulates the premise’s caveats while holding as closely as possible to the terms offered.  Anne Libby’s sculpture operates in this absurd mode of address, taking found materials and doing something to them, that in a sense, is entirely in keeping with what they are and how we are meant to use them, but in another sense productively defuses them.

 The first of Libby’s works I saw were from the two bodies of work she is currently best known for; laminated sheets of Nori and CNC routed folding tables.  I first encountered them as part of an exhibition held in a legal office, which still serves in my mind as an instructive introduction.  Her work plays elegantly with the defining, legalistic “letter of the law” associated with basic identifying properties of whatever materials come into her hands.

 Like the various legal briefs scattered around that office, Nori is essentially just a kind of paper.  Applying the same preservative gesture given to significant documents in laminating them opens the material to our appreciating the dark, eerily lustrous beauty of its surfaces. It also stops us from eating it, a repeating trope in Libby’s work; the application of a basic industrial production process to a basic industrial production product which renders it unfit for consumption as intended.

Anne Libby, "Lily Lamellar," 2015, seaweed, plexiglass, laminate

Libby’s CNC’d folding tables are her most robust body of works with many morphological variations between them.  In each, articulate cuts carefully trace contours of the tables’ design features, most strikingly their metal legs as these would nest when tucked under them folded up in storage.  The negative space is then removed from the tables’ plastic tops.  This results in forms that can barely hold themselves up, even as the process is one essentially streamlining non-structural elements—a straightforward engineering practice.  They call to mind a less composed, more visceral response to Charles Ray’s deconstructed 1986 sculpture “How a Table Works,’ except that where Ray’s table is posed, Libby’s are rough and occasionally disheveled.  They lean, hang and balance as if expecting to fall.  The ones with the most composure are less standing as they would ordinarily when in use than they are standing on their heads, balanced like monoliths, rather than work surfaces.

Charles Ray, How a Table Works, mixed media, 1986

Her tables are easy to anthropomorphize; the way they sometimes sag reimagines them as bearing the exhaustion and frailty of the people who gather around tables like them daily for sundry ad hoc business uses in various markets.  It is the image of countless individuals laboriously holding themselves up on their feet while hawking wares from such tables or heavily leaning on them in hastily scheduled meetings at a more than full time office job after far too many late nights compensated for by far too much coffee.

 Following her laminating seaweed and CNC routing tables, a more recent body of Libby’s work applies laser cutting to the boxes that box fans are sold in.  Two of these were first presented this year during art fair season in New York at a pop up show organized by Los Angeles’ Night Gallery, and New York’s Rachel Uffner Galery in a garage adjacent to Uffner’s main space in the LES.

 It may be the name of these pieces, each called “Hen,” that conjures identification of farm animals as in Fisher Price’s classic toddler toy the “See ‘n’ Say,” or it may just be the way Libby goes about questioning materials before following through with a perverted acquiescence to her conclusions.  Being adults, and desiring a more articulate expository answer to the question “What does the box fan say?” we may imagine the box fan sighing before answering:

 “I am a kind of box.  I sit in a room.  I do not cool air, but behind latticework on my front and back faces a blur of motion from within me produces circulation.”

Anne Libby, "Hen," 2016

Libby’s Hens listen closely to this description and gesture toward each function, stopping short of completely fulfilling them.  Incised into their faces with singed edges testifying to the laser cutting process are a repeating series of curved “L” shapes nested into one another in a grid.  These shapes are graphic representations of hex hey sets, like on might use to assemble Ikea furniture, and their hexagonal shape repeats in rods that form the boxes understructure. Like her tables, Libby’s box fans labor to hold themselves upright. 

 For one of the two Hens presented at the pop up show, this was more immediately obvious.  One of its two faces was left open revealing the roughly welded structure underneath holding it together.  This underscored the frailty of its cardboard surfaces, which appeared stretched over the structure like skin over a skeleton.  The other “Hen” hid its structure, leaving both of its faces and their latticework completely intact.  The opposing grids on either side created startling moire patterns shifting in accordance with the viewer’s vantage.  In this its two latticed faces do indeed produce the appearance of whirring motion from within.  What is more, the box itself was once a means of circulation when it contained actual fans.

 These features frame the sculpture and its referent more fully in terms of the viewer, implicating one in the process of purchasing as well as directly relying on a viewer’s presence for some of its qualities; moirés, produced by human eyes’ miscommunication of pattern to the brain, flatly do not exist without a person to behold them.  In these qualities the object could be understood as needing us, and in its need it begins to reflect our own.  Suddenly the box fan is asking for our own terms to better flesh out our relationship with it, which is finally the simple poetic elegance and delight of Libby’s objects.  Consider the box fan’s terms fulfilled, and something human about ourselves given greater definition in the act of breaking down what these things we have want from us.