Nick Raffel: plenum
On ViewRegards Gallery
The window is open and it is cold. In front of me is a sleekly-hewn MDF box, proclaiming itself a modern-day stele. Its grille cuts up my sightline, a simple Muybridgean delight. Such is an encounter with plenum, a sparse, immediate exhibition of sculpture by Nick Raffel that slowly attunes one’s aesthetic sensibility to consider a variety of concerns normally outside the white cube: the weather, which is so tied to our mood; architecture, which defines how we move through a space; and utility, which these artworks unceasingly court and then deny.
Tightlipped and serene, Raffel’s MDF sculptures are placed to command visual attention, but their careful progression in a wide, clockwise arc from the door also suggests some cryptic, efficient purpose. Upstairs is something heftier and calculating—a rambling system of stainless steel pipes, gleaming silver and laid end-to-end on the floor.
Plenum leaves one wavering between marvel and doubt. Raffel’s beautiful craft is undeniable: the MDF works are made with just a table saw and glue, and the steel pipes are shaped with custom-made jigs. The show also leaves one with questions about Raffel’s precise fabrication decisions and why he cracked the window and left the lights off. The sculptures, we learn in an accompanying text, refer to HVAC engineering and airflow, but first ask us to focus, suspend comprehension—that will come later—and sense their interplay with the environs. They ask us to meet halfway, becoming sounding boards for our states of mind.
That first MDF sculpture is divided in front into six sections of fourteen vents each; the back plate has a smaller opening like a speakeasy door, framing a piece of the street outside. Each vent ends in a diagonal notch and is nicked with two sawtooth incisions, curiously reminiscent of the stray bristle marks on even the cleanest Barnett Newman zips. Further evidence of handiwork can be found in the bowed pencil streaks and darker beige saw burns at top. Though the sculptures appear unremarkable and mass-produced, details like the measurements scribbled inside the first and the neat trapezoidal partitions in the second hint at a very particular engineering.
The framework for plenum is a computational fluid dynamics (CFD) simulation, typically used for planning HVAC systems, that models how air circulates through Regards. There is one caveat: such simulations are never completely accurate because they are premised on the spaces being impermeable, perfect vacuums of pure air. And so, Raffel placed the sculptures in spots of recirculation; that is, every time a visitor swings open the front door, there’s a cross breeze with the rear window and a spurt of air is drawn through each work. Indeed, additional narrow slits on each perpendicular face of the second MDF sculpture, beached next to the first, visualize a brisk passing-through. And as the sun glanced across the laminated floor that Wednesday around 3:45 p.m., each opening flickered with shadows not unlike those behind a lit door. With the world feeling like it’s in some standstill, that rhythmic and harnessed change of weather pumping through Raffel’s sculptures felt strangely alive and reassuring.
If the MDF sculptures feel a little delicate and risk being overlooked, the stainless steel sculpture is an enchanting sight to behold. Made up of five main sections, each further divided into multiple twist-off segments, the work recalls endless French horn tubing or Art Deco ruins. Large cylinders taper and funnel into thinner ones, then loop and branch off. But some of the sections are solid, and as far as I could tell, there are only two openings in the whole system. Tracing my eyes over it, I slowly started to wonder what the point was—none of the five sections even connect. Air either cycles endlessly in one, or gets spit out again in another. It’s either a damaged product or a really good sculpture.
Which led to the question of where the metaphor of plenum can take us. Imagining an inherently imperfect HVAC system—airflow is not something we can really see—is a welcome, if at times opaque, thought experiment. Retracing my steps through the gallery, however, I felt keyed in to some distilled, conscious relationship between myself, those humming boxes and pipes and their spaces between. Because perhaps the utility of plenum is outside the objects, and by teasing their purpose as HVAC parts, the sculptures lure viewers into a state of momentarily pure inquisitive focus. Realizing that, despite our best intentions and efficiencies, trying to build the perfect environment is a losing game—whether literally in architecture or more openly speaking in one’s personal life. There will always be, for better or for worse, some human discrepancy or intervention that’s not part of the plan. Counterintuitively, Raffel’s overly beautiful, overly minimal sculptures made me think about waste and filth, and how we ignore it or try to cover it up.
Though plenum does not resolve, it holds. The sculptures want to add up to something. Raffel has intruded the gallery space by tiptoeing; I meet his sculpture like I would Robert Irwin’s: plugged in and willing to wait. Perhaps plenum needs people, not private appointments, to be felt. A different kind of circulation: visitors in their own scrambled thoughts, eyeing each other between the works. In any case, leaving I was back to how I felt first entering: a little cold.