Conceptual Doodler Jim Lambie, in Soho

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:51

    To the Mat When I met Scottish artist Jim Lambie I couldn't understand a single word he said. "Cummonin," he garbled, gesturing amiably toward the back room. "If ya wanta, ya canna leav yar kooots over deeere." Standing up a minute, Lambie pointed at a forlorn-looking twig leaning against the wall. "Dat's ma saoul steek," he said, then guided me some steps ahead toward a 5-foot circle of pleather jackets pinned to the wall. "Dat's called Deejeeetal," he said simply. I stared dumbly around the place; then a single, unironic thought hit me. In two shakes of a kilt's flap I'd been contaminated by the Lambie bug. A phrase from the overused Irvine Welsh repertoire sprang, stereoamplified, into my head: Foookin magic, man!

    The most telling symptom of Jim Lambie syndrome is not being able to look at familiar things in a straight functional way again. Lambie, a Glaswegian urban-culture packrat, takes stuff you know full well, or at least think you know, and swivels it radically on its ear. There're old LP album covers, multicolored stray thread, tacky Chinatown plastic belts, Salvation Army clothing, cracked pieces of found plexiglas, scraggly looking sticks, record decks. And, oh yes, vinyl masking tape.

    Reveling in the pointless helluvit pleasure of the exercise, Lambie does an updated Arte Povera number on such chintzy wares, preferring to emphasize a sincere "anyone can do this, too" attitude over the drier, more austere, standard social critique. From his early days playing xylophone in the rock band Primal Scream, Lambie absorbed the value of the improvisational and demotic gesture. Rather than grandiose, overblown artmaking, Lambie champions the do-it-yourself, bootstrapping ethos of rock 'n' roll. What British art critic Ross Sinclair refers to as the "foundation of all music from Elvis to bedroom techno"?"here's one chord, here's another, there's a third: now form a band"?Lambie's art evinces in spades.

    Doodling is, in point of fact, what Jim Lambie does best. Put directly, Lambie is a doodling genius. The seemingly empty, useless moment is, in Jim Lambie's quick mitts, putty in the hands of Michelangelo. One can almost see Lambie rummaging around his flat, encountering odds and ends, then giving them the quirky once-over before pulling out the scissors and Scotch tape. The results, like the work of master incidental artist Gabriel Orozco, are bound to look fortuitous and unexpected. When matched up with the ballooning pretensions of a self-satisfied art scene, Lambie's work can't help but look like a foamy, unpasteurized pint of Guinness stout. Fresh, that is, and loads more authentic than the usual brew.

    In his first New York solo show, young Lambie pulls out all the stops in bringing his apartment-squatter, punk esthetic to transoceanic fruition. Going to the mat quite literally with Zobop, his biggest and most complicated piece, Lambie redecorates the entire gallery floor with characteristically plebe material: rolls and rolls of store-bought gaffer's tape. Following the contours of the gallery's architecture, its walls, pillars and door frames, Lambie creates pulsating, jiggy-jaggy, op-inspired patterns that skirt the peak of a particularly wild, well-remembered ecstasy trip. Taking over the space the way the Beatles moved in on the Beach Boys, Zobop emphatically declares what phenomenologists might call its thereness. Everything else in the gallery, including desk, chairs, telephone and Lambie's own, comparatively more modest art pieces, levitate on a swirling sea of white, black and gray stripes.

    Floating in a most peculiar way on Lambie's challenging floor installation is Psychedelic Soul Stick, a thing so seemingly purposeless in its invention it should, like the razor-billed auk, get high marks just for having been made. A weird little stick stuck with wadded paper and covered in hundreds of multicolored threads, Soul Stick looks pretty in its own rough-hewn, handcrafted kind of way. Neither a Deadhead fetish nor a new-age wand developed to fend away sense, Soul Stick is left all alone to hold a sizable gallery niche, propped between the floor and wall with the insouciance of a smoking Humphrey Bogart. As with much of Lambie's work, the charm in this simple, resonant piece is 100 percent experiential. Describing it is almost asking someone to accuse you of being full of shit.

    Slightly heftier pieces like Contact, Digital and Leatherette have a similar effect, largely due to the everyday, recycled origins of their materials. The first, a 12-inch vinyl record from Lambie's own jazz collection, is mounted on a gallery wall and stuck with radiating strands of colored yarn. Digital and Leatherette are both made from different parts of the same pile of cheap jackets, just like porterhouse and hamburger are made from different parts of the cow. Digital, a mandala confected from the armless backs of coats, reinforces the idea that Lambie can make art from just about anything. Leatherette takes an otherwise useless bunch of sleeves, fills them up with wadding, then sows them into a spiky, star-shaped thing. Thanks to the free-associative limbo ushered in by Lambie's ingenuity, Leatherette resembled for me the sharp iron barriers the Germans threw up at Dunkirk to slow down the invading Brits and Americans. (Note: I took nothing while writing this review. In the immortal words of Curtis Mayfield: "[It's] a natural high, the man can't put noth-ing on me.")

    There are also pieces like Stakka Record Covers, a snaking, Rasta dred-like cluster of taped-together, acrylic-painted record covers; Since, a piece of plexiglas Lambie rescued, covered in metallic tape, then showered in cheesy belts; and Supernature, a Rorschach-blot-like collage of magazine eyes that actually describes the silhouettes of 10 figures. Untitled, a gorgeous-looking installation on the back wall of the gallery's larger space, reaffirms the power of the simple, why-didn't-I-think-of-that idea. A typical Lambie collection of colored plastic bags from the nearest deli, the seven leaky receptacles are hung at about waist level, filled with mismatched enamel paint and left to drip all over Zobop and the gallery floor.

    Closing out the Jim Lambie show is another lo-fi tribute to the artist's Glaswegian hi-fi milieu. Explained to me by Lambie on my first, preinaugural visit to the gallery, I was left completely unprepared for the funked-up effect of Garage and Mobile Disco, two spinning record decks encrusted with a half-inch of green and purple glitter, respectively, with wires and coat hangers hanging loosely from their undersides. Here's what I got from Lambie a day before their installation and the show's opening: "It'll jest bee acoupla deeeks wi a teeek kooat a gleeeter ung abooot so hi wid sum wiiers comin outda beck." I didn't get a goddamn word of it. So I went back to see for myself. In view of the brazenly fun, fantastical results, I strongly suggest you follow suit.

    "Jim Lambie: Blackgloss," through Feb. 26 at Anton Kern Gallery, 558 Broadway (betw. Prince & Spring Sts. ), 965-1706.