Staging the Set: Nikita Gale at 52 Walker

Six aluminum bleachers dispersed throughout the gallery at 52 Walker in New York might initially have read as seating for a performance. At first dormant, the lighting program kicked into gear: luminous rays bathed the gallery in diffuse colors as they traced its perimeter, spotlighting the walls, floor, and ceiling, looking for a subject on which to settle. But there was no proscenium, no central stage; many of the lights sat directly on the parquet; cables were purposely disheveled and unconcealed. Walking over a stray electrical cord, navigating a barricade-like bleacher toppled on its side—the audience performed this silent choreography as composer Tashi Wada’s soundscape shuttled between environmental sounds and vocals that rose and fell over the course of the two-hour-plus track.

Nikita Gale’s exhibition “End of Subject” expanded on the artist’s prior artistic strategies of withdrawal, obfuscation, and removal: in “Private Dancer,” Gale’s 2021 exhibition at the California African American Museum, the artist paid homage to Tina Turner with an installation that featured a central sculptural stack of theatrical trusses. Gale’s frequent collaborator, Josephine Wang, programmed a set of nested spotlights as if to accompany Turner’s eponymous 1984 album, which provided the exhibition’s implied but inaudible soundtrack. Uplifting the singer’s first solo production following her temporary retirement from the stage to escape Ike Turner’s abusive grip in the late ’70s (a drama featured in the 2021 documentary Tina), Gale evoked the infrastructure that conditioned, pressured, and subsumed the music icon, even as it offered a platform for performance and self-affirmation.

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If Gale’s installations at first set up expectations for live human presence and spectatorship, they ultimately absent the figure, widening the scope of the viewer’s attention to include these infrastructural supports made sculptural (theatrical equipment, seating) and environmental (light, sound). In dramatizing the viewer’s encounter with these objects at the expense of any real “event,” the artist also brackets and turns our attention toward ourselves, and the behaviors these settings and objects often accompany: the performance or aesthetic presentation of the self, of identity, of political and social participation.

Here, several of the crisp metal bleachers had been warped under pressure to the point where, excised from the stadium, they became metaphors for a particular form of social pressure. Rendering these supports for spectators unusable, Gale pushed back against the stage—or the arena, or gallery—as a space of aesthetic spectacle. At their most emphatic, the warped bleachers might also have evoked the psychic disposition of a subject, like Turner, pushed nearly to the breaking point. At the material level, the deformations served an evidentiary function we could only partially apprehend: they were ruins of an event or impact that we experienced only in the aftermath.

An aluminum panel has been engraved with seemingly handwritten words including "nerves," "finger," and "sister." A spotlight attached to the work points off to the upper right.

Nikita Gale, BODY PRINT: BLOOD, 2022, stain, etching, and LED spotlight on aluminum panel, 40 by 30 by 4 ½ inches.

Six aluminum panels along the walls homed in on this external compression in an homage to David Hammons’s “Body Print” series. Beginning in 1968, Hammons created a number of figurative works by coating his skin and hair in margarine or oil, pressing his body into a piece of paper, and then fixing that impression with powdered pigments. Sending up figuration, and the gestural mark’s pretense to granting unmediated access to the subject’s interiority, Hammons also lithographed patriotic and anti-Black symbols (American flags, spades) to frame or augment his corporeal trace, visualizing the racist stereotypes and prevailing bigotry that have historically disarticulated Black male embodiment from national identity. Hammons, an artist who has consistently contested the imperative to participate in the art world, stopped producing that series in the late ’70s due to the works’ near immediate commercial success. In Gale’s “Body Prints” (2022), subtitled after various body parts, fluids, and emanations (bones, piss, muscle, breath, brain, blood), depressions and reliefs on the surface—seemingly cast from body parts—are accompanied by expressively etched words denoting familial relations (mother, father, sister), human anatomy, and personality traits (kind, stupid, strong). Small LED spotlights fixed on each of these panels cast angled projections extending onto the wall, as if alluding to a subject that exceeds both optical and linguistic constrictions, beyond the confines of the word, the stereotype, the picture plane.

As in Hammons’s work, Gale’s prints rebuff the idea that subjectivity can be trapped within the panel’s surface, further compressing it through the generic register of language. The personal descriptors quickly become abstract, detached from the individuals they might refer to. In this zone of the generic, the boundary between one subjectivity and another is unidentifiable, as it can feel in a crowd. Gathered within an installation that seemed both to follow an impact and anticipate a performance that didn’t arrive, we were left in limbo: a space that resisted interpretation, an exhibition whose subject (central figure and primary “topic”) remained indeterminate. Gale’s exhibition title, then, might have served as a provocation, a declaration that doesn’t hold: there is no “End of Subject” for a subject perpetually eluding apprehension.


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