I peeped in the window of Harris Lieberman shortly before Thomas Zipp's second solo show for the gallery opened recently; I was hoping for an early viewing, and the gallery certainly looked full and ready: row upon row of wooden missiles stood to attention, all crowned with metallic tips borrowed from decommissioned Patriot Missiles. A fat coil of bubble wrap sitting at the door told me things weren't quite ready however, and I came back two days later to find everything disarranged. Rather than ordering his missiles, Zipp has disordered them, tipping them over in a heap on the floor and leaving the viewer with no choice but to edge nervously around them - even under them, when the warheads lean on the wall - in order to view the accompanying paintings and drawings. And these missiles really do accompany those pictures: for reasons best known to Zipp, each work in the show (usually conceived as a diptych comprising a large canvas and a work on paper) is accompanied by a set number of rockets. So unless some collector with a fearsome gun-lust buys up the whole show here, this month at Harris Lieberman affords your only opportunity to see this awesome armoury.
The Berlin-based Zipp has risen to prominence with haste recently, renowned for installations which feel like ruined relics of the last century's hopes and nightmares. He commonly touches on history, science and war: his last show for Harris Lieberman addressed the legacy of Bomber Harris, the man responsible for directing the saturation bombing of German cities during WWII, and a man who happens to be a distant relation of the gallery owner. But Zipp is a lot less clear with his theme this time around: the show's title is derived from a nineteenth century German fairy tale of the Pinocchio variety, full of altering body parts and unwonted transformations with a sexual subtext, yet the pictures in the show seem less preoccupied by sex than by (bad) healing and (malevolent) birthing on a cosmic scale. The canvases are uniformly dark, the combination of oil and acrylic creating vaulting black fields of flat colour on which thin lines are freely drawn. A woman's thighs and voluminous bottom float above us in 'It Came From Outer Space' (2008), a smoky, insubstantial umbilical cord issuing from between her legs. And, in 'Sleep (is what you need)' (2008), the birthing is allegorised as a sun, or a sphere, described in a purple line over bands of black and greenish grey. The rockets obstruct a distanced perspective on the pictures (and, in any case, the detail is often to fine to be perceived some distance away), but if we want to approach any closer, you must stand right up against them, and the flat, greasy surfaces of paint attract areas of glare, making them all the more imposing.
If there is a birth taking place here, it is on a huge scale, in the dark sky over undulating landscapes that only merit inclusion at the bottom of some of Zipp's canvases. Ministering to the birth are human nurses depicted in faded, shadowy copies in the smaller, accompanying pictures. The nurses are human enough - and of a post-war vintage, judging by their outfits and hairdos - but many lack an eye, or have empty speech bubbles hanging pendulously from their mouths. It would be bad enough to find them at your bedside, but much worse, I imagine, to encounter Zipp's midnight landscapes in your dreams, and it is the paintings here which succeed most effectively. Too much else is familiar - the witch's brew of bombs and birth; missiles as death-sperm, nurses as wounders and sickeners (last word on the latter must go to Richard Prince's Nurse paintings). And, for this critic, none of it is glossed either by the titular fairy tale, or by the dense few lines on psychoanalysis that head up the press release. But with the bombs shoved up against the paintings, the visitor to Harris Lieberman is forced to clamber about and crane the neck to see them, to really want to see the pictures, and when you do they loom awfully and impressively before disappearing mysteriously behind fields of darkness and glare.
Thomas Zipp: Dwarf Nose
Until 10 May
89 Vandam Street (between Greenwich and Hudson)
New York, NY 10013
T: + 1 212 206 1290