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Village Voice

Crown Jewels of the Tenements: Demetrius Oliver’s Ascending Visions

By R.C. Baker

February 6, 2018

If you’re wandering through one of the city’s old low-horizon neighborhoods, you might glimpse—near the occasional long-dead TV aerial or defunct clothesline pulley—a vent turbine. Silvery-bright, these spherical fans catch any passing breeze and pull hot air out of attics or kitchens; with their slatted blades, which bulge in the middle and converge on top, they vaguely resemble onion domes.

Demetrius Oliver was born in Brooklyn in 1975, and over the years has no doubt seen plenty of these fans dotting the urban roofscape. In his multivalent exhibition, “Pneumato,” Oliver creates a web that entangles the earthbound with the ethereal. In Pneumatic, a pair of wall-mounted industrial fans blow across a narrow hallway onto two flat-screen monitors, each playing a video of spinning vent turbines—a melding of the real with represented effect. A decal of a fan at the center of each of the protective grills covering the actual fan blades doubles down on Oliver’s mix of objects and their 2-D doppelgängers.

Nearby is Tornadic (2015), five photographs shot at an angle through a car tire that convey cat’s-eye views of a wooden floor. The pitch of the wall molding goes more vertical in successive pictures—as if the tire might be slowly rolling (or the viewer fainting). Without a rim, a tire literally becomes an oculus, and also a black hole, metaphorical concepts that chime with earlier works, such as when Oliver joined together dozens of five-gallon buckets to create an ersatz telescope. In 2010 the artist—who has had residencies at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, in Maine, and the Studio Museum of Harlem—masterminded a piece in which visions of the cosmos were expanded musically, as various ensembles perform John Coltrane’s “Jupiter” on Manhattan’s High Line.

In the rear gallery, Oliver’s series of six-foot-high canvases might bring to mind Andy Warhol’s “silver clouds,” which the Pop maestro first inflated half a century ago and are perhaps now finally coming home to roost, like empty grocery bags snagged in a tree. Each piece is titled Cyanic, and feels more printed than painted, as if one of Warhol’s deflated Mylar pillows had been covered with indigo paint and pressed against the canvas. The rough rectangular shapes are cocked at different angles in the compositions, giving the impression that they are bouncing animatedly around the gallery. Creased eddies of light and dark and areas where the images fade, as if glinting, recall Warhol’s installation and his reasons for using these reflective materials in 1966: “Silver was the future. It was spacey. Astronauts wore silver suits…. And silver was also the past—the silver screen. Hollywood actresses photographed on silver sets.”

Like Warhol, Oliver entwines different eras in the most striking work in the show—resin casts of the empty interiors of those roof-dwelling turbine fans. There is poignancy to this work being shown on the Lower East Side, a part of the city that has been raggedly gentrified, with steel-and-glass condos resting cheek-by-jowl with hardscrabble walkups. “Whirlybird” vents, as some contractors call them, seem a thing of a pre-air-conditioned past—unpowered, they rely on a summer breeze to take the edge off in a stifling apartment. Adding a violet tint to his sculptures, which are only slightly less translucent than the air they solidly represent, Oliver has created crown jewels for the neighborhood’s proletarian history.

One might think of Rachel Whiteread’s cabin sculpture on Governors Island, but that object recalled human activity, weight, and substance. Oliver has transformed a more mundane presence—air over a hot-tar roof—into a slice of the celestial. This is more akin to what Joseph Beuys termed “social sculpture,” such as his 1977 piece, Tallow, in which the German sage transmuted a dirt-collecting, architectural dead zone in a pedestrian underpass into a massive angular totem made from 20 tons of molten beef and mutton fat. The sculpture took three months to cool and solidify, a process Beuys termed “the victory of socialist warmth and self-determination over materialist greed and alienation.” This fervent language, if you are listening, is still in the air on the Lower East Side.

What does it mean to make manifest a void? Beuys conjured political humanism; Oliver is searching out the spiritual at street level (or, at least, the top of a sixth-floor walkup), revealing a continuum that journeys from sheet metal on the roof to the ephemeral currents of the sky.