“MENTAL”—the title alone encapsulates how many people identify the zeitgeist in this dystopian era, a crisis, in part, of individual freedom and choice that 20th-century existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre predicted in Being and Nothingness. New York-based Tabor Robak updated the theme with wily poignancy in his recent show. Ten new works, ranging from domestic to urban in perspective, experimented with the materiality of the display screen as sculpture to subversive ends. Incorporating signs and codes from pop culture and mass media, each piece dazzled with eye-grabbing charm yet delivered a relentless bite; together, they overwhelmed. The lack of sound in the darkened, converted warehouse gallery augmented the feeling of isolation and highlighted the disconnect between humans and technology, with its accompanying thirst for an oasis of calm left unfulfilled.
Neuron imagined a Blade Runneresque future in which a healthcare vending machine—a UV-printed light box with four, large-scale monitors canting inward—takes on Big Pharma and other medical companies. The top and bottom margins, captioned “Excellence in Medical Treatment,” displayed such procedures and items as general checkup, vision test, knee replacement, pack of smokes, and free can of soda in bold graphics. Akin to video game items and power-ups, they were the perfect foil for a sequence of psychedelic mirrored videos, presumably a kind of neuro-visual stimulus, which drilled directly into the viewer’s mind. In the equally attention-seeking Piggy, which nodded to Ashley Bickerton’s Tormented Self-Portrait (Susie at Arles), the mash-up of two monitors, neon, LED, custom vinyl decal, and acrylic panel pitted a flourish of writhing lines against an endless barrage of fabrics, fractals, and logos, with a disembodied pig head in the upper right mouthing a muted scream.
The bankruptcy of branding was paramount in MiniJumbo. Suspended from the ceiling like a four-sided Jumbotron at a sports arena, HD monitors assaulted the viewer with non-stop messages shifting at a frenetic pace. Phrases like “LINE FORMS HERE,” “MONEY BACK GUARANTEE,” “NEW ADDICTIVE SUBSTANCE,” and “JUST GET OVER IT” marked the devolution of distraction into loss of control. Conjuring life in New York and other big cities, MiniJumbo functioned as a guide to Robak’s entire exhibition. Sour Apple focused on New York City itself. From afar, the work emitted an intriguing green glow. Up close, vertical rows of white neon tubes, with a gestural overlay of jagged black splatters, evoked a quasi-prison setting. Around the border, the signature checkered pattern of vintage Manhattan cabs and the familiar outline of staggered skyscrapers completed the portrait, counterpointed by a dysfunctional LED display, which instead of listing data showed only static.
Guts, by far the most personal work in the show, probed myths and realities of the home. Beckoning from the back of the gallery, the video-less light piece was based on a sketch of a burning house. Here, Robak’s study of painting and the notion of authorship took precedence over his design and marketing background. The outline of a house, seemingly hand-drawn in white neon, struggled to contain a network of green, red, and blue neon squiggles that together suggested the stomach and colon. Meanwhile, the fabricated brushed aluminum frame around an expanded aluminum sheet presented the perils of domestic life through UV-printed pictograms running along its border like the illuminations and doodles in a medieval manuscript. One scene showed a person falling down the stairs; others depicted parents excluding a crying child from the dinner table, yelling at a child, and punishing a child with a stick. Guts conjured both physical pain and mental trauma, disrupting any illusion of the home as a safe haven.
Robak’s practice falls within the legacy of pioneers Nam June Paik (Electronic Superhighway) and Gretchen Bender (Total Recall) in its pointed use of TV screens, video, and mass media imagery. In “MENTAL,” Robak not only invested in content, delving deeply into a specific theme, he also experimented with the screen as object, producing physical manifestations of troubled inner states. Bender accepted the obsolescence inherent in the technology she used to create her works. Tabor exploits technologically induced entropy to new heights, making time capsules that may be rendered similarly useless at some future date. In this light, his works become 21st-century emblems of vanitas, disquieting markers of our fast-paced society. They brazenly impart a loss of permanence and control, while paradoxically, in an odd, comforting way, signal our shared vulnerability.