A warholian funhouse at the armory Exhibit

| 18 Jul 2016 | 03:10

When artist and musician Martin Creed tried to explain his work before “Martin Creed: The Back Door,” opened at the Park Avenue Armory, he shuffled and squirmed like a boy who had to recite in front of the whole class.

“I’m not sure what people think about art,” he began. “It doesn’t have a clearly defined goal, like sport, with clearly defined rules and goals.” He picked up speed as he spoke. “Life’s very stupid. Nature is stupid. It does things for no reason. It seems very chaotic. So we make up rules, like in sport, doing things like running as fast as you can. It’s like narrowing things down to one thing,” he continued. “That’s kind of artificial. It goes against life. Life is all over the place.”

Creed’s life (and his art) is certainly all over the Armory’s entire first floor, and it’s a carnival ride through his boyish whimsy and obsessions. His paintings, sketches, sculpted works, videos, music and performance/conceptual art installations pervade rooms, hallways, trophy cases and the Armory’s very walls with abandon. Stripes on the Armory walls (Work No. 798)? Sure! An installation (Work No. 129) consisting solely of a door opening and closing, or a light turning on and off (Work No. 160)? Why not? In this massive setting, the work that earned him the Turner Prize in 2001 – and outraged the British public - “The lights going on and off” is a mere sideshow. (A few years ago he explained it with “I’ve always liked switching lights on and off.”)

Co-curated by Tom Eccles and Hans-Ulrich Obrist, “The Back Door” (at the Armory until August 7), is the largest U.S. survey of this eccentric artist’s work, and the most extensive single artist installation at the Armory to date. Don’t come expecting traditional art. Creed’s eccentric vision is part fun house, part schoolyard prank – the vision of a man who has retained his childlike sensibility.

For instance, Work No. 2734 “Roving musicians” is his choreography of a small group of musicians wandering throughout the space, playing two songs from “Thoughts Lined Up,” his album set for a July release. Both “I can’t say no” and “Where you gonna be?’ are plaintive and simple songs about his mother, who must have been extraordinarily indulgent (“I can’t say no”) and loving.

Not all the art is for everyone. Anyone who grew up with brothers will have flashbacks of “gross out” contests and a fascination with bodily functions, but a close reading of the list of installations will alert visitors where to find (or avoid) the short films “Shit” and “Sick,” showing women engaged in both. Only Martin Creed could create, specifically for the Armory’s 55,000-foot Drill Hall, “The Back Door” video series, including his “Open and Closing Mouth” video series … and get his mom to participate. (She really can’t say no.)

The standout exhibit, however, is in the Colonel’s Reception Room -- Work No. 2497 “Half the air in a given space.” The open door invites visitors to enter a staid 19th century wood-paneled study half filled with opaque white balloons, each about 24 inches in diameter. It’s fun to bounce the balls around, at first. Once you stop, though, the balloons close in, sounds become muffled and it’s impossible to look ahead, or behind or even up.It reproduces a kid’s experience of going somewhere adventurous for the first time -– it’s fun for the first couple of minutes, and then things get increasingly scary. At the Exit, you may well have the same sense of relief you had finally catching sight of mom at a crowded amusement park.

Creed’s placement of his works is as much a commentary as the works themselves. The ticking of the Metronomes (Work No. 2575) in the Mary Divver Room beating a steady tattoo similar to a drumbeat march, are a constant reminder that the show takes place in a military facility, while in the Library, crumpled paper balls (Work. No. 88, Work No. 218) sit on plinths sit in trophy cases, a witty counterpoint to the gleaming silver loving cups and trays.

Overall, the Creed show is an extended look inside a unique and original creative mind who may well be Andy Warhol with a Scottish accent. This show is a funhouse, and after going through it, you might just take a second look at all the portraits of military figures. The smiles on their faces might strike you as genuine this time.