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Collaborations carry the world on their shoulders

A wheeled mechanism circles a roller coaster-like toy-train track mounted on cast-steel trestles. A mysterious, stylishly out-of-date object — maybe a chunk of homemade stereo equipment or cool art of a certain age, like Lee Bontecou's mothership gun ports from the late 1950s — is being hauled by 13 small wooden cows toward a rough charcoal sketch of a bird's skull, mounted low on a gallery wall; a teensy, enigmatic ladder reaches up to it, as if for a miniature muralist.

To kick off its 2010 season, the Sculpture Center brings together two teams of collaborators in its Euclid Avenue and East 123rd Street galleries. Tedium, repetition, frustration, mass consumption, animal cruelty, sacrificial offerings and times out-of-joint are among the big subjects here. Fortunately, both Subject, Object, Viewer by Sam Blanchard and Nathan Lareau, and The Triumph by Brandon C. Smith and Travis Townsend relieve the strain of existential heavy lifting with a dose of 21st century whimsy.

The motorized cart in Subject, Object, Viewer moves with a goofy, slo-mo robotic deliberation — like the trash compacting robot in WALL-E, but not actually cute. In fact, it's a projector, beaming footage of a man in silhouette pushing a large, open metal sphere. As the cart trundles along the track's sudden dips, the video's horizon points up or down: Atlas — or Sisyphus, if you read it that way — is having a challenging day. Another four-way split-screen projection shows images recorded by a camera mounted within the sphere as it is being rolled. Across the room, a live-feed monitor catches visitors as they examine the sphere, which fills the back half of the gallery. In a statement, the artists suggest they intend their work as an exploration of shifting point of view and its impact on interpretation.

Smith and Townsend's work is even more recondite and as nerdishly infatuated with contraptions-as-art. Painter Smith contributed the cows in The Triumph, and his little bovines are inherently charming as well as silly. It would have been a relief if Smith had skipped the temptation to over-interpret them. But if viewers can ignore the idea that they might "mean everything from mass consumption in an industrialized world to the epitome of animal cruelty," they generate a pleasantly puzzling conundrum. They seem to pull stolidly on the taut strings that bind them to sculptor Townsend's ramshackle monument.

Townsend remarks that his "idiosyncratic objects ... comment on our increasingly fast, commercialized and militarized world." Maybe, but mainly his rickety sculpture here, joined to Smith's cows, makes for a rebus-like metaphor that owes whatever panache it has to its extreme ambiguity: The Triumph and Subject, Object, Viewer could mean just about anything — or nothing in particular. They arrive in the mind only partially assembled. Whether or not that's a good thing is no doubt a matter of point of view.

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