by Barbara Desmond

This group show, organized by independent curator Kenny Schachter for a new non profit performance/gallery space, takes the large scale spectacle on the "health care problem" far beyond the tokenism of the electronic town meeting without, as they say, losing "the individual touch". Rare enough are those incursions into political art-making where the ultra-serious spirit of the work dares to solicit even an occasional laugh. Rarer yet is that group show which, trumpeting a collective agenda, also resists keeping at bay unseemly evidence of a too personal fixation emerging in the transference from curatorial imperative to individual artistic sensibility. Make no mistake about it, "Pre-existing Condition" returns again and again to the state of illness in America and takes on the "private practices" of the profit-driven private sector that it sets out to bash. But, at its best, this show unleashes a surprisingly related examination of the "pre-existing conditions" for making art which, for members of this group, are dictated by (but not limited to) economic necessity, random salvages and the endless supply of mass media, mass market images there for the looting. The riot of personal intentions that produced this show, as witnessed in the artists' statements included in the accompanying booklet, engenders a bifurcating vision that ought to raise serious questions about the privileges of the private sector and the profit-hungry and exclusionist practices of art world and medical world alike. An appropriate inaugural for this new not for profit space.

Instrumental to the non-Soho ambiance of this Broome Street show is the Puffin Room itself, an unevenly lit, almost cavernous space. Territorialization is minimal in this room where lurching installations and irregularly placed overheads conspire against some of the more self-contained elements of the show. Jarg Geismar leans a bundled mattress primly against a supporting beam, pairing it with a clothesline sporting nurses' blouses looped lengthwise through the upper space. Gathered white curtains gape large openings at either end of the installation. However archly voyeuristic this frame, Geismar's mise en scene could not be more obtrusive, more discontinuous or scream absence and intervention any louder. Dora Avramovic's daunting floor to ceiling wooden upright attracts to its surface every ventilation, irrigation and evacuation device imaginable. The material of choice is plastic and many of the objects included suggest crude surrogates for hospital counterparts. Avramovic pushes the joke just far enough; meat baster and vacuum hose smartly pun possible medical twins but the prevailing feeling here remains one of "functional disintegration".

Toward the middle of the floor, Rachel Harrison's six-piece installation spins out from an absent center a rough circle of assemblages and found structures that have been revived only just enough to act as barriers. Ropes attached to some, threaded over ceiling fixtures and reattached allow the parts to act as ballast for each other--still, the work totters perceptibly. An unsteady aluminum walker stands eerily apart. The four-part wall piece, Ricci Albenda's "Breathe" plays with variable materials and a single constant. "Breathe" recurs once in each of various types, mediums, materials, sizes and, it is to be wondered, speech acts. A command? An interrogative? A proposition? Or, perhaps, just an assumption that this wall-piece eloquently discards? Among the many paintings, Steve Gorman contributes a large canvas papered with glossy cut-outs--body images, off-color renderings of meat cuts and, recurring regularly, a frozen cameo of a smiling blond nurse. The images appear to be culled mostly from instructional and anatomical manuals, with the bold exception of the infamous Benetton deathbed ad.

Two works in video complete the show. Kenny Schachter's "Phoenix" crosscuts footage of institutionalized senior citizens with homemade and health insurance advertising stills couched in the faith-inducing idiom of the health care peddlers who vie with ambulance-chasers and sex-lines to tap into the anxieties and desperation of the late night TV theater. Finally, there is Jonathan Horowitz's video installation, a triptych study in randomness and narrative generation. Horowitz's sitcom laugh-track, projected loudly from the installation's place at the far end of the room, plots every itinerary through this space; likewise, the deliberate and animated style of the sitcom bits dropping in maddening alternations through Horowitz's TV monitors/slot machines makes every body on the screen look cornered and contained. Stripping it down to its "purest form", the sitcom delivers up narrative along with its side-effects--compulsion, entrapment, hypnosis. No digging is needed to place this piece in context--when has illness not been packaged as narrative? When, for that matter, has "before" and "after" counted more or felt more arbitrary than in the gamble with health coverage?

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