Washington D.C.

Here & There

Allison Myers
October 20, 2013

Peter Coffin’s recent solo show at the Hirshhorn reminded me of an article on the productivity of boredom that circulated a few years ago. Boredom, it turned out, makes us more attuned to the world, leading us to make complex associative connections between otherwise unremarkable and disparate things. It’s the same pleasure of long bus rides and rambling conversations, when one has the space to simply riff on the world. Titled Here & There, Coffin’s exhibition includes a mere seven works placed throughout the museum, each in a different medium. What unites this otherwise scattered show is an emphasis on the viewer’s encounter and a conversational sensibility that lingers even after one leaves the space of the work.

Peter Coffin, Untitled (Dog), 2012; image courtesy of the artist and Mugrabi Collection. © Peter Coffin. Photo by Cathy Carver.

Coffin’s video installation Untitled (Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum) is the most enthralling. In a darkened room, ceiling-mounted projectors cast video modifications onto paintings selected from the Hirshhorn’s collection. Accompanied by tinkering music, voices and nature sounds, the projections jump from painting to painting, transforming them while working within the images’ own specific formal and narrative structures. The experience unsettles: the action of turning one’s head constantly around the room at the sound of a noise indistinctly heard, only to find a trace of color leaking from the edges of the Picasso, or de Kooning’s yellow lumps blurred and pulsing in a bleary rave. It’s vaguely nightmarish. And like a haunted house, that eerie feeling of paranoia lingers slightly. Even in other galleries of the museum, the urge to glance over one’s shoulder remains. One becomes distinctly aware of an object’s agency, its potential to affect the surrounding space.

Peter Coffin, Untitled (Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum), 2013;  © Peter Coffin. Photo by Cathy Carver.

Coffin’s works do not rely on text panels, erudite knowledge or the words of an art world initiate. They communicate with viewers willingly and conversationally. In Untitled (Rainbow), for instance, thirty-one smartly arranged photographs of rainbow arcs form a large spiral on the wall. Immediately that double rainbow video comes to mind as I wonder if Coffin took these photos or found them (Who sees that many rainbows in their life?). While I remind myself that the arc is most likely a property of bent light, I can’t help but consider if all rainbows are secretly connected—individual parts in a larger rainbow conspiracy theory. Which, incidentally, could be the title for a wonderfully bad queer crime drama or the theme for a Lisa Frank dinner party; good conversations have the quality of being able to move between subject levels with ease. It’s the same for artworks. Making and looking at art is a visual extension of thinking through things with yourself or someone else. Coffin’s works put this quality at the forefront, provoking and emphasizing the productive nature of associative thinking. 

Peter Coffin, Untitled (Design for Colby Poster Company), 2008; © Peter Coffin. Photo by Cathy Carver.

In a 2008 interview, Coffin discussed his work in terms of “Conceptual Lite,” which he loosely defined as Conceptual Art that isn’t quite as declarative as its historical predecessor. Instead he prefers the openness of Gregory Battcock’s term “idea art.” “I want my work to be about what it appears to be,” he said, “and additionally about something else it might hint at: catalyzing ideas instead of transmitting them.”1 This is a conceptual art that is neither about ideas, in a closed and systematic way, nor composed of ideas, in a dematerialized way. Instead, it uses visual and material means to think through things alongside viewers. This makes Coffin’s works approachable. It also makes them a compelling example of how conceptualist strategies can successfully unite with an engaging material experience.

Peter Coffin, Untitled (Spiral Staircase), 2007; Courtesy of the artist and the Holzer Family Collection. © Peter Coffin. Photo by Cathy Carver.

In the Hirshhorn’s circular plaza rests another of Coffin’s sculptures, a huge spiral staircase that twists and turns in on itself around a circle, à la MC Escher. A dad, ignoring the “do not climb” signs, shimmied up the stairs sideways for a quirky vacation photo. While the family was laughing over the camera and the kids were mimicking the sideways motion, I overheard two women at a table next to me: “You know, the circular shape really makes sense in this plaza. It makes me wonder what the Hirshhorn would look like fourth-dimensionified.” Coffin’s works are fun and it is this playfulness that opens conversation. The outcome is a multi-level conceptualism intent on inspiring chains of associations rather than an unraveling of the artist’s pre-conceived concepts.

  • 1. Peter Coffin, interview with Elizabeth Choppin, Art World no. 3 (Feb/March 2008).
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