It’s often said that art-making is about making choices—what medium to use to articulate an idea, what scale to deploy, what iconography to draw on, how to display—with each choice engaged in conversation with those that come before and after. Micah Lexier’s recent body of work, on view now at Birch Libralato in Toronto, seems to take this art of choosing as its subject, remobilizing found things as works of art. Of course, it’s an approach with venerable antecedents: the collages of Picasso, the constructions of Schwitters, the readymades of Duchamp, and—to name one of Lexier’s more contemporary favourites—the conceptual works of Braco Dimitrijević, whose photographic and sculptural series Casual Passer-By, started in the 1970s, memorialized random people encountered in the street. But Lexier’s eye—by turns spry and poetic, and often both—is distinctly his own.
Lexier’s show is titled “Things Exist,” a phrase drawn from Stéphane Mallarmé’s writings. “Things exist. We do not have to create them;” the poet wrote, “we only have to grasp their relations.” Such seems the mandate of his vitrine work encasing two slightly distressed vintage volumes of A Field Guide to Western Birds, a classic text for the amateur ornithologist. Titled Things Exist, Example No. 3, the work is comprised of these two books (choice of book, choice of number of copies) presented face down (choice of position) in a pristine white case beneath Plexiglas (choice of presentation mode, and choice of case size and height—not so high as to look lab, not so low as to look retail, just right to look library). The books are placed side by side and touching (another choice), a disposition that permits us to see the ruler of inch increments that the book’s publisher imprinted on the back cover. In these two editions, though, the intervals of measurement don’t quite reconcile. One of them is apparently off by a fraction, or maybe both are. Demonstrably deprived of our scientific certainties, we are left to wonder about our need for definitive measurement.
Stepping back, you take in the bigger picture. What could be more defiant of quantification than birds in flight? Elusive to behold, migrant and unfixed to political geography, they are the very incarnation of freedom. And how, in fact, could one use this scale of measurement out in the field? Placing these two books back to back, and framing them as he has done, Lexier sets in motion a flight of poetic fancy. All that is flowing is set against all that is rigid and ordered. You smile and shake your head at the comic futility of it all.
Lexier’s Things Exist, Example No. 1 offers a similarly concise platform for thought, being, simply, a series of cardboard fragments on which are printed the numerals 1 through 12 (each of the four fragments bears three consecutive numbers), presented in a white case. Here, too, critical choices have been made, and they have, in turn, produced specific aesthetic effects. To tear the cardboard pieces, as opposed to cutting them neatly (which lends a kind of meaty density to each). To place them slightly overlapping in a rising-wave-like arrangement from left to right (which induces a hypnotic sense of rhythm). The Western numerical system suddenly comes to feel arbitrary, the familiar made strange by the simple act of reframing, and these numbers appear as comically crude simplifications of the more organic and inchoate rhythm of water lapping on the shore, of slow, meditative breath entering and leaving the body, of a heart beating.
The tour de force, though, is the series of found cardboard sections which Lexier has framed in white and presented on the gallery’s longest wall. Here, he has permitted himself four judgment calls: which fragments to choose for exhibition (he has gathered hundreds over the years), how to frame them (floating in a white frame), how to orient them in the frame (which way is up), and—perhaps most critically—what part to retain of the fragment and what to take away through the operations of cutting or tearing. Looking at them, I found myself thinking first of the earth-toned, seemingly weather-worn abstractions of Ben Nicholson, but soon other ghosts of modernism showed up for the party. Framed in the context of this exhibition, a perforated line became a Barnett Newman zip, a pairing of red discs evoked the utopian abstractions of Malevich, a patch of whitewash, the scrubbed surfaces of Ryman. A grid of white and blue winked in passing, a flashback to Matisse’s open windows. Toying with the minimal limits of intervention, Lexier places art in the eye of the beholder, flirting here and there with art history and provoking us to choose what to see and how to see it.