The New Museum’s fifth Triennial exhibition, titled “Soft Water Hard Stone,” is largely a product of lockdown. Much of the work by 40 international artists and collectives was made during the past two pandemic-strapped years. And it has, overall, a hoarded, shut-in feel. Colors are muted. Materials are scrappy, unpretty. (Concrete turns up a lot). Scale is generally small, and of the few monumental pieces, most are sculptures or installations in break-downable formats.
Certain themes recur: impermanence, erosion, disease, survival. Political vibes are buzzing everywhere, but are rarely instantly readable as such. The eye-candy suavity found in the heavily marketed current wave of figure painting seen a lot in galleries finds no place here. Nor, for that matter, does any other single “look.” Yet, despite being a grab bag of forms and styles, the 2021 Triennial is that rare thing, a big contemporary survey — it fills three floors of the museum, plus its lobby — with a cohesive texture and mood.
Even more pervasive than actual infection at the height of Covid, though, was the sense of disorientation and instability caused by fear of it, and the show captures that... In a low-rise floor piece by the Turkish artist Hera Buyuktasciyan, stacks of industrial carpeting suggest the bases of Classical columns, though the columns themselves are missing.