BENT—Brian Tolle’s Contested Surfaces

By Melissa Ragona

Bent is an uncanny topology. It points to nomadic materials, shifting sites and social confrontations. Pairing as it does two of Brian Tolle’s signature architectural projects, Eureka (2000) and Levittown (2009), Bent aims to re-stage the questions that initially led Tolle to these works: how has the social contract been negotiated and/or manipulated through city planning? What role does design play in terms of delivering the illusion of social democracy? How is nostalgia used as a medium to resurrect the fiction of a utopian past?

Originally commissioned by Jan Hoet as a site-specific installation in Ghent, Belgium, Eureka (2000) is a fabrication of a 36 foot high facade of a 17th century Flemish canal house whose surface incorporates the wave structures found in the water that laps up against its original foundation.

The above image shows the original installation of Eureka, (2000), in Ghent, Belgium. The site specific installation was commissioned by curator Jan Hoet for his landmark exhibition Over the Edges (2000).

Eureka, (2000), Styrofoam, urethane, acrylic paint, 420 x 180in. (1097.3 x 457.2cm) installed at C24 Gallery for Bent.

One of the design queries initially posed by Tolle Studio was what would brick look like if it could behave like water? Or how could something solid, suddenly behave as if it were a liquid? In other words, how might stability and duration, suddenly become erratic and temporal? Indeed, Tolle’s façade commented critically on other forms of architectural artifice found along the canal—the Baroque and Gothic features of many canal houses had, in fact, been cobbled together from more grand structures found throughout the city. Through a sleight of hand, these more decorative pieces were clandestinely incorporated into the drab canal houses, transforming them into gleaming artifacts of a fictional, illustrious past.


The making of Eureka: A drawing which shows grout lines, windows and other building features is made based on a high-resolution photo of the original building. 3D software meant for cinematic effects is used to simulate waves in the ocean, and another drawing, followed by a 3D model of the building reflected onto this wavy surface is made. A CNC milling machine outputs the 3D model by carving it into Styrofoam, which is later painted.

Similarly, Tolle’s Levittown exposes the chicanery of a particular social housing scheme. However, this one was presented—several hundred years later—in America. The original Levittown also banked on nostalgia, but instead of referencing gilded empires, William Levitt used thousands of simple Cape-Cod style houses to intone the idyllic, hard-working colonial homesteads that were originally erected and refined on Eastham, Wellfleet, and Truro, Massachusetts. The aura around them not only evinces a pioneering work ethic, but the bucolic — the idea of a house, nestled in the countryside with fresh air, friendly wild life, and nuclear families frolicking in the sun.

The image to the left shows an aerial photograph of Levittown, NY, 1949. The image to the right shows the traditional Cape-Cod style Levittown house (circa 1950).

However, the Levittown that Tolle points to in his sculptural series is one that was full of collapsed dreams (Tolle’s deflated house skins nod to this), bigotry, and suburban sprawl. Launched in 1947, over a thousand homes were sold in the first three hours. Only white families, predominantly WW II veterans, could purchase these compact dreams. Moreover, the engineering behind them was informed by military expertise, i.e. Levitt had served in the Navy’s service construction battalions, perfecting the mass-produced structures that were uniform and used interchangeable parts as their trademark. To boot, the particular group of houses that Tolle investigates in Levittown were built on acres and acres of ravaged Long Island potato fields—hearkening back to his earlier monumental work, the Irish Hunger Memorial (2002). Long Island’s blight was not nearly as devastating as the Irish Potato Famine, but had similar economic and political consequences. He addresses the displacement of Long Island potato farmers specifically in Phytophthora Infestans in both title and visual cue—the former, refers directly to the amoeba protozoa that caused the potato disease, while the latter is illustrated by one of the Levittown house models draped over an overturned wheelbarrow of potatoes.

Irish Hunger Memorial (2002)

Phytophora Investments, (2009), Wheelbarrow, plastic potatoes, platinum silicon rubber, 55 x 42 x 44in. (139.7 x 106.7 x 111.8cm)

Each of the eleven Levittown sculptures snipes at disturbing aspects of the initial housing experiment: conformity (TrimCycle, Vanitas Vanitatum, Father Knows Best, Mobile), anti-semitism —despite the fact that Levitt was Jewish—(Jerusalem Avenue), the pervasiveness of teenage drug abuse (Go Ask Alice), fraternal authority (Loyal Order), and the hypocrisy of making these homes, like the flag, a badge of courage for often wounded and disabled war veterans (Out of Service, Old Glory).  A work in the Rennie Collection, Covenant, directly addresses the structural racism of the Levittown project. It depicts a brown house cloaking an outdated porcelain drinking fountain whose water line extends from a gleaming stainless steel chilled drinking fountain—a depiction of segregated, unequal public facilities for African and White Americans, respectively. While Levitt argued that his major funder, the Federal Housing Authority, mandated this “covenant,” he willingly included the same precept in his leases, barring those who were not “member(s) of the Caucasian race.”


The power of Tolle’s exhibition Bent is the rich, complex histories and research that inform each project and the impeccable attention to detail that Tolle Studio (which includes the gifted designer, Brian Clyne) gives to each sculpture, i.e. the goal for Eureka was not just to deliver a representation of flowing water or paint a trompe l’oeil, but to enact a point by point simulation of wave behavior within the material of brick. Likewise, in the initial process of making Levittown, Tolle traveled to the Town of Hempstead, Long Island in order to study the mass-produced houses —actually knocking on doors and asking homeowners if he could measure their doorknockers, windows and chimneys. By mimicking the cookie-cutter uniformity of Levittown with the highest of production values, so that the colors and forms almost radiate “happiness”—Tolle’s work shows the dramatic failure such American dreams suffered in their attempts to cloak, indeed repress the violence, poverty, and xenophobia that lurked at the heart of ideas about property, public space, and familial well being. By theorizing the notion of façade at all levels — stretching it, warping it, bending it, crumpling it, invading it, laying it on its back—Tolle creates, like Warhol, a new depth to surface. He also jumps across history, as well as different cultures in this exhibition —forcing viewers to think both diachronically (within the sequential and cyclical time of history), as well as synchronically or “all at once” at the structures of architecture, community, and commerce.

Melissa Ragona is an Associate Professor of Critical Theory and Art History in the School of Art at Carnegie Mellon University as well as an independent curator and critic. Her book, Readymade Sound: Andy Warhol’s Recording Aesthetics, is forthcoming from University of California Press. Her essays and reviews have appeared in October,Frieze, Art Papers and numerous edited collections. She has also published in monographs on the work of artists, Heike Mutter, Ulrich Genth, Christian Jankowski, Carolee Schneemann, Paul Sharits, and Antoine Catala. Ragona has curated exhibitions and served as a curatorial consultant at various venues throughout the US, including the Mattress Factory Contemporary Art Museum (Pittsburgh), the Miller Gallery (Pittsburgh), PPOW Gallery (New York), as well as the Museum of Modern Art (New York). She has lectured on experimental film, sound, performance and installation at Yale University, Princeton University, Tate Modern in London, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, Freie Universität Berlinas well as The Academy of Fine Arts (KUVA) in Finland, and other venues both nationally and internationally. 



C24 Gallery proudly presents Mindscapes, a solo exhibition of new paintings and works on paper by New Orleans based artist Regina Scully.  Mindscapes will be on view November 2 – December 23, 2017 with an Opening Reception on Thursday, November 2 from 6pm- 8pm.

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ACAW Thinking Projects Pop Ups, Curated by ACAW Director Leeza Ahmady

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Reception at C24 Gallery: October 12, 6-8pm

Nadiah Bamadhaj (Jogjiakarta), Irfan Önürmen (Istanbul), and Sumakshi Singh (Delhi)

Three highly accomplished artists from three different regions of Asia create new works, chronicling long-term projects that weave significant inquires about the obscure cultural, socio-psychological and sacred vernaculars of their respective localities in their expansive compositions of drawing, painting, sculpture and multimedia installation. Each of their projects on view presents compelling conceptual dialogues about humanity’s relationship with nature, the built environment, place, and identity.

Bamadhaj’s work focuses on the social intricacies of Indonesian society using myth, architecture, and dwelling to articulate her observations. Singh uses the history and physicality of materials as springboards for spatial interventions and philosophical inquiry, while Önürmen’s work shares similar tactics as the other two artists in revealing the relationships and discrepancies between personal and public experience as seen through the lens of contemporary media.

Curated by ACAW director Leeza Ahmady as part of Asia Contemporary Art Week (ACAW) 2017 signature program: THINKING PROJECTS— pop-up exhibition series presenting research-based on-going artistic endeavors by 9 noted artists from China, Indonesia, Turkey, India, and the United States. The series showcases the vibrancy of artistic activity inside of Asia while building deeper bonds between ACAW’s Asia and New York based Consortium Partner organizations and galleries.

Co-Presented in collaboration with Richard Koh Fine Art (Kuala Lumpur), Exhibit320 (New Delhi) and C24 Gallery.

About the artists

Nadiah Bamadhaj was initially trained as a sculptor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand but now produces drawings, sculptures, installations and digital images. Her artwork continues to focus on the social intricacies of Yogyakarta society, using myth, architecture, and dwelling to articulate her observations. She was awarded the Nippon Foundation’s Asian Public Intellectual Fellowship in 2002 and elected to spend her fellowship period in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, where she currently lives. Her solo exhibitions have been presented at Richard Koh Fine Art, Singapore in 2014 and 2012, and her works have been shown at the Art Central Hong Kong (2016, 2015), Bank Negara Museum and Gallery (2015), Paris Asian Art Fair (2015), Art Stage Singapore (2015), Art Taipei (2014) Saatchi Gallery, London (2014), Singapore Art Museum (2014), among other venues.

İrfan Önürmen graduated from the Istanbul Fine Arts Academy (now known as Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University), Department of Painting, in 1987. His work reveals the relationships and discrepancies between personal and public experience as seen through the lens of contemporary media. Önürmen addresses the impact of mass media on human experience and its visual representation through collage, painting, and sculpture. His recent solo shows were exhibited at C24 Gallery, New York (2016), Katara Art Center in Doha, Qatar (2012), Pi Artworks Galatasaray, Istanbul (2011). Önürmen’s work has been exhibited at several international art fairs including Volta NY (2017), PULSE New York (2013), Art Dubai (2012), and the Armory Show (2012).  

Sumakshi Singh’s work often uses the history and physicality of spaces as a springboard, involving interventions that she finds or creates in the walls, floors and ceilings (often in sterile seeming urban environments). These subtle interventions occasionally house microcosmic activity in the form of synthetic, miniature structures of painted polymer clay along with moss, fungi, plants and other organic materials. Her interactive installations, paintings, drawings and sculptures have been presented in solo and curated group exhibitions in India, China, USA, Canada, France, Italy and Switzerland. Recent venues include Saatchi Gallery, London, UK (2016), Kochi Biennale, Kochi (2014) Museum of Contemporary Art, Lyon (2013), and UCCA Beijing (2012). She was awarded a Zegna Grant in 2009, an Illinois Arts Council award in 2007, and Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Award in 2005.

About ACAW

The 12th edition of Asia Contemporary Art Week (October 5 - 26) kicks off with over 30 cutting-edge exhibitions, receptions, performances, discussions & festivities at leading Consortium Partner museums and galleries citywide.  In addition to ACAW’s annual signature art forum for arts professionals FIELD MEETING (October 14 &15 hosted at Asia Society Museum & SVA Theatre) ACAW 2017 introduces THINKING PROJECTS Pop-Up exhibitions at select venues.  ACAW is a curatorial and educational platform fiscally sponsored by New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA).

Complete Schedule Agenda and Details at ACAW.INFO