Op-ed in the Cincinnati Enquirer

On November 18 I published an opinion piece in the Cincinnati Enquirer. Its subject, the use of cameras in public spaces, relates to my exhibition “Eyes on the Street” at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

How many times were you photographed or videotaped yesterday? The answer is likely higher than you think. In the last two decades, the rapidly decreasing cost of image-capture technology has meant a proliferation of cameras in both public and private spaces. At the same time, the widespread use of smartphones means most of us now carry a camera everywhere we go.

When a news story brings this proliferation to our attention, it’s often because a camera has captured something that, in the past, would likely have gone unrecorded. Think of the role cameras have played in bringing us information – instantaneously – about protests in far-off places like Hong Kong or the Middle East. Or how, closer to home, news of the deaths of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, has been shaped by cell-phone footage. When public spaces and cameras enter the news together, it is often at socially or politically contentious moments.

It is important to try to understand more fully the ways our lives are now intertwined with cameras.

To read the rest, click here.

“Findings”—On Jochen Lempert

Several years ago, the literary scholar and biographer Richard Holmes told the story of the “second scientific revolution” in Britain. Beginning with Captain James Cook’s first round-the-world expedition, which departed in 1768, and ending with Charles Darwin’s voyage to the Galapagos Islands, begun in 1831, Holmes described how enterprising figures brought “a new imaginative intensity and excitement to scientific work.” These men laboured in disparate fields—from astronomy to chemistry to biology—yet, Holmes claims, “the notion of wonder” united them. Reacting against the idea of a purely mechanistic universe, they took exploratory voyages and dwelt in mystery and inspiration. By the mid-nineteenth century, this “Age of Wonder,” as Holmes called it, would give way to a Victorian science more recognizably modern—cooler and more restrained. Yet the notion of Romantic science Holmes explores is worth retaining, not least because it highlights the acts of imagination that are an important part of any scientific enterprise.

In a similar vein, art historians and critics have recently examined the “Romantic” side of Conceptual art, itself commonly understood as wedded to notions of logic and rigor. As Jörg Heiser noted in a 2002 article, Conceptual artists such as Bas Jan Ader attempted “systematically treating the unsystematic,” such as emotional states. In the course of exposing the tensions of modern art, these artists collapsed its primary distinctions—“analysis versus beauty, thought versus desire”—in what Heiser described as a kind of “alchemy.”

The echo of scientific inquiry in the term alchemy is apropos of German artist Jochen Lempert, who trained as a biologist before turning full-time to art making in the early 1990s. His seemingly casual photographs of flora, fauna, and ephemeral natural events benefit from his scientific training, though their analytical rigor is less obvious than their “poetry” (that other Romantic specialty). His images are unprepossessing when encountered individually: a pigeon on a sidewalk, a stick bug on an outdoor table, leaves swept upward by an unseen wind. Yet they are animated by a savvy observational acuity, one honed by Lempert’s years studying dragonflies. And his installations, for which he devises novel combinations of photographs, possess a quietly mesmeric force. By carefully controlling the progression of focus, scale, and other features, Lempert performs alchemical transformations in his own right, and makes of his modest endeavors something enchanting.

The first thing one notices about Lempert’s photographs is their peculiar physical presence. In a world dominated by on-screen JPEGs and the smooth color gradations of inkjet prints, Lempert always works in black-and-white and prints his photographs using analogue techniques. He often manipulates them as he processes them in his studio lab. After a rigorous editing process, he hangs the finished artworks un-matted and unframed, taped to the gallery wall in such a way that their rippling edges sometimes lift off its surface. The paper he uses has a relatively loose weave, giving each picture a softer effect; even his most sharply focused images seem, upon first glance, like charcoal drawings or finely detailed pencil sketches. In a world of digital C-prints the size of billboards, the material properties of Lempert’s artworks reveal a sensibility rooted in timeless concerns.

These photographs are recombined for each presentation of Lempert’s work. Pictures from the early 1990s bump up against phenomena he observed recently. Some of Lempert’s sly juxtapositions are based upon formal allegiances. A subtle dark pattern on a butterfly’s hind wing is revealed more fully after Lempert juxtaposes it with a similar-looking tattoo on a woman’s upper back. An isolated piece of coral acquires zoomorphic attributes when placed next to an image of a flamingo’s body. Or consider, as in his recent retrospective at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, which garnered him the nomination for this year’s Deutsche Börse Prize, the berry of a deadly nightshade plant with light bouncing off its spherical surface; the toxic specimen parallels the eye of a squirrel in an adjacent picture.

Jochen Lempert, installation view at Norma Mangione, Turin, 2013.

Jochen Lempert, installation view at Norma Mangione, Turin, 2013.

Other combinations and series perform different tasks. Some are homages to figures in his initial field, as with his photographs of the title pages of Charles P. Alexander’s research papers on crane flies. The papers span several decades, and Lempert’s photographs of them are a paean to the unheralded task behind such research: dedicated, long-term observation. That dedication, however, can admit whimsy. Several photographs of four swans floating in a pond, included in the series Constellation, never quite create a perfect square. In that imperfection, they bring to my mind John Baldessari’s inimitable 1973 work Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line (Best of Thirty-Six Attempts).

Other photographs celebrate pioneers of scientific photography, as with his photograms made by pressing light-sensitive paper to a computer-screen display of images from Anna Atkins’s 1843 volume British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, considered the first book illustrated with photographs. In a further reference to Atkins, Lempert has also made his own photograms with algae, as well as with other subjects, such as lily pads and frogs. One such artwork tracks the path of a glow-worm across several sheets of light-sensitive paper; the image it produced was exposed solely by the subject’s own bioluminescence.

But whether observed in the field or produced in a darkroom, Lempert’s photographs can also raise vexing philosophical questions. One of my favorite artworks he has made comprises six photographs of waves cresting on a roiling sea, each with an identical horizon line. They hint at the unremitting and yet futile attempts we make to organize perceptual phenomena; the images are similar enough that a viewer is tempted to devise a category into which to slot them—a fundamental human impulse, and a linchpin of scientific inquiry. (Linneaus is famous today for regularizing binominal nomenclature and his pioneering taxonomic classifications, not his collections of specimens. That deadly nightshade plant is also known as Atropa belladonna.) But what category might these pictures of waves slot into? And once you’ve outlined its contours, how would you fill such a category with photographs? Photographing the sea with any systematic intent is a Sisyphean task. As if to drive home the point, Lempert has also photographed the patterns created by raindrops splashing on the surface of a body of water—two impossible-to-visualize systems interfering with one another. He frequently tests the camera’s vision against the natural world, and then encourages us to dwell upon how the natural world trumps human perception and understanding.

By acknowledging those limitations, we open the door to doubt and uncertainty, for which we compensate with the poetic imagination. For all his training in science, and despite the scientific principles his photographs illustrate and the utilitarian information they may carry, Lempert’s pictures are also undeniably lyrical. In the catalogue accompanying his recent retrospective, Frédéric Paul asserts that it is “a human error to see a poetic invention in the behavior of a bird”—yet I’m confident that, like me, Paul succumbs to the impulse when looking at Lempert’s photographs. Lempert’s photographs are not controlled experiments, but rather explorations, voyages of discovery.

Jochen Lempert, installation view at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, 2013.

Jochen Lempert, installation view at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, 2013.

It is another literary scholar, the late Guy Davenport, who describes what I take to be the impulse animating Jochen Lempert’s work. In an essay on the “amateur archeology” of family trips to hunt for American Indian arrowheads, Davenport writes, “what lives brightest in the memory of these outings is a Thoreauvian feeling of looking at things—earth, plants, rocks, textures, animal tracks, all the secret places of the out-of-doors that seem not ever to have been looked at before. . . . [Thoreau’s] daily walks [had] a purpose that covered the whole enterprise but was not serious enough to make the walk a chore or a duty.” Davenport continues, “our understanding was that the search was the thing, the pleasure of looking.” Foraging, that prehistoric impulse, has not been bred out of us. Lempert’s modest voyages of discovery—often no more than day trips around his hometown—result in photographs that give us twin pleasures: that of the hunt, of course, and that of attending closely to what he has found.

This essay is published in the catalogue accompanying the 2014 Deutsche Börse Prize exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery, London. The exhibition is on view until June 22. For more information, click here.

Sharon Core, Early American

My short essay “Cross Pollination” has been published in Early American, a monograph devoted to the series of the same name by photographer Sharon Core. The book is available now from Radius Books. Here is an excerpt, taken from the middle of the essay:

Like [Raphaelle] Peale’s paintings, Core’s photographs possess remarkable descriptive detail, which contrasts with their plain, indistinct environments. The objects of our attention rest on a ledge or table of indeterminate scale; the backdrops at times blend seamlessly into this horizontal surface. A gentle light suffuses each scene, often from one side of the image, its source unknowable. The compositions, too, are meant to be unobtrusive. Peale centered his objects, which are arranged in stately, pyramidal heaps. They are placed uncannily close to the viewer, the better to highlight their anatomical detail. These choices are partly unique to Peale, and partly a function of the time in which the paintings were made. In early nineteenth-century America, before the invention of photography, still lifes were not only objects of aesthetic delight, but also tools of instruction. They were a way of recording the country’s bounty, and of demonstrating to Americans the specific qualities of that bounty.

It took Core long hours to collect the items (both organic and inorganic) necessary to re-create Peale’s compositions….

Core will be signing copies of the book at Yancey Richardson Gallery, 535 West 22nd Street, on Wednesday, November 28, from 6:00–8:00 PM.

“The Permanent Way” Brochure Essay

This essay accompanies “The Permanent Way,” an exhibition I have organized for apexart. It opens Wednesday, June 6, with a reception from 6 to 8 PM, and runs through July 28, 2012.

Famous Horse Shoe Curve, on Main Line P.R.R., ca. 1910. Collection of Luc Sante.

July 1 is the sesquicentennial of the Pacific Railway Act, the federal legislation that enabled the development of the first transcontinental railroad. The law, in conjunction with the Homestead Act (passed just six weeks earlier), signaled the government’s commitment to westward expansion even as the union itself was imperiled by civil war. It provided thirty-year government bonds and extensive land grants to the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad companies, which used these concessions to build over 1,700 miles of track. In May 1869, the two roads were joined at Promontory Summit, in the Utah Territory. Other transcontinentals followed soon thereafter.

Historians have long debated the economic and political value of these railroads. For Alfred Chandler, the growth of the railroad companies required an important “managerial revolution” that pointed the way to modern corporate capitalism. For Richard White, writing recently, the transcontinentals were thoughtlessly built ahead of demand, and the dramatic failures of these companies at the end of the nineteenth century unjustly imposed punitive costs on the public. All scholars of the railroads, however, agree that their amazing growth during the second half of the century fundamentally reshaped the American landscape. As White notes, “these railroads formed a lever that in less than a generation turned western North America on its axis so that what had largely moved north–south now moved east–west.”

The shift wasn’t only in the movement of goods, but also in the picture of America that its citizens carried in their minds. In recognition of the Pacific Railway Act’s anniversary, “The Permanent Way” considers the centrality of railroads to Americans’ understanding of the country’s landscape. Today, trains are a “natural” component of that picture, as essential as broad, grassy plains and mountain peaks in the distance.

That we take trains for granted was not always the case. Cultural historian Leo Marx’s important book The Machine In the Garden (1964) opens with the story of Nathaniel Hawthorne enjoying the tranquil environs of Sleepy Hollow, near Concord, Massachusetts, in 1844. Hawthorne’s pastoral reverie is rudely interrupted:

But, hark! there is the whistle of the locomotive—the long shriek, harsh, above all other harshness, for the space of a mile cannot mollify it into harmony. It tells a story of busy men, citizens, from the hot street, who have come to spend a day in a country village, men of business; in short of all unquietness; and no wonder that it gives such a startling shriek, since it brings the noisy world into the midst of our slumberous peace.

The smoke-belching engines were an unfamiliar incursion, and Marx catalogues the affronted responses of numerous writers upset by the recognition that railroads would permanently alter their environment. Yet by the time of the Pacific Railway Act, just two decades later, the railroads had become an integral element of American life, for better and for worse. Time and space collapsed as people were able to travel further, faster, than ever before, and places without benefit of direct connection were woven together in a mesh of steel. The costs of such convenience, we now recognize, were enormous: the lives of the railroads’ (often immigrant) construction crews; the livelihoods of those pushed aside by the entering wedge of westward expansion; the political ideals corrupted by back-room business negotiations; the savings erased when lines failed to materialize or collapsed. Yet there was no going back. In the eight years after the end of the Civil War, the mileage of operating railroad track more than doubled, to seventy thousand. As landscape writer John Stilgoe notes, “Emerson and his contemporaries knew the train and the railroad as novelties; subsequent generations were born into a world in which trains seemed as commonplace as spiderwebs.”

Justine Kurland, Doyle, CA, 2007.

Photography was itself a new invention in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, and as a technology it grew up alongside railroads—especially in America, where the first accurate representations of a given place were often made by photographers working on behalf of railroad expansion. Surveys of this vast, largely uncharted territory were commissioned by the government and by the railroad companies themselves, and sent photographers like A.J. Russell, Timothy O’Sullivan, and William Henry Jackson out into the field. Their images, widely distributed through government documents, news-media reproductions, and tourist publications, played an especially important role in refashioning the imagined American landscape.

This exhibition includes a small selection of such materials, encompassing railroad maps, lithographs taken from illustrated magazines, other prints, and turn-of-the-twentieth-century photo-postcards. From them, one can discover how quickly fresh observation gave way to visual convention. Axial views quickly become a stock-in-trade, whether depicting tracks receding to a single vanishing point in the distance or bisecting the frame parallel to the picture plane. So, too, one can repeatedly witness railroad engines, marvels of human ingenuity, overcoming adverse natural elements, as in the two nearly identical prints, from separate publications, depicting a train struggling through snowdrifts, its headlamp a beacon of progress.

Subsequent generations of photographers have walked the same trails, navigated the same canyons, forded the same rivers, and ascended to the same peaks as these men did during the “Era of Exploration.” They have also responded to the visual tropes inherited from earlier eras. The artists included in this exhibition are not exclusively engaged with depicting railroads, or even solely concerned with the American landscape. Nonetheless, at various points in their careers each has found the railroads—or their ruins—a subject worth exploring.

Of the five artists included in this exhibition, Mark Ruwedel, based in southern California, is most closely identified with railroads. His series “Westward the Course of Empire” (1994-2007) documents with taxonomic precision the remains of North American lines. In a gesture reminiscent of the German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, Ruwedel exhibits small black-and-white photographs as grids arranged by type: trestle bridges, cuts through rock faces, tunnel mouths, paths through field and forest. The Bechers survey industrial plants, and Ruwedel’s adoption of their signature technique highlights the “industrial” nature of even the most rural Western outpost. Despite focusing upon abandoned rail infrastructure, his lens necessarily captures evidence of the land’s other uses, thereby demonstrating how the rails were but one human use of the landscape in an unending succession of uses. Even when the environment is seemingly pristine, as in the photographs by Jeff Brouws presented here, one can’t help but be aware of human incursion, of the fact that human places are necessarily palimpsests. Best known for his photographs of the signs, buildings, and infrastructure of vernacular and decaying American landscapes, Brouws’s images here are by contrast remarkably restrained. Working near his Dutchess County home in upstate New York, the artist sought out traces of the competing agricultural and dairy railroads that helped feed New York’s hungry mouths and slake its thirst. The resultant works show no evidence of this bustling industry save for their pathways, the quiet negative space an inversion of the sites’ former bustling activity.

The complexity depicted in these photographers’ landscapes can have economic, social, political, and cultural manifestations. In many of her photographs, Victoria Sambunaris manages to reveal several such entanglements at once. She seeks “phenomena that are ubiquitous and familiar to a particular region but are anomalous to an ordinary eye,” and often finds an elevated or distant vantage point from which to highlight incongruities. So it is with a photograph included in this exhibition.Untitled (VS-10-10), Train from Cristo Rey, Sunland Park, NM, from her ongoing series “The Border,” depicts a rail line bending dramatically as it skirts the US-Mexico border. At this site, robbers from nearby Anapras, Mexico, had regularly thrown items onto the Union Pacific tracks to force the trains to stop, after which men would sieze the cargo and carry it directly across the border. The FBI organized a sting in 2000 that went awry, leaving two agents badly injured. The railroad still operates along this corridor, funneling millions of dollars worth of goods through dangerous borderland territory and highlighting, with each run, economic disparity and social tension.

Justine Kurland’s images often feature people who have oriented their lives to particular places. They become, frequently by choice, socially marginalized, interacting as much with like-minded communities as with the broader population. In her recent series “This Train Is Bound for Glory,” Kurland focuses upon the subculture of the nomadic hobo—as both romantic American myth and quotidian lived reality. In the unpopulated images from the series chosen for this exhibition, one can sense the landscape as these particular inhabitants view it, with trains accorded a central role.

Jeff Brouws, Railroad Landscape #56, former Poughkeepsie and Eastern right-of-way as ingress to private hunting presere (abandoned 1938), MP 92, view south, Winter, McIntyre, New York, 2010.

James Welling’s railroad photographs, made two decades ago, are but one facet of a prismatic career that encompasses abstractions, architectural photography, and experiments with the properties of the medium. In this exhibition they offer the closest look at the infrastructure of working railroads, and by extension the trains themselves. The engines move through a space that Stilgoe dubs the “metropolitan corridor” to indicate both its technological sophistication and its sense of in-betweenness and linkage. In Welling’s documentary images, one can witness how the complexities described above are mirrored in an intricacy manifested along the route.

Permanent way is a term for the track on a railroad, from roadbed to rails. Here it is shorthand for the epochal shift these railroads caused in our picture of America. This exhibition commemorates the momentous decision, taken 150 years ago, to commit to the railroads’ expansion, and reflects upon how even its greatest champions could not have predicted how transformative such a choice proved to be.

Further Reading

Chandler, Alfred D. The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1977).

Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000 [orig. 1964]).

Naef, Weston J. Era of Exploration: The Rise of Landscape Photography in the American West, 1860-1885 (Buffalo, NY: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1975).

Sandweiss, Martha A. Print the Legend: Photography and the American West (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002).

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1986).

Stilgoe, John R. Metropolitan Corridor: Railroads and the American Scene (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983).

White, Richard. Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011).

Alexander Gutke

This essay was written in 2009, and is published in Alexander Gutke (Fundação Caixa Geral de Depoósitos – Culturgest, 2011). For more information on the artist and images of his other works, visit his page on the Galerija Gregor Podnar website.

Exploded View, 2005. Installation view and detail images.

On September 26, 2003, the Eastman Kodak Company declared, in a press release, that it would stop making and selling slide projectors by the following June. “In recent years, slide projectors have declined in usage, replaced by alternative projection technologies,” the announcement noted. Alternative, of course, was a code word for digital, and for many people the decision represented yet one more nail in the coffin of analogue technology. Yet, as art historian Pamela M. Lee observed soon afterward, “Given its ubiquity in both studio and art-historical pedagogy, the modern slide projector… has played more than a supporting role in the visual arts from its inception.” Thus Kodak’s decision prompted a brief spurt of commemorative activity, including “Slideshow,” an exhibition held at the Baltimore Museum of Art in early 2005. Though not consciously a response to the Kodak announcement, Alexander Gutke’s slide-projection pieces Exploded View (2005) and Lighthouse (2006) stand out amid the stream of artworks and texts that it occasioned for their rigor, their austere beauty, and the conceptual complexity embedded in their seemingly simple execution. Like the staple technique of the art history class, these two works offer what can be termed a “slide comparison.” But, rather than juxtapose two images, Gutke’s artworks place two ways of understanding analogue projection technology side by side: Exploded View examines what a projector is; Lighthouse demonstrates what a projector does.

Exploded View appears to be a vivisection. Its eighty-one slides lay bare the innards of another Kodak Carousel projector. To create the work, Gutke had a technician slice apart a projector one slide bay at a time, a process that the artist documented in photographs. Each successive cut revealed more of the machine’s plastic, metal, and glass guts; each image projected onto the wall presents a different combination of wires, lenses, bulbs, small screws, and the body housing these elements. The images progress from representational to abstract and back again, as distinct elements of the projector’s body come into view and are diligently excised. (Since the carousel loops, the process never ends.) The precise articulation of the projector’s component parts calls to mind Albert Renger-Patzsch’s ultra-clear Neue Sachlichkeit-style photographs of industrial machines. Gutke’s images, tissue samples of an outmoded technology, could perhaps be used to reconstruct the machine.

Lighthouse substitutes lyricism for Exploded View’s quasi-scientific astringency, without lapsing into sentimentality. In this work, a rectangle of light is slowly rotated through 360 degrees, over the course of eighty-one slides. What begins as a flat plane of light resting on the surface of the wall seems to become an incision into the wall’s surface. At the carousel’s midpoint, the narrow sliver of light is ostensibly “perpendicular” to the wall onto which it is projected. As the slides progress, the “image” of light swings back into parallel alignment with the wall. Then the cycle is repeated. The work’s title evokes a tower erected by the coast, its searching beam of light aligning with the seafarer’s eyes once per revolution. But Lighthouse suggests other equally romantic interpretations. The light’s waxing and waning, for example, calls to mind charts of the lunar cycle.

Lighthouse, 2006. Installation view.

Exploded View and Lighthouse are attempts to find intrinsic content in a machine that is usually subservient to the images dropped into its bays. Gutke demonstrates how the projector can generate meaning on its own, without the assistance of Tintoretto paintings or technical diagrams or family photos slotted into its carousel. One way this can be interpreted is as a subtle rejoinder to the inexorability of the switch from analogue to digital projection technologies. The works remind viewers that something particular and distinctive is lost in the transition. What basically is this insistence on medium specificity, other than a protest against supersession? If the Kodak press release announced the “death” of the slide projector, then perhaps Exploded View is less like a vivisection and more like an autopsy. According to this view, having explored the projector’s guts and found something estimable, Lighthouse, with its “voided” image, becomes the scene of resurrection. The images have fled to some great beyond, but the autopsied machine returns to life and exhibits its essential dignity.

The way Gutke isolates particulars about his chosen medium to highlight their specific properties has an art-historical precedent in the experimental and conceptual artworks created in the 1960s and 1970s using film, slide projectors, and then-new video technologies. Exploded View and Lighthouse recall works by Dan Graham, Anthony McCall, and others. Lighthouse, in particular, through its tracing of a circle, brings to mind Robert Morris’s infrequently exhibited film installation Finch College Project (1969). For that work, Morris instructed cameraman Robert Fiore to film a crew of workers installing and de-installing a grid of mirrored squares and a gridded black-and-white photograph on the opposite walls of a room. Fiore set the camera on a turntable revolving at one revolution per minute, and the finished work was projected into the same space; the projection rotated around the now blank walls at the same speed. But, whereas Morris’s projection relied on filmic imagery to create a palimpsest of past and present, Gutke’s work deploys a contrived, though plausible, “function” of the slide projector to create a palimpsest of real and fictional space. Lighthouse and Exploded View are works in which the seemingly direct efforts made by the artist produce uncanny, manifold effects.

The slide projector’s historical antecedent is the magic lantern, which is generally thought to have been invented in the mid-seventeenth century by the Dutch scientist Christiaen Huygens. The relationship of this device to death and to haunting was noted early in the lantern’s history. A 1671 description of the lantern in Athanasius Kircher’s Ars magna lucis et umbrae was accompanied by illustrations depicting projections of a soul in purgatory and a skeleton holding an hourglass and a scythe. (Huygens’s device, used to entertain elites and royals, was called “the lantern of fright.”) The “phantasmagoria” magic lantern show would remain popular throughout the first half of the nineteenth century in both Europe and the United States. Gutke’s focused explorations of the slide projector ostensibly remove the “magic” from this magic lantern–like technology. There certainly seems to be nothing hiding behind Exploded View. Yet something ineffable and entrancing remains.

One might contend that what lingers is mere nostalgia for an obsolescent technology, though it’s hard to see how these two artworks are nostalgic. Art historian T.J. Demos has observed that a slide projection, by “locating the viewer between memory and anticipation, opens an indeterminate zone between the autonomy of the single-frame photograph and the uninterrupted continuity of filmic illusion.” This observation is astute, but does not seem to account for the particular effect of Gutke’s two slide-projection works. It seems to me, rather, that the enduring power Gutke confers upon the humble Kodak projectors arises from a tension between finitude and infinitude. Gutke’s exploration seems to have reached a logical conclusion (and is therefore finite) yet in doing so it highlights something endless: the circular carousel’s loop. His incisive reduction of the slide projector to its barest essences—what it is, what it does—coexists with the recognition of the machine’s ability to imply ceaselessness. And it is precisely this sense of perpetuity that counters any fatalism about the death of the medium. At the moment of the slide projector’s ostensible “death,” Gutke has invested the humble contraption with a dignified sense of life.

Essay in “Taking Aim”

To celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of its Artist in the Marketplace program, the Bronx Museum has published Taking AIM: The Business of Being an Artist Today. The book, edited by Marysol Nieves, features essays by and interviews with figures who play numerous roles in the art world, among them artist, dealer, curator, art advisor, collector, art fair director, and foundation executive. I contributed an essay to the section devoted to critics; it appears alongside a survey of five other critics–slash–art historians conducted by Raphael Rubinstein. In my text, I use reviews of the annual Artist in the Marketplace exhibitions published in the New York Times to trace recent developments in art and the art world, including the fluctuations of the market, the ethnic diversity of artists, and the rise of the MFA program. Below is an excerpt. Related exhibitions, “Taking AIM” and “Bronx Calling,” are on view at the museum from June 26 through September 5.

Those who created the Artist in the Marketplace program recognized important, and relatively new, aspects of the art world in 1980: its increasing complexity and the differentiation of roles within it. Successful artists based in New York would henceforth have to negotiate not only with dealers, the small coterie that had been their professional face for decades, but also with curators, lawyers, critics, and others. To run a studio, the program’s founders suggested, required management skills that until roughly that time one could mostly avoid having. The title of the program, and particularly the use of the word “marketplace,” acknowledged another new reality. Despite the rapid proliferation of “arts professionals,” power, however one wished to define it, was increasingly concentrated in the abstract space of the “marketplace”—a space into which only a few people could see clearly. The definition of artistic success had been channeled into a narrower frame: market acceptance. Artist in the Marketplace aimed to demystify both developments. It would introduce emerging artists to the dense thicket of people they would have to engage and it would explain many of the ground rules for that engagement.

Critics sensitive to such systemic changes recorded them in print, though their tone was not often one of such pragmatic adjustment. Rather, they lamented the flight of power from their hands. Peter Schjeldahl inaugurated his column in the Village Voice in 1981, only one year after AIM’s founding. His opening salvo explained the ascendant dynamic with typical flair: “Such purposeful power as critics used to have disappeared with the time lag between the appearance of something new and its acceptance, a transition dealers manage now seemingly in a matter of hours. The art-worldly function of critics has become largely ceremonial: after-dinner speakers at the victory party. Thus critics tend to dig in their heels.” [1] Indeed they did, and in subsequent decades critical handwringing became its own art form, as evidenced in the contentious collections The Crisis of Criticism (1998) and Critical Mess: Art Critics on the State of Their Practice (2006). [2] Though each participant in these debates offered a different answer to the question of what is to be done, a majority voiced Schjeldahl’s concern that the elevation of artists to canonical status was no longer a slow, thoughtful process in which critics actively participated. What was to become of connoisseurship and taste?

Such rhetoric, of course, should be taken with a grain of salt. The glory days, for which the height of Clement Greenberg’s career in the 1950s and early 1960s is shorthand, were not always glorious. And the downward trajectory these critics lament hasn’t been a slide into complete irrelevance: Artists still seek thoughtful critical responses to their work; being selected for the cover of an art magazine remains an important career milestone; and critics are, after all, still invited to speak with AIM participants each year. One ironic result of this (at times overwrought) concern with supersession was that some critics unselfconsciously followed the dictates against which they railed. As one critic phrased it in a review of a group exhibition in 1987, “Few if any of these artists have yet staked out a personal territory. Partly, it is a matter of youth but mostly it has to do with the press’s view of artists as athletes and its compulsion to beat the bushes for ever younger champions.” [3] By seeking to ensure their own influence upon art, at least some writers felt they ended up playing the game by the marketplace’s rules.

The mild mea culpa offered by this writer was published in a review of the 1987 AIM exhibition. Tracing the developments outlined above through reviews of AIM exhibitions is difficult; The New York Times has been the only consistent venue for interpretation of these shows. (This fact in itself prompts useful thoughts about what is considered the proper object of traditional forms of art criticism.) The sample size is not only small—limited to a handful of the paper’s staff critics—but also atypical. Unlike trade magazines such as Artforum, Frieze, and Art in America, which often feature writing by congenital worriers who contribute to books on the state of art criticism, the Times has a mass audience. Its writers must demystify the arcana of contemporary art objects—in a manner akin to the AIM program’s mandate to explain the social milieu that surrounds those objects.

While one can’t precisely diagnose the health of art criticism through these reviews, reading thirty years’ worth of them does offer interesting lessons about the possibilities and limitations of the form. It quickly becomes apparent that AIM program exhibitions are a kind of Rorschach blot. The shows are large and include work in a range of artistic media. The artists are represented by only one or two objects and are often unknown to the writer. Times critics therefore have neither the ability nor the space to engage with any individual artist or object in depth. In many instances, they use the cross-disciplinary “representativeness” of the exhibition, as well as the selectivity of the AIM program, to make grand pronouncements about the state of art.

[...]

What remains unexplored in these texts is the unique structure of the AIM program itself. The newspaper review must adhere closely to the objects readers will encounter upon a visit to the gallery, and the trade magazine editor often won’t consider nonthematic group exhibitions of young artists worth analyzing in her pages. Yet these annual summertime presentations are not regular group shows; they are the culmination of an intensive, months-long educational and social process. Should the AIM program’s distinctive structure—and its effects, if any, upon the objects presented in the gallery—be analyzed critically? This is where a more broadly conceived criticism should step in. The singular nature of the AIM program calls out for equally idiosyncratic examination; critics should feel encouraged to explore the boundaries of the review format. The changing media environment that we are currently navigating—especially the proliferation of new distribution technologies—may provide opportunities for such efforts. What would it mean for a critic to “embed” with an AIM cohort for some time prior to reviewing the exhibition? Or to discuss the maturation process itself? The newspaper review remains an important rite of passage for young artists; it allows them to see how the ambiguousness and richness of their work is distilled by the mind of an astute viewer, and it introduces them to a wider audience than they might otherwise have found. But during the past thirty years, both criticism and the marketplace have undergone fundamental changes. Marking the anniversary of Artist in the Marketplace provides an opportunity to rethink the ways in which critics evaluate the capstone exhibitions. Doing so thoughtfully could provide benefits to both artists and critics.

[1] Peter Schjeldahl, The Hydrogen Jukebox: Selected Writings of Peter Schjeldahl, 1978-1990 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 63.

[2] Maurice Berger, ed., The Crisis of Criticism (New York: The New Press, 1998).

[3] Raphael Rubenstein, ed., Critical Mess: Art Critics on the State of Their Practice (Lenox, Mass.: Hard Press Editions, 2006).

Sara VanDerBeek

Published in Aperture 202, Spring 2011.

 

Sara VanDerBeek, A Composition for Detroit, 2009. Installation view, MoMA, New York.

 

Sara VanDerBeek’s contribution to the Museum of Modern Art’s New Photography 2009 exhibition was A Composition for Detroit, a quartet of photographs made that year. Like the photographs she had been exhibiting for the previous half decade, it is made up of images of images: each panel depicts a geometric scaffold, erected against a dark backdrop in the artist’s studio, to which she affixed reproductions of other photographs, including ones by Walker Evans and Leonard Freed. Unlike her earlier works, however, A Composition for Detroit also includes images VanDerBeek herself shot while visiting Motor City. Some of these component parts are in the background, obscured by the scaffolding or a painted pane of glass hung on it; others are depicted whole. VanDerBeek has said that the idea for the work came from a bank of broken windows she saw in Detroit, and the blank spaces in her composition—both within and across the four panels—deftly evoke that inspiration and give the work a syncopated rhythm. A Composition for Detroit is a threnody for a place laid low by the mid-century flight of manufacturing and its middle-class tax base, a place now grappling with the additional traumas of the current economic recession. With its inclusion of careworn photographic reproductions and its spacing across multiple panels, the work is also, more broadly, a meditation on time and entropy.

The photographs for which VanDerBeek first became known were, like the piece exhibited at MoMA, created in the studio with techniques borrowed from sculpture and collage. Most feature a single, somewhat rickety construction, laden with both photographic reproductions and talismanic objects—feathers, necklaces and chains, ribbons, and the like. The pictures are themselves invocations, calling forth the spirits of modernist precursors, from Constantin Brancusi and Alexander Calder to László Moholy-Nagy and Max Ernst; of classical cultures and historical figures; and of the artist’s father, the experimental filmmaker and artist Stan VanDerBeek, for whom the canny juxtaposition of images was second nature. Sara VanDerBeek brought together items ripped from the pages of art-history surveys and mass-market magazines or extracted from her father’s archive or from her own collections, placing them in exquisite if somewhat precious arrangements that she bathed in dramatic light. The resulting photographs, with evocative titles like A Different Kind of Idol, Ziggurat, and Mrs. Washington’s Bedroom (all 2006), are long on atmosphere and rich in allusions: each fragment is a keyhole into another world. Everything is suspended within shallow, anonymous spaces. These images, while possessing the qualities of a dream, are also commentaries on the erosion of boundaries in today’s media environment and on the instantaneous retrieval of historical information made possible by modern technology. They present history as image, or as a palimpsest of images. VanDerBeek makes calculated use of light, shadow, color, and the boundaries of the picture plane. Yet the prints are unusual in a distinct way. Each image is a one-to-one-scale replica of its subject: that is, a tabletop arrangement of twenty-by-sixteen inches results in a print of approximately the same dimensions. Each photograph is not only an index of something that once existed in the world; it is a direct copy of that worldly presence.

Having developed a unique pictorial language, VanDerBeek spent several years honing it, a process that first entailed the stripping away of extraneous elements and later the near total exclusion of photographic reproductions. The busily referential works she exhibited in 2006 gave way to a series of increasingly spare compositions, such as Eclipse I (2008). In that image, two photographic reproductions of ancient sculptural figures are affixed to a vertical, white-painted wooden pole. Also affixed to it is a thin metal ring from which emanates a series of string “rays” (likely the source of the work’s title). Subtle details animate the composition, reminding viewers that they are looking at a sculpture in space, not a flat image composed on a screen: one of the classical reproductions is affixed to the side of the pole and one to its front face; the entire arrangement is not perpendicular to the lens but slightly off-kilter; the “rays” slice diagonally downward, while the shadows the construction projects onto the white backdrop canter off in the opposite direction. After (2009) achieves a similar complexity without recourse to other images, relying instead on the play of angles and simple washes of paint over plastic and glass for incident.

 

Sara VanDerBeek, Caryatid, 2010.

In more recent works, color too has been drained from the image—VanDerBeek shoots with color film but prints in black and white. Caryatid (2010) is one example of this technique. A column of six cast-plaster forms rests on a sun-dappled wooden floor between two windows. The light streaming through them washes out the upper corners of the composition, leaving an inverted T to offset the thin vertical presence in the center of the image. Mirrors resting on the floor reflect VanDerBeek’s caryatid, hinting at Brancusian endlessness. Such a simple figure seems to aim for the impassiveness and iconicity of an architectural column or a totem pole, yet the handmade quality of VanDerBeek’s construction remains evident. Here is something stark and timeless, yet expressive of an individual maker.

VanDerBeek’s series of reductive gestures approaches an endpoint with images like Treme (2010). Two blocky forms, white over blue, rest against a neutral gray and white background; they too are cast in plaster, and have been painted in simple vertical washes. Despite its reticent minimalism and its genesis within the walls of VanDerBeek’s studio, the picture has a real-world referent: its juxtaposition of colors mimics the stairway outside an abandoned modernist schoolhouse the artist encountered in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans.

Treme is part of To Think of Time, the three-part suite of new photographs (all 2010) comprising VanDerBeek’s first solo exhibition in a museum, presented last autumn at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. In advance of that show, VanDerBeek returned to the field, this time visiting two new sites that lend themselves to meditations on past and present: New Orleans, which was then about to mark the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and Baltimore, the artist’s hometown. The locations symbolize VanDerBeek’s attempt (begun with the work created after her foray to Detroit) to examine how both private and public memories are encoded in the physical environments we inhabit. Inspired by the observational acuity and sensitivity of Walt Whitman, from whom two of the exhibition’s photographic arrangements draw their titles (Song of Myself and Sleepers), the roughly three dozen small-scale images present fragments, whether captured in the field or constructed in VanDerBeek’s Brooklyn studio. In the image Treme School Window, one windowpane opens to reveal a metaphorical black hole at the center of the composition. Another, Baltimore Window, depicts an antique leaded window, exhumed from dusty seclusion in the basement of the artist’s childhood home, resting in a slot carved into a rectangular block of plaster; a narrow shaft of light cuts through the window and falls directly behind it onto the wall.

 

Sara VanDerBeek, Baltimore Window, 2010.

Such resonant images, gathered into a halting frieze around the Whitney’s first-floor gallery, were punctuated by nearly abstract photographs of building foundations in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward. The concrete slabs carry evidence of the houses they supported, such as rust-caked holes into which rebar once slotted, and the scraps and gouges left behind by the storm. As VanDerBeek told exhibition curator Tina Kukielski, “I felt when looking down upon them for the first time that these foundations retained in their surfaces the entire history of our civilization. They reminded me of early pictographs, and with their pale fragments of color and texture, they echoed the images of fractured frescoes or ancient Greek and Roman art.” The works’ grayscale tones are joined by hints of dusky blue or sunrise pink, indicative of the natural light in which all the images, whether shot inside or outside the studio, were made. The light itself is a subtle indicator of time’s passage. Reading the installation from left to right, the amount of light in each image gradually rises and then dissipates. It would be easy to extrapolate from this sunrise-to-sunset narrative a tragic tale of decay: urban infrastructure enters into terminal decline, its only remaining function to bear noble witness to the lives lived in its midst. But to do so would be to neglect an idea that the generative, studio-based half of VanDerBeek’s work speaks to: around the corner there is always a new dawn.

Tauba Auerbach

Published as “Random Rules” in Chaos, a catalogue accompanying Tauba Auerbach’s exhibition “Here and Now/And Nowhere” at Deitch Projects, New York, September 3–October 17, 2009. The book also features essays by Will Bradley and Chris Jennings.

In 1961, meteorologist Edward Lorenz discovered the sensitive dependence on initial conditions now popularly known as the “butterfly effect” while attempting to simulate the weather through computer modeling. The year before, French mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot revealed that seemingly unpredictable fluctuations in the price of cotton conformed to larger sequences, and that these cycles held true no matter the scale at which he analyzed them: curves for daily price changes and curves for monthly price changes matched perfectly. Lorenz and Mandelbrot’s observations, along with the work of other pioneering researchers, quickly cohered into the study of what is now called “deterministic chaos”—a subset of the larger field of chaos theory. Contrary to the connotations the word chaos carries in the nonscientific mind, chaos theory is in fact devoted to discovering organized systems, albeit ones for which the organizing principle is difficult to discern. As research in this field has progressed, an increasing number of physical processes have been shown to conform to chaotic patterns.

Another term used to describe phenomena that seem complex and unrelated yet submit to physical laws is “self-organized criticality.” It is said that something about the intrinsic dynamics of such phenomena—the way they organize themselves—allows them to achieve the critical point at which they radically change their behavior; they don’t need an outside prompt to undergo a drastic metamorphosis. The quintessential example of self-organized criticality is the pile of sand that spontaneously forms an avalanche once a certain unpredictable number of grains is dropped onto it. Tsunamis, forest fires, and the water dripping from a kitchen faucet are all characterized by self-organized criticality, and can in some way be accounted for by mathematical models. But however great a swath of the world we are able to fit into discernible patterns, the desire to find truly random phenomena, events that cannot be explained by formulas, persists.

Installation view, Deitch Projects, New York.

Installation view, Deitch Projects, New York.

This broad impetus animates many of Tauba Auerbach’s recent artworks. Auerbach has expanded her range of inquiry from an early focus on the semiotics of written language; now she frequently devises small-scale experiments in unpredictability to be carried out in the studio. She carefully designs criteria for these operations, disciplines the variables under her control (most of which are identified with artistic subjectivity), and then carries her investigations to their logical conclusions. That the resultant artworks do not always match up to the expected results—what should be truly random often in fact follows chaotic patterns—raises fascinating questions about chance, circumstance, and intention.

The most direct and seemingly rudimentary of these experiments involved making hundreds of photographs of television static. Friends and colleagues in the fields of science and mathematics had suggested to Auerbach that the cosmic background radiation rendered on television as static might be one of the few sources of true randomness. Yet in making her photographs, Auerbach quickly discovered patterns: coronas of bright light; concentrations of shadow; striations of color; and, most surprisingly, arrangements that closely resemble her earlier “50/50” series of black-and-white drawings. But if static is a depiction of radio energy that the television draws out of the air and tries to turn into an image, are these patterns simply the result of the mind’s own attempt to discern an image where there is only “background”? Or is the imperfect nature of Auerbach’s process itself the source of the repetitions she discovered? How could she be confident, for example, that there was no signal intermixed with the noise? Though her concern is primarily experimental and her inspiration scientific, these photographs enter into dialogue with such chance-based Conceptual photographic series as John Baldessari’s attempts, in the early 1970s, to discover with a camera patterns formed by red balls he tossed into the air. More obliquely, the distance between Auerbach’s avowed intent and the resultant images brings to mind similar gaps in many of Douglas Huebler’s “Variable” photographs, such as his ten-image “documentation” of birdcalls he heard while walking in Central Park in 1969. (It is as difficult to observe static systematically as it is to create a visual record of sounds.) Like these precedents, Auerbach’s photographs, despite their empirical bent, possess an affective charge. Some of that power may be rooted in the fact that analog television has just been succeeded by its digital replacement, depriving us of our most common window onto the cosmic radiation that surrounds us—and therefore onto randomness itself.

Tauba Auerbach, Shatter III, 2009, acrylic and glass on panel

Tauba Auerbach, Shatter III, 2009, acrylic and glass on panel

The questions of perceptual bias and methodological rigor that haunt Auerbach’s recent photographs are also inscribed in her new paintings depicting shattered glass. To make these works, Auerbach places large glass panes on top of a panel and covers them with a sheet of cardboard. She is unable to see the fractures created when she strikes them—ostensibly creating random designs in the glass’s surface. Removing the glass fragments one at a time, she fills in the area beneath each shard with a uniform gradient that ranges from black to white. Like her earlier “50/50” series, these images contain a perfect balance of light and dark tones, though their highly irregular, bulbous forms hint at the inexact nature of Auerbach’s process: working by hand, she may apply the gradients imprecisely or may accidentally skip over a cell altogether. But, as Mandelbrot’s price studies and scientific investigations of natural phenomena remind us, even the seemingly unexpected can be governed by rules. Were Auerbach to continue the series indefinitely, it is safe to assume that errors distorting the compositions in one manner would be countered by others that redress the imbalance.

There is an indeterminate territory where chance and intention meet; Tauba Auerbach’s newest artworks navigate this domain and benefit from the ambiguity. Recent research fascinatingly suggests that these gray zones extend to gray matter: the human brain itself appears to occasionally move toward the edge of anarchy. “In the 1990s, it emerged that the brain generates random noise, and hence cannot be described by deterministic chaos. When neuroscientists incorporated this randomness into their models, they found that it created systems on the border between order and disorder” [1]—an instance of self-organized criticality, notes science journalist David Robson. In the last few years, researchers in the United States, Germany, and England have confirmed that “neural avalanches” follow patterns that likewise describe mountain avalanches, and have speculated that inhabiting the boundary between order and disorder is what makes the brain so adaptable. One wonders, unscientifically, whether there is a connection between the brain’s inability to create true randomness and human inability to perceive it in the world. Auerbach is particularly fascinated by scientific research that pushes toward unexpected convergences, and the artworks she creates evoke speculative thought that, in a quest for synthesis, borders on the mystical or spiritual—and effaces the distinctions between science and art.

“New York: Branching Out”

Christian Holstad, Mt. Rushmore, 2003.

Christian Holstad, Mt. Rushmore, 2003.

My essay “New York: Branching Out” is included in The Judith Rothschild Foundation Contemporary Drawings Collection Catalogue Raisonné, just published by the Museum of Modern Art, New York. It focuses on developments in the New York art world from 2003 to 2005, the years in which the drawings collection was compiled, and begins this way:

In physics, the law of conservation of energy holds that the total amount of energy in any isolated system remains constant. Since energy can be neither created nor destroyed, it can only change from one form to another or move between bodies. For several decades after World War II, this law seemed to hold for the New York art world as well: as new developments sprouted in one corner of the city or another, already established artistic precincts would typically begin a slow fade. Fifty-seventh Street, then Soho and the East Village, then Chelsea. Now it seems this rule of either/r has been replaced by one of both/and. Behemoth Chelsea has given up no ground in the last five years as the lower end of the West Village and, with increasing visibility, the Lower East Side have sprouted their own conclaves of galleries.

As the long, steady climb out of the valley created by the last art market crash kicked into high gear during the years The Judith Rothschild Foundation Contemporary Drawings Collection was being put together—2003 to 2005—the city’s art world no longer remained, in any sense of the term, an isolated system.

The essay goes on to discuss the art world’s convergence with other artistic disciplines, artists’ collectives and  collaborative projects, the influence of non-profit galleries, and the revived careers of artists who had worked in (relative) obscurity for several decades. It ends with a plea for a more organic connection between the city itself and the art made here:

Looking back on these years spent traversing the sidewalks, what remains most difficult to discern, oddly enough, are the points of intersection between the art made in New York and the city itself. In this period, New York has rebounded from the tremendous disaster of September 11, 2001. We have cauterized the wound, though bureaucratic fumbling allows the site to fester, and have advanced along the path, which we began traveling after our near bankruptcy in the late 1970s, to becoming a stable, efficiently managed, “civilized” metropolis. New York’s physical infrastructure, not only in Manhattan but also increasingly in the outer boroughs, has begun to cleave to a vaguely modern, clean, corporate aesthetic. Enough time has passed that physical attacks are no longer at the forefront of New Yorkers’ minds; in fact, the city seems largely impervious to incitements of ay kind. Its shift to a postindustrial economy is nearly complete, and the invisible information-economy power that coursed up and down its avenues from 2001 to 2008 necessarily shaped the types of social activities that flourished in its public spaces. The New York art scene, similarly flush and also oriented toward a world stage, seems to have unintentionally mirrored these developments. In both arenas, we have traded spontaneity for stability and safety, and local detail for international legibility. Art’s grandest recent interventions into New York’s public space, and therefore its greatest inroads into public consciousness—Christo and Jeanne Claude’s installation The Gates in Central Park, Jeff Koons’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float, Jenny Holzer’s projections on the facade of the New York Public Library, Olafur Eliasson’s East River waterfalls—have been spectacular gestures literally and conceptually underwritten by the same forces transforming the city. Many of the art community’s smaller gestures, exhibited in proliferating antiseptic spaces, could conceivably have been made anywhere. That more of this art is good, and made by a more diverse range of artists, is certainly true. But the art world is large enough, and art history capacious enough, to allow its denizens in New York to dissociate themselves from their immediate physical context. Paradoxically, then, despite the infusion of interest from other creative disciplines, in another sense the New York art world’s boundaries seem less porous than ever. Such claims, though indicative of implicitly held opinions, can hopefully be separated from value judgments. They are made simply so that one chronicler of a portion of this art can advance a hope for what is made in the immediate future: that it partake of, respond to, and complement what diversity and vitality remains in this city.

Sol LeWitt, A Photograph of Mid-Manhattan with the Area between The Plaza, Ansonia, Biltmore and Carlyle Hotels Removed (R 770), 1978.

Sol LeWitt, A Photograph of Mid-Manhattan with the Area between The Plaza, Ansonia, Biltmore and Carlyle Hotels Removed (R 770), 1978.

Alongside my commentary there are essays on art and artists in Los Angeles by Jan Tumlir, in Cologne and Düsseldorf by Manfred Hermes, in Berlin by Isabelle Graw, in London and Glasgow by my friend Martin Herbert, and an examination of the drawing materials found in the collection by Scott Gerson. The book is one of two to accompany the exhibition “Compass in Hand: Selections from The Judith Rothschild Foundation Contemporary Drawings Collection,” on view at the Museum until January 4, 2010.

Ryan Gander

Published as “The Storyteller” in the exhibition catalogue accompanying Ryan Gander’s exhibition “Heralded as the New Black.” The exhibition premiered at the IKON Gallery, Brimingham, and traveled to the South London Gallery and the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam. For more information, click here.

“I am attracted to ellipsis, to the unsaid, to suggestion, to eloquent, deliberate silence. The unsaid, for me, exerts great power: often I wish an entire poem could be made in this vocabulary. It is analogous to the unseen; for example, to the power of ruins, to works of art either damaged or incomplete. Such works inevitably allude to larger contexts; they haunt because they are not whole, though wholeness is implied: another time, a world in which they were whole, or were to have been whole, is implied. There is no moment in which their first home is felt to be the museum.” – Louise Glück, “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence”

“Conceptual Artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.” – Sol LeWitt, “Sentences on Conceptual Art”

“You should never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” – Ian Gander, the artist’s father

Conceptual art is an open-ended gambit. Unlike the drive toward flatness that fueled the development of much modernist painting, which foretold its own end once pure depthlessness had been achieved, Conceptual art is most often underpinned by processes, by ways of seeing and thinking. As such, the term is by no means limited to the philosophical-linguistic explorations of Joseph Kosuth, the rule-based structures and permutations of Sol LeWitt, or any of the dry, seemingly abstract investigations promulgated by early avatars of the movement. Instead, Conceptual art embodies an approach to the world—or, better yet, extracts a core sample from the vast inventory of worldly experience, holding it up to new light.

Because nearly all art made today must in some way grapple with modernism—which, like capitalism, may never end—the core samples Conceptual artists draw out often incorporate aspects of the modernist legacy. This heritage necessarily comes down to us fragmented, incomplete. Glück, in the essay from which the epigraph quoted above is taken, continues: “All earthly experience is partial. Not simply because it is subjective, but because that which we do not know, of the universe, of mortality, is so much more vast than that which we do know. What is unfinished or has been destroyed participates in these mysteries. The problem is to make a whole that does not forfeit this power.”

London-based artist Ryan Gander’s artworks frequently engage with this weighty aesthetic and ideological inheritance: architecture, typographic design, utopian city planning, other artists’ works, language, and the artist’s studio have all appeared in some form or another in his art. It may seem a small-stakes operation to make art that is, broadly, about other art or about artmaking, and for many artists working today, the air indeed seems pretty thin. Yet Gander doesn’t simply tease out the nuances of chair designs or bemoan the failure of this or that manifesto to correctly prophecy the present. Instead he frequently manages to inhabit or reanimate fragments of this tradition, offering not rote, judgmental commentary on what has past but rather a meditation on the conditions that brought such objects and ideals into being. He hovers in the gaps that have opened up between then and now, pointing out the static that interferes with any understanding of the context in which something was first created. As one critic phrased it, Gander offers “allegorical resurrection[s] of cultural ruins.” But by granting autonomy to these ruins—they are not mere illustrations of some thesis—his artworks avoid forfeiting the power of which Glück speaks.

The curator Douglas Fogle has claimed that at heart Gander is a sculptor; another curator, Bart van der Heiden, has posited photography as Gander’s core practice. I’d like to propose a quite different source for his alchemical ability to transmute received ideas and forms into compelling artworks: storytelling. Gander’s narratives blow life into modernism’s dying embers, reigniting the utopian striving and the restless, playful curiosity about the world that were indivisible from the creation of so much modernist art, architecture, and design but are now mostly lost to us. (Many artists working now, some of whom were included in a recent exhibition at the Hamburg Kunsterein titled “Formalism: Modern Art Today,” engage the form but not the spirit of the forebears to which they lay claim. At its least developed, this neo-modernism—forgive the term—is mere style, elegant yet vacuous.) The narrative impulse likewise ties together Gander’s quite varied artistic output: film installations, sculptures, sound pieces, drawings, a children’s book, public art, a television series pilot, lectures—even an invented word, slipped discreetly into the English language.

* * *

Storytelling is most clearly discerned in The Boy Who Always Looked Up (2003), a forty-eight-page children’s book that Gander wrote and illustrated. It whimsically narrates the life of Hungarian-born architect Ernö Goldfinger, in particular the construction of his thirty-two-story Trellick Tower. That Brutalist building, a public housing structure completed in 1972, is situated across the street from the Victorian house of Tom, the story’s narrator, who meets Goldfinger when several architects visit the site during construction. The friendship between Tom and the architect leads to the addition of basement doorways that act as portals to a utopian world symbolized by a paper model for the building. Gander’s mix of fact and fantasy contrasts not only the viewpoints of child and architect, but also the architect’s earnest intentions and the somewhat grim reality of the building itself. (Like many high-rise public housing buildings in England and the United States, Trellick Tower was for many years beset with crime and in a state of general disrepair.) The juxtapositions lead to a host of questions about the efficacy of such projects: Did Goldfinger’s aspirations—and, by extension, those of architects who created similar projects—founder in the face of decidedly non-idealistic residents? Is such aspiration childlike, or even misguided, in its naïveté? Can architecture effect social change?

This kind of storytelling is quite different from “back stories,” the information some artists share as a kind of legend or key to understanding the perplexing, hermetic objects they choose to exhibit. Whereas those tip-offs function to limit interpretation—“Oh, this accumulation of plastic tubes and women’s high heels is about unequal access to water,” or some such—Gander’s artworks consistently open outward. Another work in the same series as the children’s book is Bauhaus Revisited (2003), a re-creation of a chess set designed by Josef Hartwig in 1924 such that the shape of each piece indicates what moves it can make. Hartwig’s set, meant to eliminate the barrier to entry that kept beginners from understanding the complex game, was designed to be mass produced. Gander’s version, however, is necessarily a one-off and sunders any attempt at playing: It was carved from rare African zebrawood, the marbleized patterning of which makes it impossible to distinguish the two traditional “sides” or “teams” of the game. The gesture can be seen several ways: as an acknowledgment of the removal of such populist-friendly designs as Hartwig’s to the rarefied world of museum collections; as a Dadaist prank liberating the game from the constraints of applicable rules; or as a completion of the pieces’ migration from representation (of knights, bishops, etc.) to pure abstraction.

Both of these artworks are part of the series “An Incomplete History of Ideas” (2002–2006), a body of work that also, in another piece, deployed designer and socialist William Morris’s shambolic book of utopian socialism News from Nowhere. What unites these variegated touchstones is embodied in the word incomplete: Not only did each object end up operating much differently from how it was intended, but myriad new possibilities arise when they’re considered in relation to one another.  As Gander wrote about one work in the series, a novel meant to be written by fifteen separate authors then shopped by the artist to literary agents under a pen name, “I don’t know if it will be a good story. I’m just providing the possibility, the condition for things to happen.”

“An Incomplete History of Ideas” functions associatively, joining together fragments with a logic whose qualities as a fixative may in the end only be known to the artist. This has been Gander’s modus operandi since his time at the Rijksakedemie van beeldende kunsten in Amsterdam, where he first presented his Loose Association lecture, a performance piece with which he has been closely identified ever since. Taking the form of a narrated Power Point slide show, the talk plausibly strings together seemingly offhand observations about a comically wide range of subjects, from “desire lines” to Captain Birdseye, from his late great aunt Deva to Klingons, and from Panopticon theorizer Jeremy Bentham to his late grandfather’s collection of QSL cards, which ham-radio and CB operators mail to each other to acknowledge that they’ve spoken over the airwaves. Like the children’s-book story of Ernö Goldfinger’s life, these talks blend fact and fiction, trading on the authority automatically accorded a lecture to grant provisional “truth” status to urban myths. (Bear in mind the lesson imparted to the artist by his father, quoted at the outset of this essay.) It’s slippery territory, but as Gander has noted, “The ability to find a logic in associating ideas isn’t for the lazy.”

That assertion was published in a catalogue of Gander’s Association Photographs (2005), which are intimately related to the Loose Association lectures. The series, comprising eighteen images, depicts carefully plotted arrangements of the 105 “personally significant” items that the artist collected over a two-year period. Each item—from self-evident objects like newspaper articles and a packet of salt to inscrutable inclusions like blank sheets of carbon paper—is annotated by a museum-style wall label that is itself depicted in the photograph. Printed at the same scale as the sections of wall they depict, these flatly lit compositions are what one critic called a “conceptual trompe l’oeil.” Each item contained therein is, likewise, potentially a starting point for an entirely new strand of Gander’s work. This possibility is confirmed by a closer look at image number seventeen. The photograph depicts an artwork by the artist Aurélien Froment consisting of an agenda for the year 2030, a date Gander recycled into the title of his 2005 Store Gallery exhibition “Somewhere Between 1886 and 2030.” (In a sound piece included in the show, Froment discusses his own artwork.) On either side of the agenda are a promotional sheet for an Eames chair on an “Eiffel Tower” base, a picture of two billboards for British Telecom that incorporate giant Post-It Notes, and a small sketch of the Eiffel Tower on another (normal-size) Post-It Note, all three of which the artist, at the time of this writing, is working into a stand-alone artwork.

But photograph number seventeen, titled What kind of a world, also depicts, in its lower-left-hand corner, a sketch on graph paper of “how best to annotate this work.” (This sketch itself is annotated in the depicted wall label; it is listed as number 105, the last in the series of evocative objects.) If Gander’s associative artworks are akin to strolls or rambles in a park, in which a succession of sense impressions cohere instinctually rather than by some force of reasoning, the idea behind the inclusion of such a sketch in the finished photograph is so tightly wound as to be a perfect circle. Loops, tautologies, and knots are the opposite of Gander’s more fanciful linkages, and function as counterbalances to the meandering side of his output. Perhaps the tightest spring he has wound is the word he invented, mitim. Not only is it an palindrome, but when set in capital letters in many sans-serif typefaces it is also visually symmetrical, a “physical palindrome.” Mitim means “a mythical word newly introduced into history as if it had always been there”—it is what it means. In a text published in the design journal Dot Dot Dot, Gander explained at length the difficulties he faces with regard to instigating and increasing its circulation, which must stem in part from this self-reflexive circumscription.

It’s worth noting here that the most significant element of our inheritance from modernism in the arts may be artistic self-consciousness about the characteristics (and limitations) of a given medium. Painters made paintings about painting; novelists wrote books that called attention to their construction. (In this vein, in 2001 Gander restaged the image from a Serge Gainsbourg album cover to investigate the pictorial information taken in by three different types of camera, presenting the results side-by-side.) Gander’s ceaseless and playful inquisitiveness is particularly fertile in this regard: Each aspect of his studio practice is fit to be pried apart and examined in the same way an engineer might investigate a watch or a computer programmer might probe a handheld gadget. This is not limited to individual gestures or artworks: The aforementioned sound piece, including in his 2005 exhibition at Store Gallery, narrated not only Froment’s 2030 agenda and details about the artworks that were included in the show, but also those ideas for artworks that Gander had considered for inclusion but ultimately discarded. The strategy once again functions in a manner quite opposed to museum-display convention, in which an Acoustiguide sound track anchors an exhibition visitor with concrete details about given works. In Somewhere Between, the sound track serves to pick apart the viewer’s assumptions while at the same time lead her to imaginatively create objects that are not present (or, in one case, is only present on the show’s invitation card).

In three recent video installations Gander has deployed his penchant for creating coiled and free-ranging structures at the same time. The balance between these modes is slightly different in each. Two, both titled Is this guilt in you too, possess a centrifugal force, moving outward from a central visual motif or situation; the third, titled Ghostwriter Subtext, features figures well known in the art world and is more centripetal.

The young girl narrating Is this guilt in you too (The study of a car in a field) (2005), which was made by Gander for presentation at the 2005 Art Basel art fair, has not only seen the video, but is in the process of seeing it at the same time as the viewer of the finished piece. “The voice”—meaning hers—“… makes it seem like somebody has already seen this.” At one point in the audio commentary about the minute-long digital video, she narrates what one watches like a play-by-play announcer. She describes the slow fade from black to white, the snowy field that comes into view, the stand of trees and powder-dusted mountains in the background, the four-door sedan idling in the midst of the scene, and the bluish shadow it casts on the ground nearby. If this were the extent of the girl’s commentary on the looped video, the work could be seen as ironically self-conscious, a humorous addition to the mass of artworks, films, theater productions, and novels that reflexively acknowledge the fact of their fabrication. But her quote continues: “…and they know what you’re watching, and they sort of know everything about it.” Prompted by an interlocutor we cannot hear, she presses onward, discussing the clip’s relationship to music videos and driving video games; analyzing its real-world verisimilitude; offering psychological speculations about the kind of person who could have ended up in a situation like the one onscreen; prognosticating about what could happen next; guessing what kinds of feelings it might arouse in the viewer; selecting a suitable sound track for it. Perhaps most importantly and humorously, she explains where it is to be exhibited—“An art fair, in Basel”—and spells out what art fairs are: “[They are] the art world. Lots of galleries are there, like streets. And it’s full of people walking around.” Encountering this video installation at Art Basel must have been uncanny. How often do artworks speak back to you? And of those, how many speak of the encounter you’re in the midst having? If the tradition of self-conscious artworks stretches back well beyond twentieth-century modernism (think of Velazquez’s Las Meninas), it remains rare even today that an artwork is endowed with something more akin to artificial intelligence.

To encounter it at a nonprofit venue, as I did at Artists Space in New York in late 2005, is to understand how the video, already complete and therefore somewhat out of the artist’s hands, continues to subtly chart its movement through the world. An attendant, slightly dissonant frisson inheres in the experience, forcing one to think not only about the conditions of the particular exhibition you are attending, but also about its previous incarnation as an artwork made for an entirely different venue. To imagine its resonance in an art-fair setting encourages one to think more critically about the contingent, ever-evolving relationship between an artwork and its public. It brings to mind a striking question: Just what causes the guilt referred to in the title? With everything but an answer coming from the artwork itself, one’s response, as with all of Gander’s works, must be an individual act of negotiation. To traffic in such thought-provocation without retreating into abstraction or mystical ambiguity is rare. The study of a car in a field is a video koan, the value of which does not reside solely in the stress of meditation upon the considerable questions it generates, but also in the image itself, which is, despite its utter anonymity, prepossessing.

Is this guilt in you too (Cinema verso) (2006) charts the story of two characters, one living in New York City, the other in upstate New York. Both are experiencing sensory lapses: In the city, the man is slowly going blind, and is trying to find the best route to his daughter’s school given his deteriorating sight. Upstate, the unnamed character is experiencing what might be described as a kind of snow blindness, a whiteout not unlike that which was depicted in The study of a car in a field. With numerous such links between them, Gander has suggested that study may be seen as a kind of trailer for cinema verso. But whereas the earlier installation disentangled its audio and video tracks, but let gallery-goers experience them simultaneously, Cinema verso goes one step further. Viewers enter into a situation analogous to those experienced by the two protagonists, as it quickly becomes apparent that one is viewing the reverse side—verso—of a semi-opaque projection screen, through which distinct images become bleary washes of moving color. (This fact is confirmed by peeking around the edge of the screen at an empty auditorium.) The audio track is likewise faint, as it emanates from a directional speaker placed in a corner near to the screen. If you wish to hear the sound track, you must stand beneath the speaker and therefore cannot see the screen clearly; conversely, if you can see the video, its sound is unavailable. The installation anatomizes sensory experience, causing an empathic connection with the video’s hampered protagonists and forcing an imaginative reconstruction of its constituent parts, which will necessarily be different for each viewer.

Ghostwriter Subtext – (Notes on Speaking and Learning) (2006) furthers this theme, adding an intriguing subtext: the installation itself admits a divisive, revealing ambivalence. It is a two-channel work, the main screen depicting an interview with the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist and the architect Rem Koolhaas conducted by a ghostwriter that Gander has hired. Obrist and Koolhaas are sitting inside the Serpentine Gallery’s temporary pavilion in London, which had, shortly before the shooting of Gander’s video, been the site of a twenty-four-hour “interview marathon” conducted by the duo. The unnamed ghostwriter, for whom extracting information is key to his trade, turns the tables on these prolific interrogators. In a manner similar to Cinema verso Gander has severed image and sound: Though the audio plays sequentially and is audible throughout the installation, Obrist and Koolhaas are only depicted at moments only when they are not speaking; as soon as their lips part to emit speech, the image cuts away to one of the other two listeners. (Interestingly, this decision gives the images the rhythm of conversation, alternately dawdling and accelerated.) A second, blank screen presents the transcript of a conversation between Gander and a friend as subtitles. Whereas Cinema verso allowed one behind the screen, this conversation, in which Gander wonders about the effectiveness of the installation as a whole, prods at the seamless surface one expects an artwork exhibited in public to possess. (In this manner it returns to probing of The story of a car in a field.) Given the deft play with truth that Gander has exhibited throughout his career, it’s perhaps too simple to assume that the dialogue flashing across the bottom of the screen is in any way confessional. But it doesn’t appear to be a conceit, and the possibility—of an anxious artwork, infallible as humans are—is appealing.

* * *

Gander is a latter-day modernist operating in the expanded field—high culture and low—brought into the realm of fine-art discourse by postmodernism. As he says himself: “I don’t see the difference between [the artist] Jonathan Monk’s work, the colour red, Star Wars the movie, or a piece of cardboard.” As the combination of technological development and increasingly available specialized labor has allowed artists to slalom across disciplines heretofore barricaded by the need for training, one comes to identify a certain class of practitioners less by style than by outlook. Other artists, such as the collaborative duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss, for whom Gander has expressed admiration, or Maurizio Cattelan, deploy a similar (and potent) combination of self-reflexiveness and humor. What makes Gander’s practice unique is the frequency with which he turns this playful deliberation—it is calculation without cynicism—on himself, offering up to viewers an opportunity to inhabit his world rather than a position paper to ingest. That such an impressive variety of stories has been for several years the result of this curious process is all the more laudable. The last words should go to Gander himself: “I make better work when I’m just entwined with all the amazing stuff we’re all drenched in every day—just by happening to be alive—than when I am aware I’m ‘making art’. It’s that simple.”

“Reinvesting Criticism”

Published in Fillip issue six, summer 2007.

A problem: The Crisis of Criticism, edited by Maurice Berger; the 2002 October roundtable on “The Crisis in Criticism”; Critical Mess: Art Critics on the State of Their Practice, edited by Raphael Rubinstein; and, in truth, this essay. What is to be made of contemporary writers—myself included—who lament the “helplessness” of contemporary criticism in the face of the current hyperinflated market, echoing sentiments expressed repeatedly since the dawn of the last century? A fact: Critics neither have much authority nor wield much power in today’s art world, no matter how you parse any of the terms in that statement. What is to be done? At best, the critic’s position (closer to the consumption than the production end of the art experience) and experience affords her more of a bird’s-eye view of the art-world whirl than many people get. If a critic is patient (and lucky), that social distance will help her translate on-the-ground experience with artworks to slightly broader, quasi-sociological insight. Pair those translations with opinion, sharp description, and a clear style—and temper the desire to fret about the infrequency with which they come together—and the writer can do the calling justice.

* * *

Power is a contested and shifting phenomenon. Perhaps more importantly, in the minds of most in the art world, it is an abstract concept. See Art Review magazine’s annual “Power 100” list for a perfect example of how power can be calculated arbitrarily. (These lists are much discussed, as when the critics Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz appeared in the 2006 edition, even if not taken too seriously.) What remains undefined in lists like these, which proliferate in a strong market, is as important as what is chronicled (primarily money). Who has nominated those on the list? Over whom is the power described held? How is it exercised? What is obscured when power is considered this way is that influence, like affluence, can lead to a pathological disconnect from not only the rest of the world, but also from one’s own needs, abilities, and—perhaps most importantly—limits.

One simple way of defining power is by equating it with opportunity. I have been fortunate enough in the last few years to be offered an increasing number of chances to expound upon some of my favorite artists and topics, which has offered me the chance to shape the dialogue surrounding artworks I have experienced. When efforts are rewarded in such a way, the moment arrives when these demands and opportunities outstrip the ability to use them fully, to honor them by taking them seriously. (It should be noted that this argument assumes that critics can turn down assignments they are not interested in or capable of fulfilling, a luxury that admittedly few have.) Yet the temptation to hold on to assignments—to always say “yes”—is very strong. Alongside every offer comes the realization that it is not being offered to someone else and that, should you turn it down, karma (or reputation) will cause these chances to pass you by in the future. By acknowledging that resources and opportunities (and the power and authority they generate, especially as one reaches are a greater number of people through more influential channels) are finite, one almost immediately enters a hoarding mindset.

But it is precisely the recognition of this finitude that should encourage everyone to be mindful of his or her own limitations. If one is fortunate enough to cross the line and have a surfeit of opportunity, one should become hyper-conscious of one’s limitations and concomitantly try to (for lack of a better term) spread the wealth. There is a simple, greater-good logic that underpins this statement: With no guarantee that what you or I do will be of cultural and/or historical significance, it behooves us to foster others’ attempts to achieve similar goals. Artist and activist collectives offer one model for this kind of group engagement, but, if undertaken widely, this communitarian activity need not be regimented into something so clearly defined. It simply stands to reason that if one hundred people are attempting more or less the same project—in this case responding to, imposing patterns upon, and generally making sense of the broad realm of contemporary art—the chances are exponentially greater that one or a few individuals will succeed than if one person, however capable, forges ahead alone.

Evolutionary biologists would consider this resource sharing a kind of efficiency theory. (It also sounds somewhat like the technophile’s push for freedom-of-information or something quasi-Marxist, which it isn’t necessarily meant to be.) But species reproduction is, strictly speaking, an unconscious action. Applying an “efficiency theory” to human affairs implies a conscious suppression of that hoarding impulse, a subjugation of our own pettiness in favor of creating a stronger community—both better able to achieve its goals and more tightly bound together in its attempts to do so. The goal is to turn self-interest into what philosophers and economists call enlightened self-interest. As the short-story writer George Saunders said in a recent interview: “The thing is, we all have both of those motivations within us, every second that we’re writing. So it’s an ongoing, lifelong battle to write for the right reasons.”

How can power be given a more concrete definition, and how can that definition allow us to re-connect with our community? For writers about visual art I propose as one possible solution a semantic shift, a redefinition of “work” from one’s output to the process by which it is created. Writers should live by the creed of verbs, not nouns; “I write about art” replaces “I’m an art critic.” As the editors of n+1, a relatively new literary journal, put it when discussing Leon Wieseltier’s choice of The Moral Responsibility to Be Intelligent as the title of a collection of Lionel Trilling’s essays: “The moral responsibility is not to be intelligent. It’s to think. [In this title] an attribute, self-satisfied and fixed, gets confused with an action, thinking, which revalues old ideas as well as defends them.” In this new conception of work, the writer’s efforts, if undertaken with enough consideration, become engaged in an ongoing process, one that furthers argument rather than stamps it out with the final word on a given subject.

* * *

Recently, Ellen Hetzel, who pens book reviews, is the coauthor of the unfortunately named “Book Babes” column, and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, publicly asked a question writers on art also ask themselves: “Is a reviewer someone of lesser distinction than a critic—i.e. the equivalent of the untenured professor?” This was published on a website, and many people responded, almost all of them parsing definitions and heroically claiming the status of one or self-effacingly copping to merely being the other. (In case it isn’t clear, critics are the heroes and reviewers mere journeymen, guns-for-hire.) Hetzel opted to not enter the fray herself, instead retreating to the security of dictionary definitions: “Whenever people start defining terms, I try to ignore them—and rush for my Webster’s. According to the New World version, a reviewer is ‘a person who reviews, esp. one who reviews books, plays etc. as for a newspaper.’ A critic, meanwhile, is ‘a person who forms and expresses judgments of people or things according to certain standards or values, and/or such a person whose profession is to write or broadcast such judgments of books, music, paintings, sculpture, plays, motion pictures, television, etc., as for a newspaper.’ Well, the venues look pretty similar, and I’d contend that it’s hair-splitting to suggest much difference.”

It is hair-splitting. But what is rarely acknowledged in this discussion—which, it should be stated, can be useful but is always of secondary importance—is the amount of self-regard necessary to even engage in a lengthy consideration of this problem. Titles (critic, reviewer, whatever) are socially derived, bestowed by others: A community must agree that one has demonstrated a particular skill sufficient to earn a moniker. One doesn’t become an electrician or a chef by declaration, and so it is with those who write. Of course, I admit to having spent many hours doing precisely what I am agitating against, lamenting my reviews and comparing them, unfavorably, to the “criticism” of art historian Thomas Crow or the classicist Daniel Mendelsohn or the historian and political theorist Hannah Arendt or the literary critic John Bayley, or … well, you get the idea. Consider this a mea culpa. The critic-versus-reviewer binary now seems to me invalid in at least two ways. First, as Hetzel and others have rightly noted, the difference is so slight that one can hardly discern it and so subjective that even if one saw it clearly, another interested party might simply disagree with the terms—and be right herself. All written responses to cultural stimuli are, if undertaken in good faith, equally worth consideration, no matter their author; it happens often that a well-written 150-word blurb offers more insight than a bloated 1,500-word essay. Second, and perhaps more dramatically, for me the terms are themselves suspect, especially “critic,” with the shiver of impassive authority it sends down the spines of those subject to her judgments.

Focusing on verbs—to review, to write criticism—flattens out, to the extent possible, the hierarchy implicit in the relationship between reviewers/critics and readers, even potentially opening up the opportunity for radical and instructive role switching. This emphasis on verbs likewise creates a situation in which one must apply oneself fully to each task; there are no titles or laurels to rest on. If anything, success raises expectation and makes its recapitulation more difficult: Page through Arnold Rampersand’s new biography of Ralph Ellison, who never followed Invisible Man with a second novel, for a painful illustration of the disastrous, paralyzing effects of early accomplishment. I will use myself as another, extremely modest example. In the past four years I have published several hundred pieces of writing about art, but having done so neither guarantees that what I write next will be mind opening, authoritative—or even factually correct. (Although I edit for a living, I certainly rely on editors and fact-checkers when writing.) Nor does it grant me intrinsic authority in the field of art criticism over anyone reading this, much less in the art world at large. In fact, it’s probable you have never before encountered my name. This text and the ideas in it must stand on their own, a truth simultaneously chastening and exhilarating.

“It’s the critic’s job to make an evidentiary and rhetorical argument; and the reader’s freedom to reject it. One’s power lasts only within the space of the review: that is its frail beauty,” notes the literary critic James Wood. If there is a greater example than Wood of a writer working in English today who understands this fact and consequently puts everything he has into each text, I have yet to find him. The power he describes is bifurcated, applying first to the writer and then to the reader. For the writer, creating a strong, clear argument has a tonic effect, energizing in its re-affirmation of the value of what one has chosen to do. Second, the end result can reshape the experience of the reader (or viewer or listener) who comes into contact with said text and can discern the effort marshaled in its creation. In both writer and reader, honest creation begets—at its best—further creation. The initial act clears a space for reflection, reconsideration, and dialogue, each of which potentially leads to the furthering its aims.

This is by no means a call for heroic action. Yet by suturing together many small gestures, each undertaken earnestly, much can be achieved. For many, I suspect this is a simple point, but perhaps made more valuable by virtue of how infrequently it is foregrounded in the rhetoric surrounding contemporary art criticism. Katy Siegel is right to point out (paradoxically, in the volume edited by Rubinstein) that the perceived and widely commented upon “crisis” is no more than a lament about the waning of the critic’s “social importance and contingent personal dignity.” Fundamental questions about the nature of art (and by extension the nature of life), posed by an ever-increasing number of artists, remain to be answered. By working assiduously, with humility and patience and cooperation, we may finally be up to the task of answering them.

Matias Faldbakken

Essay for the book Matias Faldbakken: Not Made Visible (JRP Ringier, 2007).

You can draw a zigzag line across history and the arts, highlighting negation as a force of change by connecting, for example, Martin Luther to Bartleby the Scrivener to Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing to Lee Lozano to the World Social Forum. Negation is normally considered the act of denial or the absence of something extant or positive. But another sentiment seems truer to me: Negation is a positive force. It is a tool, a resource to be exploited, and a way to strategically counterbalance the status quo. No can be a nuanced term: The refusal to work under given conditions implies the desire and need to change or replace them, a process that can take myriad forms. Matias Faldbakken has written, “If Eskimos have two hundred ways of saying ‘snow,’ I want a million ways to say ‘no.’” Negation is a quicksilver agent, difficult to identify, harder yet to pin down. Opposition is never stark. Here are thumbnail sketches of three ways to say “no,” as outlined or embodied by Maurice Blanchot, Joseph A. Schumpeter, and Henry David Thoreau, an admittedly idiosyncratic pantheon. Only 999,997 to go . . .

* * *

“Literature professes to be important while at the same time considering itself an object of doubt. It confirms itself as it disparages itself.” From this premise, outlined near the beginning of his essay “Literature and the Right to Death,” the French writer Maurice Blanchot swerved toward definitions of literature and of the writer—and hence of art and of the artist—that in their embodiment of paradox, they forward a radical affirmation: Everything is possible immediately. The writer must “destroy language in its present form and create it in another form, denying books as he forms a book out of what other books are not,” Blanchot stated. This negation is a license to freedom: The freedom to imagine worlds that do not exist and to make everything within them instantly available.

This opportunity is itself hounded by ambiguity; by allowing himself the freedom to depict the unrealizable, the writer limits his ability to create the conditions for his emancipation. He “ruins action, not because he deals with what is unreal but because he makes all of reality available to us.” Yet his writing is “the world, grasped and realized in its entirety by the global negation of all individual realities contained in it, therefore, at its highest level, it re-creates the lucidity-in-lack-of-control and the openness of total revolution. Every boundary dissolves. The French critic and novelist Julien Gracq touched on this in his Reading Writing, where he extolled the prose of Jacques Bénigne Bossuet and François-René de Chateaubriand for their “exquisitely negative values; in the various ways [their work] thwarts expectation at every moment, in the largely open register of its breakdowns.”

Unexpectedly, it is Damien Hirst, with his book title I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, With Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now, that gives voice to this freedom intrinsic to art. Extract Hirst’s monomaniacal ego from the statement—assume the art object is speaking for itself&8212;and one has a prescription for effective and affecting art. Operating everywhere and nowhere, relatable both to the masses and to the individual, with immediacy and foresight, an artwork has the power not only to negate but also to supersede current conditions. It hovers above us, suffused with all of our contradictory urges and desires.

* * *

Joseph Schumpeter, one of the twentieth century’s greatest theorists of capitalism, coined a term that remains with us today: creative destruction. It is “the essential fact about capitalism,” in the economist’s words. “It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in.” In essence, this concept suggests that nothing is permanent: Everything—every business and business practice, in Schumpeter’s case—will be negated in time by insurrectionary forces. Fusing two essentially opposite terms, the term expresses capitalism’s dependence on “innovation, human drama, and sheer havoc,” as Schumpeter biographer Thomas K. McCraw phrased it. Today, as globalization seems to lock capitalism into place as the central, inalienable fact of contemporary life for an ever-growing number of peoples, the instability cited can be understood as a seam or loophole. It is a manner by which one—or, more likely, a group—may introduce broader, more structural changes to a highly regimented system.

I cling to the belief that art—indeed, art informed by modernist principles—can act as an agent for this kind of “massive change” (to use the designer Bruce Mau’s term). The commensurability of “creative destruction” and the modernist dictum “make it new” remains striking. Both terms create a temporal continuum and both prioritize that which is at that continuum’s leading edge. Whereas the innovation intrinsic to capitalism is ethically and morally neutral—if one imagines it solely as a process, and does not consider intention or its societal effects—modernism in the arts was (and remains) conditioned by teleological thinking: The movement has an endpoint, a goal. As the twentieth century taught us in so many ways, any guiding intelligence, when deployed at so large a scale, is likely to be, at best, benign in its coerciveness and, at worst, malevolent and ultimately catastrophic.

This is not to advocate for mindless transformation for its own sake, nor for passivity in the face of that which one hopes to change. But creative destruction gives a measure of hope in the face of despair. Now more than ever, art production is inextricably bound up with the machinations of capitalism, and urban wealth—ostensibly the primary endower of artists—is in fact displacing them. Given this, some comfort comes from the knowledge that resistance to the status quo will be abetted by impermanence, one of the status quo’s essential qualities.

* * *

“Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals not having had time to acquire any new value for each other.” So wrote Henry David Thoreau, who by all accounts—including his own, in his numerous journals—was a rather misunderstood social figure. Today he might be disdained as a loner, but as the late poet William Bronk related in his essay collection The Brother in Elysium: By following the dictates of his own conscience Thoreau was accepted by his neighbors in Concord, Massachusetts, if misunderstood “for the little differences and a certain strangeness that they felt between them and him.” Bronk, who spent most of his life in small-town, upstate New York, was sympathetic to the great Transcendentalist and was able to appreciate what Thoreau gave us—a searching, often lyrical account of himself and his immediate environment as both were affected by the rapidly changing society, all in exchange for his abandonment of most social conventions of the time.

Thoreau’s predilection for silence, his eschewal of idle chatter, and his avoidance of large gatherings of men stemmed from a peculiar (to contemporary sensibility) definition of friendship: It is not, as Bronk phrased it, a “mutual assistance league,” but rather an appeal to our best estimation of each other. One solicits neighbors for assistance and one turns to friends for sustenance that is deeper and that requires nothing more than insistence on the integrity of each partner’s individual nature, “specific for each other beyond any power of word or deed to change,” in Bronk’s words. Indeed, as Thoreau himself put it, “It is not words which I wish to hear or to utter but relations that I seek to stand in.”

These relations are a far cry from, for example, relational aesthetics, in which fleeting connections among culturally and economically homogenous groups are celebrated (often uncritically) as heralding a new social paradigm. Indeed, words (and certainly workshops) are not necessary to Thoreau’s conception of friendship—fellow feeling suffices. What would it mean to “opt out,” on his terms, today? While risking the disapprobation of colleagues—or worse yet, their indifference—there remains much to be gained by turning away from such thin relations. By turning inward, at a moment when so much artistic production is unavoidably linked with its social manipulation, one could stopper the slow diffusion of one’s creative faculties, thus making viable a kind of self-understanding that may otherwise never be achieved. Many artists, however, in choosing such self-reliance, will discover that the “new value” they acquire by doing so is of limited interest. But after time, some will be rewarded for their efforts and, more importantly, their creative output will enrich the lives of those that follow. (No one may know this better than Bronk, whose essay on Thoreau, written in the mid-1940s, was not deemed publishable until 1980.)

Let the last words come from Bronk: “In silence [man] prepares for speech; in solitude for society. And so in like manner, the truest society always approaches nearer to solitude, and the most excellent speech finally falls into silence.” Furthermore, “Silence is the world of potentialities and meanings beyond the actual and expressed, which the meanness of our actions and the interpretations put upon them threatens to conceal. Yet all actuality is to be referred to it and valued accordingly as it includes or suggests it. Nothing is worth saying, nothing is worth doing except as a foil for the waves of silence to break against.”

Introduction to The Uncertain States of America Reader

The Uncertain States of America Reader, published by Sternberg Press in late 2006, is an anthology of essays about and of interest to contemporary artists. The book was published to accompany an exhibition of the same name, which was presented at the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo, the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, and the Serpentine Gallery in London, among other venues. I coedited the book with Noah Horowitz, and coauthored this introduction with him. For more information, view the publisher’s website.

This Reader, a companion volume to the “Uncertain States of America” exhibition catalogue, began last year when the curators met with artists in their studios. What were the artists reading? What articles, books, reviews—and, we soon discovered, cartoons, cookbooks, memoirs and film scripts—were influencing their practices? A comprehensive survey of these curiosities was not included in the earlier exhibition catalogue. It remained, pace Obrist, an “Unrealized Project.”

untitledInvited one year later by the curatorial team to construct such a list, we began by surveying the artists in the show and using their recommendations, many of which are included at the reading list at the back of this book, as a starting point for the selection of texts presented here. What follows is a synthesis of their nominations and our own research into significant recent writings both by American artists and about artistic practice and cultural politics in the United States today. Keeping with the theme of this exhibition, emphasis has been placed on identifying “young,” “emerging” writers, though salient pieces by a comparatively older generation and by those who reside outside of America are also included.

We hope that the following selections introduce some new writing and writers and shine a fresh light on more familiar passages. Equally we hope that this book’s reception reaches beyond those audiences who experience the exhibition first hand, and that it becomes a conduit of knowledge beyond the immediate exhibition-going public.

The present volume is not a “portrait of the exhibition’s artists in text” (an early, and mightily optimistic, vision). Nor is it a top-down survey of all that is novel and noteworthy in today’s art world. Cognizant of this exhibition’s ambitious modus operandi, to represent “a ‘new’ vision in American contemporary art,” we realize, of course, that some may view this publication as nothing but such a list, a currency-enhancing invocation of already-prevalent curatorial/critical interests. And we understand that such a publication indelibly sanctifies its content, that it operates as a value filter or, as Isabelle Graw observes in these pages, a “‘sound bite’ in order to underline claims for art historical importance or theoretical erudition.” Yet it is our underlying hope that this Reader belies such a roll-call of erudite endorsements, and that its contents engage audiences in unanticipated and fundamentally informative manners.

It is commonplace to note that contemporary art is swaddled in a haze of words, and it is futile to attempt a synoptic overview of art discourse, so we drew simple boundaries beyond which our inquiry would not trespass, several of them congruent with those set by the “Uncertain States of America” exhibition. The two most binding examples: each piece of writing included here has been published since 2000, and each discusses contemporary art, aesthetics, politics or the amorphous and expansive zone where these three concerns overlap. Selecting texts thus became a game, albeit one burdened by methodological complications. How to accommodate writings both by artists in “Uncertain States of America” and others critical of their programmes, or, for that matter, the very presuppositions of such a traveling group show? What, we contemplated, could be an appropriate framework to muster comprehensiveness in the face of mind-boggling pluralism and attendant information overload? How to play the game? One artist’s advice proved invaluable: “Don’t be an authority. And don’t apologize for not being an authority.” So we aimed for an eclectic sampling of material by writers—art historians, journalists, critics, artists, philosophers and a graphic designer/lawyer—whose contributions, we felt, gained from their placement alongside one another and from being set in relief against the project as a whole.

* * *

In recent years, many have noted the fashionableness of art that addresses its broader social context. The translation of Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics into English in 2002 and the ongoing debate about this set of essays is one prominent example of this tendency. Others pertain to the intensification of discussion about the Internet’s (virtual) social power and the agency of extra-gallery/museum practices, the latter of which inspired “The Interventionists,” an exhibition curated by Nato Thompson and presented at MASS MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts, in the summer of 2004. What has perhaps changed since the re-election later that autumn of George W. Bush is the zeroing in of (primarily European) interest in American art and artists. One could cite “Uncertain States of America,” “USA Today” at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, “This Is America: Visions of the American Dream” at the Centraal Museum, Utrecht, The Netherlands, and even “Day for Night,” the 2006 Whitney Biennial (curated by Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne, Europeans now ensconced in American institutions), as evidence of this trend.

This is undoubtedly a moment marked by a serious interest in the actions America is taking on the world stage—actions that have been described as cause for “grave concern.” We do not attempt to authoritatively engage these concerns here, but we do think that this sampling of discourse by and about a country’s visual artists leads to insights about its politics and society not gained elsewhere. Many of the artists in this exhibition, of course, would be quick to disavow explicitly political readings of their work, preferring, as Kori Newkirk recently stated during a panel discussion at Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies, to “seduce first.” He continued: “‘Political’ content can [simply] come in through the side door or window.” The art world’s definition of the term “political” remains fuzzy (as Pamela M. Lee rightly notes of its definition of “globalisation” as well), but, on occasion, this thinking-through-form counters the obfuscation that now stands for contemporary American political discourse. At the very least, it gives a sense of what it is like to live in the United States now, and it occasions some inspired debate. The present Reader, released on the occasion of the exhibition “Uncertain States of America” at the Serpentine Gallery, will be followed by an expanded selection of texts published by Sternberg Press this autumn. We hope that these books serve not only as valuable compendiums of recent writing about contemporary art, but also as inspiration to seek further understanding of these “Uncertain States.”

* * *

We would like to thank Julia Peyton-Jones, Daniel Birnbaum, Gunnar B. Kvaran and Hans Ulrich Obrist for inviting us to undertake this project and for being instrumental in its realization; Caroline Schneider of Sternberg Press for ably seeing the book into print; the artists for their consistently trenchant criticisms of and honest responses to it; all of the authors and publications who granted reprint permission; and David Reinfurt and Stuart Bailey of Dexter Sinister for their grace under pressure. Likewise we wish to thank Greg Allen, Eric C. Banks, Christopher Bedford, Tom Eccles, Bettina Funcke, Liam Gillick, Rachel Harrison, Michael Ned Holte, Gareth James, Miriam Katz, Elizabeth Linden, Molly Nesbit, Lauren O’Neill-Butler, Amie Robinson, Scott Rothkopf and David Velasco for their thoughtful contributions to the dialogue that produced this book.

Dana Schutz

Published in Parkett issue 75.

Dana Schutz, Frank as a Proboscis Monkey, 2002

Dana Schutz, Frank as a Proboscis Monkey, 2002

No work in Brooklyn-based painter Dana Schutz’s first three exhibitions could have prepared viewers for Presentation (2005), which was first exhibited earlier this year in “Greater New York 2005″ at P.S. 1. (It is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, and the museum was so eager to exhibit it in the permanent collection galleries that they removed it from the walls of their outer-borough affiliate several weeks before the end of the exhibition.) The painting was, to my mind, one of the best works in the exhibition, nearly unmatched in its ambition. Beyond scale—at approximately ten by fourteen feet, it was the largest work Schutz had created to date—it was also the most complicated canvas she had ever attempted.

Her first solo show, “Frank From Observation,” was held just three years ago. Frank, who looked surprisingly like the comedian Chris Elliott with a sunburn and long, stringy hair, was described by the artist as the last name on Earth—a fact that made him “the last subject” and her “the last painter.” This construct allowed her to paint pretty much anything she wanted: Frank as a Proboscis Monkey (2002); Frank as a Reclining Nude (2002); even images in which her companion doesn’t appear at all. Her freedom came from the pair’s isolation: no one else could doubt the veracity of what she depicted; the imagined world was complete with two inhabitants.

The majority of the canvases in “Self-Eaters and the People Who Love Them” and “Panic,” her next two solo exhibitions, depicted individual “self-eaters,” humanlike creatures that find nourishment by ingesting their own body parts (which they then regenerate), who seem to be citizens of an unseen community that one can imagine inhabiting a deserted island or remote jungle. In these mostly easel-scale paintings, which often teeter on the thin line between representation and abstraction, Schutz’s imagined world boasted a greater population if not yet the greater complexity (social and, for that matter, compositional) inherent to depicting human interaction.

As if Schutz had spun a top and set these lives in motion, her paintings during this time depicted small but ever-widening circles of activity, and the contours of her world began to show. But recalling the title of Schutz’s first exhibition, we are reminded that her works are imagined but paradoxically also observed. Even when she comprised one-half of the imagined world’s population, a quasi-clinical remove allowed us to believe she was looking at this fictional place through a screen or window, coolly contemplating the scenes before her. As the critic Jed Perl wrote recently of the lesser-known American painter Mary Lyons, Schutz’s works were “a realist account of surrealist possibility.” (1)

Whereas the works in “Self-Eaters” and “Panic” depict individuals or small groups of people in acid hues, Presentation includes a teeming mass of faces worthy of comparison to James Ensor’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889 (1888). These people, ostensibly the self-eaters whose self-sufficiency had previously kept them apart, sport the grave looks of those summoned for an important declaration; “Panic” indeed.

Before them lies a mutant body, bones broken and limbs ripped asunder, on a simple examination table (constructed from a slab of wood) that hovers over a similarly sized hole in the ground. In the front row of the crowd, nestled close to the edge of this table, ruddy-faced congregants stare, whisper among themselves, and cover their noses and mouths. One woman, in what looks like surgeon’s scrubs and gloves, slices into an elephantine hand held up by a rudimentary sling; it is twice as large as her head.

The chimera’s eyes are open: Is this a biopsy or an autopsy? Is this examination the precursor to a burial? Or is it an exhumation? The figure appears to have an intravenous tube emerging from its left arm, but it is not hooked up to any equipment or medicine, and beyond that the painting’s details are ambiguous. What has happened such that everyone, previously enjoying idyllic seclusion as they fashioned new body parts for themselves, has congregated here? The difference in size between members of the crowd and the object of their undivided attention is notable. Perhaps this limp figure, created from a thicket of yellow, orange, pink, and red brushstrokes, is a foreign visitor, à la Lemuel Gulliver in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

Dana Schutz, Presentation, 2005

Dana Schutz, Presentation, 2005

A second type of painterly observation informs this painting. Presentation‘s table-in-front, crowd-behind composition strikingly recalls Thomas Eakins’s surgery-ward canvas The Agnew Clinic (1889), while its bright color scheme might be described as a synthetic amplification of the colors found in Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings, which are also alluded to by the bright flowers at the lower corners of Schutz’s work. Large exhibitions dedicated to Eakins and Gauguin were on view simultaneously at the Metropolitan Museum from June to October 2002, and Schutz fuses by painterly alchemy these two influences, certainly among others, to make something distinctly her own. It is not a criticism to say that Schutz is a canny expositor of art history, obviously unafraid of borrowing liberal samples from earlier masterpieces to lend a charge to her own paintings. (Her painting Party [2004] distinctly echoes Philip Guston’s infamous portrait of a phlebitic Richard Nixon, titled San Clemente [1975], which was itself on view at the Metropolitan during the autumn and winter of 2003-04.)

The grandeur of Presentation bears out Schutz’s decision to transparently invoke such well-known artworks, and the painting does not suffer much by comparison. Perl, in the essay quoted above, notes that, “if painters are good enough, they can convince us of the importance of any subject.” Standing before Schutz’s wall-size canvas, the viewer can easily project herself into the pictorial space, thereby furthering our empathy with the scene it depicts and the fascination it holds; we come to see, like those small faces receding into the background, the importance of the event at hand. The ambiguity of Presentation‘s action begins to approach the open-endedness of everyday life. So far it is Schutz’s greatest work in the realm of (wholly imagined) observation.

* * *

If Presentation literally lays out its subject for the viewer, pushing up against the glass of Schutz’s window onto her imagined world, the subjects of many of her newest works, exhibited in September at Contemporary Fine Arts in Berlin, come from the our side of the real/invented divide. Michael Jackson, Terri Schiavo, religious (and other) fanatics, and corporate titans all make appearances in these canvases. While visiting Schutz’s Brooklyn studio last August, I asked whether her progress from imagination to reality could be chalked up to a newfound confidence. She demurred, but whatever the impetus for this progression, it appears with (only a little bit of) hindsight perfectly logical.

The Autopsy of Michael Jackson (2005), included in the Berlin exhibition, is a kind of real-world mirror image of Presentation. In this canvas, which is five by nine feet, the King of Pop’s cadaver lies naked on an operating table, his feet, attached to too-long legs, pointing in the opposite direction of the figure in Presentation. With his pallid, blotchy, yellow-green skin, his neutered genitals (little more than a collection of slightly darker brushstrokes), his jowls pulled toward the tabletop by gravity, and his torso marked by a significant Y-shaped scar, the singer looks simultaneously withered and strangely childlike. Jackson is separated both from his public image and from his legions of adoring fans, and in his isolation one can see the toll wrought upon his body. Schutz peers behind the facade—aviator sunglasses with silver lenses, caked make-up, maneuvers calculated by public relations managers, devotees outside the courtroom—to elucidate the pathos evoked when society places anyone on that high a pedestal. It arouses feelings for Jackson most likely not felt for a very long time.

The film critic David Denby wrote recently that for filmmakers, “to be a good fantasist one first has to be a good realist.” (2) If we extrapolate his comment to other art forms, Schutz’s paintings are proof that his maxim cuts both ways, as there is something distinct about her depictions of real-world subjects that she might not otherwise have discovered without first inventing her own universe. The question I put to Schutz about confidence implied that she would necessarily be leaving behind her fantastical worlds in favor of first-hand accounts of the real world. I had neglected to consider other canvases then in her studio, and to realize that the strength of a painting like The Autopsy of Michael Jackson relies significantly on the acuity of the artist’s observations—of the “spinning tops” she has repeatedly set in motion-perfected over the years.

Too few critics make the distinction between work that is good and work that matters beyond the terms it sets for itself. Likewise few artists make art that fits both criteria. As the two strands of her art mutually reinforce one another, Schutz’s observations, rendered with pleasurable abandon in the wildest of colors, will come to matter very much indeed.

(1) Perl, Jed. “Formalism and Its Discontents.” The New Republic, September 12, 2005, p. 33.

(2) Denby, David. “The Moviegoer.” The New Yorker, September 12, 2005, p. 9.

Richard Wright

Published in Vitamin D: New Perspectives in Drawing (Phaidon), 2005.

“The most important thing about the work is that it is destroyed,” says Glasgow-based artist Richard Wright about his gouache wall paintings, improvised on site and covered over at the end of each exhibition. His mostly abstract works, which often occupy very little of the given wall space, are representational in an unexpected sense: Rather than depicting a scene or object found elsewhere or pulled from his imagination, Wright’s works “represent” the frequently idiosyncratic character of the site (a room’s proportions or its décor) and the contingencies of the work’s creation (the exhibition context or the artist’s mood). Wright achieves maximum effect through frequently minimal interventions by combining his intuitive sense of color, form, and placement with a deep knowledge of the histories of art, architecture, and ornamentation. He oscillates primarily between marks that allude to familiar Gothic, Rococo, and modernist forms, frequently fusing them with the graphic hallmarks of subcultures. Reading between the lines (sometimes literally), viewers discover motifs reminiscent of tattoo design or biker-jacket decoration, scientific symbols, religious iconography, and ornamental patterning. Wright deliberately chooses “available” forms—ones he feels are divested of cultural content by virtue of their familiarity—and, with precision and a concentration bordering on what he calls the “ecstatic,” imbues them with a new (and temporary) agency.

Wright maintains that architecture is subjective—an accumulation of encounters and observations rather than something that can be mapped out analytically with floor plans and elevations—and his paintings become a commemoration (in one critic’s words) of his pas de deux with the exhibition space. For a gallery visitor, the surprise encounter with an out-of-the-way work, the significant optical transformations a painting undergoes from different points of view, and the attendant awareness of one’s movement through space all foreground the negotiation inherent in viewing works of art. Context is inextricably linked to the artwork and the space between paintings becomes as important as the works themselves. (Perhaps an echo of some Minimalists’ preoccupation with phenomenology can be found here.) The viewer’s memory also performs a commemorative operation when considering the best of Wright’s works, as she remembers not just the graphic punch of each painting but also the details of her engagement with them.

Situating Wright’s practice can be difficult, as his art frequently takes contentious positions and registers numerous tensions. It attempts to slip free of the art market’s grasp by remaining resolutely impermanent, making its destruction a precondition of its creation. It sits uneasily outside any genealogies of wall painting, which one critic divided into “mural” (Sol LeWitt, Simon Patterson, etc.) and “wallpaper” (Robert Barry, Michael Craig-Martin, etc.) camps. It can be difficult to reconcile the laboriousness of Wright’s process with the ephemerality of the final product. Yet the work’s thought-provoking ambiguities do not mask the pleasure of beholding one of Wright’s paintings, both in discovering how it alters your relationship to a space and in knowing that the transformation is evanescent, a product of the very moment of the encounter.

Rachel Harrison

Published in Afterall issue 11.

The forward thrust of modernist ambition, which despite many counter- and cross-currents, birthed a more-or-less linear progression of artistic movements during much of the twentieth century — Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop and Minimalism, Conceptual art, Post-Minimalism, to name a few — finally began to give way in the 1990s. (The simultaneity of Pop and Minimalism may have been the first chink in the armour, so to speak.) It may be too soon to analyse fully the pressures that caused these fissures, but at least two will figure in any detailed analysis. For lack of better terms, let’s call them awareness and omnivorousness.

‘Awareness’ is tied to the art world’s slightly belated acknowledgement of the rise of cultural studies that swept through university humanities departments in the late 1970s and 80s. As increasing numbers of non-Western voices were accorded legitimacy, uniform History became multifaceted ‘histories’. By the mid-1990s, when this near-seismic shift hit the art world, its cosmopolitan centres — New York, London, Los Angeles, Paris, Berlin — began looking farther afield for artistic talent, resulting in major exhibitions of young artists from China, Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. By 1999 the all-inclusive ‘Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s- 1980s’ toured major museums across the United States. Some observers, wary of exoticism for its own sake, interpret this interest in ‘the periphery’ as, at best, a condescending token gesture, and, at worst, a kind of cultural neo-colonialism. But regardless of one’s opinion of the phenomena, the trend continues: witness ‘Inverted Utopias’ on view last summer at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and the inclusion of some of that show’s Latin-American artists in the inaugural collection display at the recently reopened Museum of Modern Art in New York. This geographic expansion of the art world roughly coincided with an upsurge in the art market, an ascension from the ‘crash’ of the early 1990s, that has yet to abate; it now more-or-less ingests omnivorously — i.e. supports — all formal and conceptual strategies. Peter Schjeldahl, writing recently in The New Yorker, sketched the outline of a similar trajectory, describing the current art world as a ‘sluggish mishmash’. (1)

The qualifying word in Schjedahl’s phrase is a point for debate, but ‘mishmash’ is a succinct description of what one sees these days on any trip to New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, London’s East End or Los Angeles’s Chinatown. Every artist seems to have a narrow specialty: in an afternoon spent visiting galleries, one might find performance artists who foreground identity politics, painters who stick to a haughty, cool formalism and photographers with a knack for illustrating the complexities of contemporary life. Yet somehow, in this ‘anything goes’ environment, no one knew quite what to make of Rachel Harrison, who in the mid-1990s pinpointed the essence of this promiscuity by taking the wide view. Given the critical response to some of her recent exhibitions, it can be said that some people still don’t know.

In reality, it couldn’t have been simpler: she placed the two greatest legacies of early 1960s art — the moment when the first rumbles of a cracking in the modernist telos were heard — into a dialectical relationship simply by sticking one onto the other. Pop art’s incorporation of photography into other mediums (mostly painting) and the reductive forms of Minimalist sculpture were, and still are, deep veins of gold for artists mining recent art history for inspiration. That she successfully combines the two, and refuses to reduce avenues of interpretation by presenting the resultant combinations didactically, hints at the breadth of Harrison’s inquiry and ambition. To her credit, her forced pairs — Minimalism and Pop Art, sculpture and photography, sculpture and ‘display’, volumetric space and representational space, the handmade and the readymade, form and meaning — coexist without canceling each other out. Neither do they add up to something greater, though her works are often great. They simply are.

There are intellectual rewards to be gleaned from engaging with her sculptures and installations, but the onus for finding them is placed squarely on the viewer; Harrison shows rather than tells. This refusal to identify her strategies can be described as a blank affect, and it subsequently leads to difficulty in untangling the meaning of particular elements in her works. But it is not the same as being uncaring. Her rough-hewn forms made of cast-off wood, pieces of drywall, styrofoam or plaster, often painted over, give off an improvised air that is misleading; each formal gesture is intentional. Likewise, the seeming indiscriminate inclusion of found photographs (often of celebrities) — photographs the artist has taken — kitsch figurines or consumer objects is a false front, as these decisions are equally carefully wrought. Every element in Harrison’s work signifies something, but repeated gestures — affixing photographs to her sculptures, treating the sculpture as a pedestal or display stand — rarely communicate the same thing twice. Her stance is akin to a conversation partner who mostly stays quiet, leaving us to fill the void with babble. Because a viewer must devise meaning from scratch as she approaches each work, looking becomes a constitutive act, and we often end up seeing what we want to see. Continue reading

Jennifer and Kevin McCoy

Published in the catalogue accompanying the short-lived exhibition “Terminal Five.” To read more about the exhibition, click here and here.

Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, Every Anvil (detail), 2001

Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, Every Anvil (detail), 2001

From a billboard detergent advertisement to the weather forecast on the morning radio, from the menu at a favorite restaurant to snippets of conversation overheard in line at the DMV, we constantly process, sort, and decide how to store information. Archives are necessarily formed—all the weather forecasts in the past week, for example—and, in real time, we splice bits of them together to form private narratives that give shape to experience. Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, collaborators since 1996 and based in Brooklyn, have for the past eight years often used digital technology as a proxy for this process, exploring concepts of narrative, repetition, archiving, the database, and the influence of media in our everyday lives. The technology they deploy—in obsessively edited videos, on websites, in live events, or in sculptural installations—with its underlying code of ones and zeros, is a metaphor for our mental systems of classification. Wisely the McCoys use it as a means rather than an end. Without becoming didactic or losing visual appeal, their art perceptively exposes the strict organization by which we cope with a glut of information.

Soft Rains (2003), exhibited at FACT, Liverpool, Sala Rekalde, Bilbao, and at Postmasters Gallery in New York, treads on our mental library of cinematic images by using digital technology to stitch together hackneyed narratives lifted from countless genre flicks. Seven tabletop sculptures on pedestals of varying height, each a miniature film set made by hand and populated with figures ordered from a German model railroad manufacturer, become settings we have little trouble recognizing: there’s the David Lynch chilller and James Bond thriller, a Fellini classic, a noirish lounge scene, and an artsy indie film featuring a warehouse loft-slash-studio. Our omniscient eye peers down at these lifeless scenes through a phalanx of small video cameras and lights on flexible metal arms, each precisely pointed to a specific part of the (non-)action. An earlier exhibition of some of this work had a working title of “Robot Films,” and indeed the McCoys cede the directorial “Action!” and “Cut!” to a computer, which in real-time feeds the cameras’ motionless views through a program that composes an endlessly reorganizing “film” made of roughly minute-long fragments, each containing six to ten shots. The slivers of would-be narrative, aided by a score partly taken from actual films and partly composed for the work, lose none of their cinematic magic from this concession. Instead, despite presenting the mechanics of creation (the sculptural film sets and their attendant cameras) and the product (the resultant “film”) in the same place, Soft Rains encourages a double suspension of disbelief that leaves the viewer to focus on either the deft craftsmanship of the former or the emotional tug of the latter.

The McCoys’ use of live video can be seen as a nod to the pervasive use of the medium by artists in the late 1960s, when it often was accompanied by a performative element. In Soft Rains, it is the viewer that engages in a kind of performance, willingly bridging (in both directions) the distance between the temporal, two-dimensional presentation of the filmic image on screen and the static, three-dimensional presentation of the tabletop sculptures. Another way to put it is that viewers can enjoy trying to pair the on-screen scenes with the cameras from which they come.

The construction of quasi-narrative in Soft Rains is a clever foil to the deconstruction of the artists’ “Every” series (2001-2002). Working with images from the 1970s TV show Starsky and Hutch, episodes of the original Star Trek series,1940s- and 1950s-era Warner Brothers Looney Tunes cartoons, movies set in Las Vegas, and 1970s East-meets-West style Kung Fu films, the McCoys create classification systems for narrative material. They reorganize the linear progression of already-produced narrative into the atemporal spread of databases. For example, Every Anvil (2001) creates a taxonomy of cartoon violence: the artists sorted through hours of early Looney Tunes footage and meticulously re-arranged it by type. The work takes the form of an open suitcase hanging on the wall with a small video monitor and a VideoCD player set inside. Nearby is a shelf loaded with CD’s containing the results of their effort, labeled “EVERY HAMMER AND HATCHET,” “EVERY MEAN DOG,” “EVERY POISONING,” and so on. The viewer is encouraged to play a CD at random, and each contains nothing more than a cascade of clips showing whatever the label describes.

Every Shot, Every Episode (2001), the first in the series and which takes the same physical form, slices the twenty episodes of Starsky and Hutch aired between 1975 and 1977 into over 10,000 individual shots spread across almost 300 CD’s. The categories are looser, ranging across visual cues, individual characters, or plot twists (“EVERY ZOOM IN,” “EVERY YELLOW VOLKSWAGEN,” “EVERY BLUE,” “EVERY MOAN OF PAIN”), but the result is the same: the predictable plot mechanisms (rising action, climax, denouement) are dismantled and the connections between events are made obscure. The process unveils the clichés and repetition inherent in their formulaic sources: Wile E. Coyote will never catch the Road Runner, Starsky and Hutch will always bust the bad guys. The artists write that the material they use “employ[s] formulas or archetypes of human behavior…and constitute many of our earliest experiences with narrative.” The heart of these works is their turning that narrative into list or database form.

What that reveals, in the case of Every Anvil, was succinctly outlined by the writer Jim Supanick: “The dogged persistence in facing falling safes, every stick of dynamite, every anvil…the slapstick quality that kids tap into shows itself as Sisyphean repetition to the adult viewers who make the mistake of looking too closely…[reminding] us of the masochism ingrained in our own everyday lives.” Every Shot, Every Episode may be a bit more benign, given our distanced, ironic appreciation of the source material, but the conceptual (and literal) shake-up is a potent way of reimagining the overly familiar. As Jennifer puts it: “It’s a strategy for looking at narrative in a different way. Maybe more from the point of view of the maker or the production process rather than the spectator.”

The McCoys’ extensive involvement with reorganizing available footage led naturally to a desire for more active re-creation. For The Kiss and Horror Chase (both 2002), the artists, instead of working with the original material, completely restaged scenes from Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2, respectively. The artists leave their place as editors to temporarily become both spectators—Body Heat and Evil Dead 2 are among their favorite films—and directors. Horror Chase, filmed on a Brooklyn soundstage inside a 1,000 square foot set constructed by the artists, is a one-shot horror picture. The camera stalks actor Adrian Latourelle (playing the Bruce Campbell role in the original film), who runs in fear down a hallway and into a bedroom, crashes through a door into a living room, runs past the kitchen into a bathroom and then a closet, dashes down a mist-filled hallway, and finally ends up back in the kitchen. The camera winds up exactly where it began, making for a forty-five second seamless loop that, in the final artwork, is manipulated to run fast, slow, and backwards according to a computer algorithm that randomizes its playback. Rather than working with the entire film, the McCoys show the chase scene—in this case the actor is trying to avoid an evil force that eventually possesses him—as the essence of the horror genre. The Kiss is an endless prolongation of the climactic moment in every romance film (though specifically taken from Body Heat), seen again through a computer program from random angles and at random speeds. Both films expand the issues raised by the “Every” works: as Timothy Druckrey writes, “In differentiating the original and its perverse double, the production takes the flash-back into the realm of the fetishistic…[it] is a kind of classic in limbo—part re-creation, part parody, part hijack, part homage.”

Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, still from Horror Chase, 2002

Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, still from Horror Chase, 2002

The same descriptors can be applied to Soft Rains and especially Our Second Date (2004), which again adds a personal variation to the proceedings. The work is another tabletop sculpture attended to by robotic cameras, but this time it recreates on one platform both the set (taken from Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend) and the screen (the Parisian movie theater the artists visited to watch that film on their second date.) Soft Rains collapses the space of film—its creation and reception—into one room; Our Second Date reduces it even further. Like the steel suitcases that contain Every Anvil or Every Shot, Every Episode, the interplay of creation, transmission, and reception in Our Second Date reveals a world every bit as rich and complex as our own.

Mark Handforth

Published in the catalogue accompanying the short-lived exhibition “Terminal Five.” To read more about the exhibition, click here and here.

Mark Handforth, installation view, 2004 Whitney Biennial

Mark Handforth, installation view, 2004 Whitney Biennial

Mark Handforth possesses the increasingly rare ability to make sculptures that engage the eye, the body, and the mind. With an incisive wit and visual sophistication, the Miami-based artist pairs the handmade with appropriated everyday objects, making subtle alternations and juxtapositions to reference modernist design, Minimalist sculpture, street subcultures, and roadside Americana. To great effect, Handforth plays representation against abstraction, the rough against the refined, and art history against itself. He frequently exhibits multiple works at once, making installations of casual associativeness that, as 2004 Whitney Biennial curator Debra Singer notes, “suggest a constant state of flux—a process of being rearranged, constructed, and dismantled all at once.” This was literally true of earlier works, such as Not from where I’m standing, exhibited at the North Miami Museum of Contemporary Art in 1996. That installation comprised a tower of industrial scaffolding that acted as a screen on which an ever-changing array of objects were installed or hung. More recently, that sense of flux occurs in the mind, as the viewer becomes progressively more cognizant of the multiple quotations implanted in each work. However, it is no small feat that, unlike Simon Starling, whose highly conceptual work inevitably requires careful explication, Handforth never loses sight of the value of aesthetic pleasure. He delights in a narrow range of materials—exotic woods, industrially fabricated metals, fluorescent lights covered by colored gels, multicolored candles—that are deployed to very specific effect. The result is an art that, as Singer writes, is “equal parts suburban alienation and modernist transcendence.”

Given Handforth’s consistent engagement with Minimalist sculpture—no matter that only some of his works resemble Minimalist objects—it can be rewarding to examine part of his oeuvre through the dominant lens by which that earlier generation was viewed: phenomenology. A recent Artforum article by art historian James Meyer posits that for many contemporary sculptors a relationship to the spectacularly sized gallery space has replaced a direct engagement with the viewer’s body. At the tail end of a half-century genealogy of this transition, Meyer cites Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipses and the sculptors who have filled Tate Modern’s grand Turbine Hall as artists for whom “…an aesthetic of size…has subsumed a Minimalist concept of scale.” Yet Handforth’s art is an exception to this trend, with many of his works splitting the difference between the two poles while falling outside of Meyer’s chronological spectrum. As physical objects, Miami Kiosk (1998) and DiamondBrite (2004) can be placed somewhere between the somatic works of Sol LeWitt, Walter De Maria, and others in Primary Structures at the Jewish Museum in 1966 and the oversized sculptures by Tony Smith, Ronald Bladen, and Barnett Newman in Scale as Content at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1967: they’re big enough to seem awkwardly stuffed into the gallery space yet not so large as to fully alienate a viewing body. (In fact, the exact opposite of alienation occasionally happens: one widely circulated picture of Miami Kiosk features children playing on top of it.) It is conceivable that Handforth really performed a David-versus-Goliath showdown with the highway sign—just as fellow Biennial artist Wade Guyton wrestled with Marcel Breuer chairs—to make DiamondBrite, generating its torqued form by hand. Handforth’s objects privilege neither viewer nor gallery space, thereby completing the Minimalist task of making the viewer physically aware not only of the object, but the space in which it resides.

Yet Handforth slyly embeds too many quotations in his works for us to rely on formal analysis alone. He draws from high and low sources: the graceful curves of Freebird (2000) call to mind Alexander Calder’s mobiles, but the title comes from Lynyrd Skynyrd, a band from the artist’s adopted home of Florida. Likewise the sculpture is made from the streetlamps found all across the country, but the artist’s longstanding interest in modernist interior design connects this work to Achille Castiglioni’s canonic 1962 Arco Floor Lamp (itself a part of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection). Even the simplest of Handforth’s objects, arrangements of fluorescent tubes distributed across a wall, open an arena of complicated interpretation. Perhaps more than any other modern artist, Dan Flavin laid singular and lasting claim to his chosen medium, and it takes bravura to rush into this hallowed territory. Even more so considering the decorative end to which Handforth has deployed the material: one work presented the Union Jack across a gallery wall and several others Jesus’ cross. Representation, however frought with its own meaning, is slipped into the work. (Another way to put it: he takes representation off the cross on which modernist abstraction had tried to nail it.) Handforth brings Flavin’s ephemeral transcendence (and his latent, secular spirituality) back to Earth: the enlightening glow of an expansive empire, represented by its flag, and Jesus’ beatific, radiant presence are invoked by humble, commercially available materials.

Lest we picture the artist solely as a postmodern ironist, Handforth also notes that fluorescent tubes provide a lovely, mood-setting light, and it’s worth noting a romantic thread that runs through his practice. Its most succinct embodiment came in the form of a public artwork in Basel, Switzerland, for which the artist found graffiti and duplicated it in blue neon beneath a bridge: Claudia I love you kind of; 11:25pm. A humble turn on Jenny Holzer’s gnomic pronouncements, the sculpture, perhaps as fragile as the original message was transitory, reflected frustrations of the heart in the churning waters. Another work, exhibited in the courtyard of Galleria Franco Noero in Turin, outfitted a Vespa scooter with nozzles that emitted a fine, cooling film of water. The scooter’s headlights, left on, created rainbows in the surrounding air. The artwork references the omnipresence of the scooters on Turin’s streets as well as the final scene in the Who’s Quadrophenia (1979), which features the teenage lead apparently driving toward suicide on the foggy seaside cliffs near Brighton. As the critic Tim Griffin notes, “Handforth’s sculpture is romantic but never quite leaves reality behind, laden as it is with sociological content.” Another Vespa is one of many objects—among them a parking meter, fire hydrant, and a length of pipe (dedicated to the artist Jack Smith)—that Handforth has covered in wax devotional candles. They drip a spectrum of color, making concrete the accretion of time and suggesting that Handforth prays at an altar dedicated to beauty found in the everyday.

Mark Handforth, Vespa, 2001

Mark Handforth, Vespa, 2001

The site-specificity of the Turin Vespa was again evident in Lamppost (2003), a sculpture commissioned by the Public Art Fund for Doris C. Freedman Plaza at the southeast corner of Central Park. A forty-five foot long industrial streetlight, it is bent in two places and laid awkwardly on the ground, its yellow sodium bulbs replaced by red lamps. The work updates Claes Oldenburg’s public proposal sensibility without seeming as much of an intervention: Lamppost countered the muteness of other modernist public sculpture, retaining its functionality by lighting the plaza at night with an amber glow.

Handforth’s reappropriations betray an interest in the failures and creative reuses of other artists’ grand gestures. He delights in the public outcry over a Carl Andre sculpture made of 120 bricks and tells the story of a Richard Serra sculpture sited publicly in London that, comprising four massive slabs leaning one on another, has a center closed off to public eyes: its interior space has become an outhouse for the city’s transients. Coming from Handforth, the tale has an insouciance that adds frisson to his own art. To quote Griffin: “Handforth looks for ‘sculpture’ that already exists amid the cultural wreckage,” and he’s smart enough to know that his art may meet the same fate. (An acknowledgement through which the Romantic can once again slip in.) Handforth writes: “At the end of it, all you have is a work and what that work does, where it sits in the world, and what is ultimately … affected by it and through it…. [My objects] exist in the world on the world’s terms.”

Christine Hill

Published in issue one of Work magazine, fall 2004.

It’s by design that Brooklyn-based Christine Hill is seated behind a desk in the accompanying photo. An unusual theme among contemporary artists, “work” is both subject and object of Hill’s multifaceted practice. Over the past dozen years, she has assumed the role of receptionist, shopkeeper, rock star, street cleaner, lecturer, tour guide, television talk show host, and—all along the way—archivist, pursuing a defiantly individualist path through an art world that hasn’t always known what to make of her.

Since 1996, Hill’s efforts have taken place under the rubric of Volksboutique, which started in East Berlin as a secondhand shop-slash-social space and now operates as an “organizational venture,” incorporated in Germany and New York State. What unites these disparate activities, along with the Volksboutique name, is a disciplined, self-sufficient, and hands-on approach: the artist is involved in all aspects of her productions, no matter the scale. She is a rigorous organizer, assiduous recycler, and unfaltering performer. She is also meticulous about aesthetics, and has developed a mix of 1950s American corporate optimism (“Make the most of what you’ve got!” reads one poster) and 1970s East German industrial functionality, both curiously filtered through a DIY sensibility whose implements include lots of rubber stamps and antiquated machinery.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, conceptual artists dematerialized the art object—to borrow the phrase coined by Lucy Lippard, who has also written about Hill—and Volksboutique is a significant furthering of that investigation, wherein the “work” is not only a noun (the object), but also a verb (the act of making). For Hill, the two are as inseparable as “life” and “art,” and gallery visitors will almost invariably find Hill working full-time in her exhibition spaces, preparing for her next project while the current one is on view. Such was the case with “Home Office,” her autumn 2003 solo exhibition at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in New York. The central objects of the exhibition were Portable Office Prototypes: a collection of five custom-designed faux-antique steamer trunks, each outfitted with the accoutrements necessary for Hill to execute different tasks (reception, accounting, public relations, production, and management) in her one-woman enterprise. Appropriate outfits, desk accessories, and nametags accompanied each persona. She conducted business in the front room while exhibition documentation and an array of models for future projects filled the other. My first meeting with the artist (as Christine E. Hill, office manager) was at this desk; appropriately, I had an appointment.

Santiago Cucullu

Published in a brochure accompanying the artist’s solo exhibition in the Hammer Projects series at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. For more information and images, click here.

Installation view, Hammer Museum, 2004

Installation view, Hammer Museum, 2004

Milwaukee-based Argentinean artist Santiago Cucullu chooses historically marginalized figures and events (often from his homeland’s anarchist movement) as the subject of his works, which include large wall drawings made of contact paper, watercolors, and sculptures. Cucullu’s references to figures such as anarchist and pamphlet printer Severino di Giovanni, Giovanni’s compatriots Alejandro and Paulino Scarfo, their Spanish forefather Fermin Salvochea, and the historian Osvaldo Bayer inflect a typical chronology of revolutionary fervor and protest, usually traced in straight lines from France, Russia, and Italy to the United States and back to Europe. Similar to the southward glance of “Beyond Geometry”—the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s exhibition dedicated to reductive modernist art—which brought South American Concrete Art, Argentine Arte Madí, and Brazilian Neo-Concretism into dialogue with contemporaneous North American and European art movements, Cucullu performs a resuscitation. The artist marries biographical details from these largely forgotten lives with places and people recollected from his own, creating composite visual storyboards that mix references to high and low culture, range across the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, and freely jumble the contemporary with the historical.

Cucullu’s mural-scale drawing for the Hammer Museum is perhaps his most ambitious and freewheeling contact paper work to date. Its source imagery is almost comically disparate: some comes from the archives of the Federación Libertaria de Argentina (FLA), an anarchist library in Buenos Aires; other parts reference a drawing the artist made while in school (and subsequently lost) that depicted a pair of Doc Martens with the imagined name Dusty Springfield Rhoades written across the top; and other fragments allude to Dusty Rhoades, a real-life reporter from Springfield, Illinois, whose name the artist came across coincidentally while listening to a radio report about a police officer dismissed from her force. Cucullu presents everything as a tangle of images on a nearly flat picture plane, which can lead almost to the point of visual abstraction—making it hard to see the trees for the forest, so to speak—but also calls to mind pre-Renaissance religious paintings, which often set down multiple narratives in a single space on a single canvas. Continuing the analogy, Cucullu’s multiple works rendering scenes from the life of Severino di Giovanni, who died in a shootout with police in Buenos Aires on February 1, 1931, can be viewed as a secular rendering of the Stations of the Cross. Inasmuch as Cucullu’s mostly forgotten events and minor characters, in being rescued from the dustbin of history, are elevated to the point of being inscribed directly onto the walls of our institutions dedicated to preserving culture, we might even link his art to the tradition of history painting, substituting police shootouts for extravagant feasts and grand battles.

In a contemporary reading, a viewer can look at the nonhierarchical relationship among segments of Cucullu’s murals as analogous to the equality of anarchist utopian vision, or as representations of the disarmingly random way in which we come across pockets of information in everyday life. And while not quite random, Cucullu’s artistic process definitely incorporates an element of chance. Drawing on pictures from an archive organized by an idiosyncratic system of narrative association, he rarely knows how the finished artwork will look when he begins affixing the contact paper to the wall. (An act that itself mimics the protestor’s wheat-pasting of propaganda posters around the city.) His material—no different from what you’d find in a hardware store and use to line the kitchen cabinets or a set of shelves—comes in a limited range of colors. He arranges a random and roughly geometric pattern of swatches on the wall before outlining and coloring in the negative space of his image in white; the whitened segments are then excised with an X-acto knife, leaving an elegantly composed multicolored cutout ready to be glued to the gallery wall. This process splits the difference between Arturo Herrera, a New York-based artist whose poster cutouts have graceful curves and random colors derived from found material, and Richard Wright, a Glasgow-based artist who almost exclusively paints abstract patterns directly onto the wall. Cucullu nonetheless maintains an improvisational freedom that Herrera and Wright don’t allow themselves, sometimes capriciously combining more than a dozen individual images to create a single artwork. His compositional choices, often made on-site while installing, add a performative element to an art form that already engages in a sophisticated flirtation with traditions of drawing and painting.

Cucullu’s untitled wall work for the 2004 Whitney Biennial is a recent example. The “back story” for this mural includes references to Schlaraffenland (“Land of the Idle”), an imaginary country of leisure and gluttonous luxury concocted by Germans at the turn of the sixteenth century; Severini and the Scarfos, the Argentinean anarchists; and modernist architecture in Argentina and Japan. Utopia—whether imagined, protested for, or laid out in concrete and glass—is the linchpin linking these images. The connection may not belong entirely to Cucullu, however, as many Germans, some no doubt familiar with the Schlaraffenland ideal—it’s the subject of a 1566 painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, now in the collection of the Alte Pinakothek in Munich—immigrated to Argentina during the first decades of the last century. The pull of utopias, whether entirely fanciful or potentially realizable, has brought people to South America since the first stories of El Dorado, the fabled “City of Gold,” circulated hundreds of years ago (coincidentally within two years of Hans Sachs’s popular satire of Schlaraffenland in Germany). Severini left Italy for Argentina in 1927 to escape the Fascists and start afresh. Cucullu’s artworks integrate this history without becoming didactic or losing their visual appeal, locating it within a matrix that also includes references to the rapper Eazy-E, the 1979 film The Warriors, and countless other cultural touchstones that have their own appeal in our day. It’s a natural human tendency to anthropomorphize abstraction, to look for representations of ourselves in that which doesn’t readily divulge its secrets. Cucullu’s art, made with a sleight-of-hand that turns ordinary materials into spectacular constructions filled to the brim with content waiting to be “unpacked,” consistently rewards this kind of extended looking.

David Altmejd

Published in Flash Art, May 2004.

David Altmejd, Untitled (Dark), 2001

David Altmejd, Untitled (Dark), 2001

New York artist David Altmejd’s grotesque sculptures, usually comprised of heads or other fragments of monster bodies, directly engage the repressed underside of our imagination and incongruously mix the things we dare not consciously consider with a certain sense of cheap glamour. His recent works, accumulations of small, sparkling found elements surrounding an incomplete werewolf body, spring from an intuitive process that serves as metaphor for peering into this realm of the unspoken. Altmejd rarely knows how a work will look when it is finished: he is an obsessive conjurer, bringing implausible sculptures into being as if he was in a trance or channeling spirits through the Ouija board. Often grouped with “new Gothic” artists, his use of the werewolf as horror movie cliché touchstone instead of, say, the knife-wielding serial killer, is telling. His is a morbid, Victorian-era take on the heinous (typified by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein): the sculptures are absent any explicit violence, preferring the dread of the unknown or otherworldly to a forensic analysis of cruelty. It’s easy to imagine Altmejd’s monsters as protagonists in a cryptic narrative, yet Altmejd does not intentionally set any in motion. Instead, his creative energies are invested in the object itself—the artist likens his practice to process art—and the rest is left to the viewer. The sculptures are specimens laid out for us to examine, and they are dark, exquisitely beautiful (often employing eye-pleasing colors and seductive materials), compulsive, meticulously detailed without being fussy or perfectionist, shiny, and just a little bit sick. The intensely appealing layer of crystals, glitter, rhinestones, jewelry, and other materials that seem to spring up organically from the plaster heads defers the horror of beholding such monstrosities. Altmejd highlights the tension between the need to avert our eyes and to take in every gruesome detail; his bringing together of opposite worlds—the horrific and the glamorous—suggests that the distance between them may reside in our perceptions alone.

The monsters are frequently integrated into table-like pedestals that recall mid-century furniture or modernist sculptures: they present horizontal surfaces at different heights, often have mirrored elements, and, importantly, allow for a theatricalized placement of the heads. He carves boxes and tunnels out of these structures, placing a head in a form-fitting hall of mirrors that distorts perception. The gesture calls to mind Robert Smithson’s use of the material in the service of his exploration of entropy. Yet unlike in Smithson’s work, Altmejd’s structures seem sound (his 2002 New York solo exhibition was titled “Clear Structures for a New Generation”): it is the body, and vision, that inevitably decay.

This entropy is a metamorphosis from one state to another, and the critic Andrea K. Scott has perceptively noted the central role transformation plays in Altmejd’s work: we can all call to mind films in which a character morphs from human to werewolf. His werewolves sprout crystals (liquid gone solid). But beyond the obvious transitions, Altmejd understands that the process of decay carries within it the promise of growth and his objects arrest the moment where the former becomes the latter. Their energy is not kinetic, but potential, and lies dormant until activated by the presence of a viewer. When peering closely at the details of Altmejd’s decapitated and decaying hand-crafted heads, it is difficult to shake the uncanny sensation that the werewolf eye may blink at any moment, springing to life like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster.

His most recent works combine the werewolf heads with equally hideous bodies, rendered slightly smaller than life size and often with deformed or missing limbs. For Young Men with Revolution on their Minds, an installation at the recent Istanbul Biennial that comes to the Whitney Biennial this spring, mirrored boxes were not only carved out of and protruding from the pedestal, but also from the body itself, exposing bones that traverse Altmejd’s otherwise empty mirrored cubes. Words were scribbled on these bones—he is fascinated by the idea of a body, and particularly its bones, as a tabula rasa for language—and in the infinite reflections of this space, Altmejd introduced communication as another element subject to distortion and decay. Surrounding the decomposing corpse and two additional heads was a mélange of inorganic found objects: toy birds, jewels, stacked cubes and pointed stalagmites made from transparent plastic, silver chains, crystals, and glitter, all lit from below. This perishing body became the site of ever more new growth and activity, a duality that The Old Sculptor and The Sculptor’s Oldest Son (both 2003) amplify. Exhibited at group shows in New York, both works feature birds, connected via thin chains, tugging at the lifeless forms in an attempt to rouse activity. But the bodies are too far gone for that—The Sculptor’s Oldest Son is missing an arm, a leg, and everything but the bones of his other leg—and life moves on to the next cycle. The Old Sculptor sprouts flowers: Chelsea is built on landfill, and one can easily imagine these works sinking back into the muck beneath the galleries to literally push up daises. The works would rest together, just blocks apart, like kin at a graveyard family plot.

An atypical recent project suggests a much more direct and psychologically complex notion of family than that evoked by The Old Sculptor and his oldest son. Sarah Altmejd, 2003, is a double sculptural portrait of the artist’s sister first presented at Galerie SKOL in the artist’s hometown of Montreal. The invitation card showed a snapshot of Sarah and the press release detailed David’s love for her. Entering the small back room of the gallery, however, the viewer encountered adoration gone astray: one sculpture depicted her with three-quarters of her face missing, as if the flesh had been consumed by acid, and the other showed a lifeless head sprouting crystals. Like references to self and child in his other titles, Altmejd’s turn from unknown figures to rendering a specific person intensifies the creep factor.

David Altmejd, The Lovers, 2004

David Altmejd, The Lovers, 2004

So does encountering Altmejd’s work outside the confines of the gallery environment. His proposal for the Public Art Fund’s “Art in the Park” portion of this year’s Whitney Biennial places two heads—one white, one black, both shockingly overscaled—beside an out-of-the-way path near the middle of Central Park. Even though we know it to be man-made, Central Park represents nature creeping back onto the island, disordering our order and interrupting our street grid, offering not only sites for Sunday relaxation but overnight home to all manner of illicit activities. It is anything but the sanctified space of the white cube. That his work should end up there seems strangely appropriate, yet coming across these heads while all alone on a crisp early Spring evening will certainly unsettle the nerves. Altmejd’s earlier works, laid flat on their pedestals in varying states of decay, are available for close scrutiny like the monster felled by a hero’s sword. Not so the works to be placed in Central Park. Like a mad scientist, having brought these unnatural creatures into being, Altmejd is now busy picking them apart and setting them loose in the environment.

Doug Aitken

Published in English and Japanese in Paper Sky issue 11.

For the past twelve years, Los Angeles-based Doug Aitken, now in his mid-30s, has made a string of seductively beautiful single- and multi-channel video installations along with films, installations, photographs, sound works, collages, and artist’s books. The varied output is indicative of his complete comfort with the image world: Aitken’s work has taken him to varied locations on five continents. Each time he returns to the studio with footage he begins an editing process that results in a fully resolved artwork loaded with memorable, refined images of the world in motion. Beginning with the completion of inflection, his first video, in 1992, Aitken has exhibited his work at film festivals and art exhibitions around the globe.

Doug Aitken, new skin, 2002

Doug Aitken, new skin, 2002

“I live in an image world. I store images,” begins the female narrator of new skin (2002), a recent four-channel video installation by Aitken. Projected into the corners made by two interlocking elliptical screens, new skin tells the story of a young woman, facing the loss of her eyesight, who endeavors somewhat frantically to mentally catalogue as many images as possible. She sits alone in a loft, chain-smoking cigarettes while flipping through magazines and books. The narrative is driven by interspersed shots of a digital clock counting down: as it moves closer to zero, the pace quickens. The characters and objects that make up her everyday life are gradually blacked out, isolating her in a constrained space on the screen. Near the end, the woman stands before a mirror, reaching toward her reflection in an attempt to physically capture the image disappearing in front of her face. The video image disappears into blackness and we hear the mirror crash to the floor.

Throughout the 1990s, Aitken’s largely non-narrative installations were preoccupied with notions of the landscape, speed, and our relationship to both. monsoon (1995) explored the left-behind tropical setting of Jonestown, Guyana, the site of a 1978 mass suicide; diamond sea (1997) rendered visible the hidden landscape of two diamond mines in Africa; and into the sun (1999) linked the culture of Bollywood to the streets of its birth in Bombay. Since electric earth (1999), an eight-screen installation shown at the Venice Biennale in 1999 and the 2000 Whitney Biennial, Aitken has gradually left behind the specifics of landscape to focus on the characters who inhabit them and the mechanics of viewers’ perception.

Technological progress not only changes the materials and objects we interact with in everyday life; it also alters our notions of speed, space, and time. Aitken amplifies these changes with his work and highlights our constant need for recalibration. The perambulatory nighttime journey in electric earth, set in Los Angeles, presents the sole character as almost mystically in tune with his surroundings, a condition to which the Aitken seems to aspire. “I see my artwork as challenging my way of living, allowing me to move at a constantly changing speed.” Pushing the human body and the mind’s ability to process information to find the moment when “what’s around you fuses with the work you’re making”fascinates him.

Doug Aitken, interiors, 2003

Doug Aitken, interiors, 2003

The peripatetic artist may very well have hit that point with the simultaneous presentation a year ago of three new video installations. new skin was accompanied at 303 Gallery in New York by on (2002), a three-channel work, while interiors (2002) debuted at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia. Whereas new skin eschewed identification with place in favor of outlining the protagonist’s internal monologue, on can be seen as a culmination of the place-specific, non-narrative strand of his artmaking. Both new skin and on are beguiling, but each seems to lack the component that is the strength of the other.

The varied components of Aitken’s visual exploration were only—yet masterfully—tied together by interiors (2002), a three-screen installation that traveled to Austria and London after its stateside debut. In Philadelphia, visitors entered a large room filled by a cross-shaped space delineated by walls made of semitransparent scrims and one open end. Four short videos, each with its own soundtrack, were projected one at a time in varying combinations on the three scrims located at the end of each stem of the “cross.” Each of the four scenarios featured a different character: a helicopter factory employee, a Japanese auctioneer, a young female handball player, and Andre Benjamin of the hip-hop duo Outkast. Each scene begins with a quiet moment of reflection on their immediate environment, situating the activity to come. Then the action takes off: as each character’s activity increases in intensity, the viewer’s eyes bounce back and forth from screen to screen, unable to take it all in. The coordination in tempo and sound of all three visible scenarios gradually becomes apparent as each protagonist reaches a heightened state of concentration. The factory employee sands a painted helicopter before erupting into tap dancing; the auctioneer practices his delivery at increasing speed and volume; the pace of the handball player’s game picks up; and, after wandering L.A. in silence, Andre Benjamin bursts into rap.

Their internal focus is so extreme—a state that is likely paralleled by Aitken working methods in the studio—that all else falls away both on screen and off. Visitors bathe in the glow of images and are surrounded by the rhythmic crescendo of the soundtrack. It is at this moment we undergo Aitken’s fusion of body and environment, glimpsing the fruit of his effort to fuse image with sound and life with work. We come off the high with the characters as Aitken introduces a peaceful coda to each scenario that reintegrates protagonist with surroundings. And the loop begins again.

Aitken notes that after the completion of these video installations, the past twelve months have emphasized “aggressive experimentation. This year has been an attempt to step back, to not make fully resolved work.” Whether that involves tweaking further his masterful understanding of architectural video installations or tackling new mediums, traveling the world or staying at home in L.A., it will seem like a distillation of Aitken’s restless eye and of our current moment.

Aïda Ruilova

Published in the 2004 Whitney Biennial exhibition catalogue.

New York artist Aïda Ruilova creates short format videos inspired by the collage aesthetic of avant-garde cinema and the tensions that horror films elicit. Maximizing the power of both sound and image, Ruilova’s meticulously edited works compress cinema’s narrative conventions to highlight physical and psychic conflicts. Her subjects, often filmed in extreme close-up, seem unable to control their own bodies; some appear to be under attack by the camera while others try to suppress some force yearning to escape from within.

Hey (1999), once appropriately exhibited in a decrepit stairwell of the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens, features a middle-aged woman dangling between a staircase and a floor. The camera views her from behind and, as she looks over her shoulder, her cries—seemingly for help—are interspersed with the amplified scrapes of her fingernails across the banister. You’re Pretty (1999) features a long-haired shirtless man who alternately caresses a guitar amplifier while crooning “you’re pretty” and pushes a vinyl record along the cement floor and rough walls of a dank basement. His aloneness pushes the unreality inward, evoking an amplified space of private psychosis.

Tuning (2002) and two untitled works (2002-2003) can be seen as bookends to Ruilova’s output thus far. Both allow the viewer a peek at the sources of and resources needed for her art by slowing down the rapid-fire pace. The first, a forty-second homage, features static shots of the artist and renowned French horror film director Jean Rollin sitting hand-in-hand in an ornate drawing room. Over repetitive guitar chords, the frame slowly and repeatedly comes into focus, cutting out at the very moment their unsmiling faces are recognizable. The two Untitled works feature a recording session that has been re-animated to create a forced landscape. The first untitled video features a woman draped across the boom arm of a crane supporting a camera. The arm descends into the frame from the right, then rises and falls in concert with a soundtrack composed of strained breathing. The second is set on a rocky cliff of Big Sur; again a woman is seen laying on her side, this time with her back to the camera and reel-to-reel recording device slung over her shoulder. In each, the viewer cannot tell if the inert woman is alive; Ruilova’s signature sense of unease creeps into the frame despite the unthreatening setting.

Ruilova’s works subvert both horror movie and music video clichés, pitting the overplayed drama of one against the rapid-fire editing of the other. The result is a staccato take on the grotesque that simultaneously reveals the anxieties of human nature and the optimism of pure beauty.

Lecia Dole-Recio

Published in the 2004 Whitney Biennial exhibition catalogue.

Lecia Dole-Recio creates variously scaled artworks that can simultaneously be considered paintings, drawings, collages, or wall-based sculptures. Using a wide array of materials including cardboard, paper, tape, a knife, graphite, and glue in addition to paint, her hybrid works employ a language of handmade geometric abstraction to explore material, surface, the picture plane, and color.

Dole-Recio’s use of a knife is key. She begins by taping or pasting together several layers of cardboard, butcher or watercolor paper, or vellum, painting or drawing over the top layer. Then she hand-carves geometric holes into the surface, revealing the various strata and giving her work an optical depth. The cutout circles, squares, and rhomboids—slightly smaller than the holes they came from—are then imperfectly pasted back into the composition and painted over. Many rows of these incisions form loose grids across the surface of Dole-Recio’s artworks.

A vertically oriented untitled work from 2001 has as its base a piece of vellum largely painted dark gray in thin vertical gouache strokes. It is affixed to the wall from its top corners, and the bottom half of the work appears to have fallen away, leaving a jagged edge. Cutout circles, similar to ones fitted into the square “windows” cut out of the vellum at the middle of the composition, appear to have escaped the surface, held aloft just below the work’s main body by transparent packing tape. The artwork appears to be frozen mid-transformation, its skin flaking off and falling to the floor. More recent works complicate Dole-Recio’s process by allowing several patterns or graphic systems to interact in different ways across the composition.

Dole-Recio’s labor-intensive process bridges traditional categories of art making. A sculptural cutout that makes a shadow by pushing away from the surface of one artwork may simply be a drawn or painted representation of a shadow on the next. This element of surprise encourages the viewer to consider each work more fully, examining the blurred line between her forms and the spaces that surround them. Dole-Recio’s visual gamesmanship merges material and process to ensure that her abstract works are not always what they seem.

Cady Noland

Published as “Why We Should Talk About Cady Noland,” a one-off photocopied fanzine, in an edition of 250 copies.

noland_cover

SETTING THE STAGE

Written in 1987 and presented in Atlanta at an academic conference on evil, Cady Noland’s Towards a Metalanguage of Evil outlines in detail the power politics inherent to the relationship between a psychopath and his victim, or ‘mark.’ In fifteen named sections, the disquisition ranges across a variety of references from the television shows Dynasty and Dallas to Hemingway and Hitchcock; from Erving Goffman and Emile Durkheim to Little Red Riding Hood and Antonioni’s Blow-Up. In the process the essay, which veers from academic appraisal of key sociology texts to scenarios that could have been lifted from her life as an artist, delineates the territory in which Noland would work for approximately ten years, before effectively removing herself from the art circuit in the late 1990s.

The essay posits a model of social activity as a vicious game of lies, deception, and coldness, with X, a person who exhibits psychopathic characteristics, and Y, X’s victim, as constants. Despite the site of its initial presentation, the paper refuses to stick to an academic tone and theoretical subject matter. It is a constellation of fragments, each held together by pop- or academic-culture references and anchored in the concept of psychopathology. Yet X and Y are never grounded in real-world examples, and it is therefore tempting to assume that one stands for Cady Noland herself and the other for the celebrity and tabloid cultures she interrogates in her work. But rather than directly insert her into either role, it may be more useful to simply keep the essay in mind while considering her work. Her sculptures and installations can be viewed as a visual corollary to several concepts outlined within the text: several works derive their names from the essay itself.

By issuing a prescriptive manifesto of sorts, it is easy to connect Noland’s art to that of Minimalists such as Donald Judd, Robert Morris, and Robert Smithson, all prolific writers as well as sculptors. Formal connections are also present, from her use of industrial materials to her deployment of increasingly reductive visual forms over the course of her career. But her art refuses the muteness of Minimalist works. Noland’s Minimalism, if it can be called that, is instead rooted in an economy of gesture: each installation is specifically calibrated to produce maximum effect on the viewer; no object is out of place and each contributes to the greater whole; as Robert Nickas has noted, she finds meaning in material and language.[1] (Another key difference is that hers was a finish fetish with its sleeves rolled up; the cold silver steel comes from tough, pre-fabricated objects instead of delicate custom-made forms.) The flooding of minimal forms with associative meaning places her works squarely within the realm explored by the Postminimal generation of American sculptors whose work blossomed in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

These artists, such as Robert Gober, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Mike Kelley, also imbued minimalism with meaning, but theirs was often lyrical or personal. Noland’s life seems resolutely separate from her art: T.S. Eliot’s dictum that “The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates” would likely meet with her approval. Despite presenting less intimate concerns than her peers—this deliberate removal of self from work perhaps prefigures her later attempt to remove her art from the art world—formal links to other artists of the period can be discerned. For example, Noland’s early “Trashed Mailbox” works, collections of pre-fabricated objects (including a mailbox) corralled by a gridded steel basket that looks like an industrial dish rack, parallel works by Felix Gonzalez-Torres in which the artist sold an empty box to a collector and then slowly filled it with personal mementos via mail. At the other end of her career, Noland’s Untitled, 1997-98, a sculpture of a metal pipe standing vertically at the center of a whitewall tire, resonates with Gober’s sculpture of the Virgin Mary pierced by a culvert, the central image of his 1997 installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles. These artists’ gaze often turned inward; Noland’s eye is unblinkingly focused on the oddities and perversities of the outside world.

AN AMERICAN GIRL

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Noland’s art could not be misattributed to an artist living outside the United States: her sculptures and installations—accumulations of metal pipe, geriatric walkers, American flags, police paraphernalia, automobile accessories, chain-link fencing, Budweiser cans, and other industrially-fabricated objects—disclose an obsession with and canny understanding of the seamy underside of lower-middle class white American culture. “Pathology” is a term often used in the discussion of her art, and during this period her eye acted as surgeon or scientist, dissecting the body of American social interaction and extracting the toxins within. At the beginning of her essay, Noland reiterates a theory, attributed to Columbia University professor Ethel Spector Person, that states the activity of a psychopath is similar to socially sanctioned characteristics of entrepreneurial males. Boundaries are only crossed by the psychopath’s amplification of that behavior; likewise Noland’s “curio collection of dramatic ordinariness and casual catastrophies”[2] amplifies meaning. Her art made visible the psychopathology of American culture.

Part of this process occurs through divorcing objects from their natural setting. Noland brings some items in from outside—chain-link fences, gallows, mailboxes, and barbecues—and moves others from the domestic environment to the gallery space. This dissociation heightens the communicative ability of each individual object; each is viewed on its own terms. In Our American Cousin, 1989, the accoutrements of summertime festivities—a grill, Budweiser cans, hamburger buns—seem oddly out of place, an unnaturalness heightened by their juxtaposition with a folding bed frame snapped shut around a car bumper, a pair of handcuffs, and a red, white, and blue USA 1 decorative license plate. The narrative built from each element’s associations, like that offered by Towards a Metalanguage of Evil, is disjointed and open-ended. Our American Cousin mixes genial backyard relaxation with implicit violence; a commercially available patriotism with the decay of the body alluded to by geriatric walkers; the taint of alcoholism with the restraint of police forces; or, most literally, the horror of automobile accidents with the enveloping security of the bedroom.

Around this time Noland also worked with images that wove together American history, pop culture, and violence. She silkscreened book pages—one from a history of the Colt firearms company, another one from an account of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth—and wire service images of Patty Hearst and Lee Harvey Oswald onto aluminum panels. These were either propped up in the center of a gallery space or leaned against its walls. It is somewhat ironic that perhaps the most often reproduced artwork of her oeuvre, Oozewald, 1989, appropriates the infamous image of Lee Harvey Oswald doubling over after being shot by Jack Ruby: the artwork’s popularity perpetuates the image’s infamy. The metal onto which this picture has been silkscreened is also metaphorically shot: Noland has excised several circular “bullet holes” from Oswald’s face, heart, and midsection. In an apposite reminder of where the action, the image, and its appropriation takes place, Oswald oozes not blood but the red of an American flag.

Noland’s repeated use of Patty Hearst imagery parallels another late 1980s use of ‘radical chic’ imagery in contemporary art: Gerhard Richter’s meditation on the Baader-Meinhof gang in the fifteen-painting cycle October 18, 1977. There are several coincidences: Richter created his paintings in 1988 while Noland began her sculptures in 1989; Ulrike Meinhof left a career as a journalist to go underground as an activist/terrorist and Patty Hearst is heiress to the publishing fortune that bears her name. But the key similarity is in both works’ ambiguity: neither Noland nor Richter comment directly on the content of their images, instead relying on the efficacy of what they picture. (When considering their power, it is worth noting that the pictures will long outlive the people in them.) Robert Storr has written that Richter’s paintings “speak from a confusion that more accurately defined the reality of the situation than any view that presupposed an unclouded perspective.”[3] Stated intentions cut off avenues of interpretation, especially when working with culturally loaded imagery. Noland and Richter’s silence regarding their artworks allow a profusion of connotations to blossom. It is also important to remember that Germany’s relationship to the Baader-Meinhof gang is different from America’s relationship to Patty Hearst. As Storr notes, when Richter first exhibited this suite of paintings, German citizens were still making sense of more than a decade’s worth of terrorist attacks; Richter was prodding a wound not yet healed. Response to Noland’s works seems to have been much less conflicted. We have relegated Hearst to a position of historical anomaly as we move on to the actions of other celebrities and outlaws. This transformation is also central to Noland’s practice: she is concerned with both the conditions that give rise to these images and, ultimately, their transience.

APOTHEOSIS UNDERGROUND

The text of Towards a Metalanguage of Evil was re-edited and given three-dimensional form on the occasion of Documenta IX in 1992. Noland’s installation was placed in the underground parking garage at the Friedrichsplatz—site of the Museum Fridericianum, a central Documenta venue—in Kassel, Germany. Here, Noland cast her eye further than with previous installations, incorporating not only discrete objects and appropriated images, but also elements of the site itself and works by other artists. The installation ran along fifty meters of concrete wall between the pedestrian entrance and the vehicular access ramp, and in it

…documentary photographs from newspaper [reports] are mixed up with work by other New York artists and materials lying around for electric systems that still have to be installed. Escape route markings and monochrome canvases, small wall elements between massive concrete supports, barriers and graffiti, markers stuck on the floor next to patches of petrol and oil—boundaries between what is staged and what is already there become blurred. Old traces and newly laid tracks can no longer be clearly distinguished.[4]

The objects are once again unsettled. The empty, overturned, and wrecked passenger van—the first object seen by viewers in a passing car—was set upon a symbolic sculptural base made of wooden pallets. Several blown-up sections of the text—Noland silkscreened the essay onto aluminum panels and included them in the installation—are partially obscured by loosely wrapped transparent plastic sheeting of the kind often used to store artworks. The lamps illuminating the installation brightly light from below part of another car, as if a mechanic was at work. The entire installation seems provisional or still under construction, abandoned or frozen.

Roland Nachtigaller, in the exhibition catalogue, points out the absence of the body amidst this detritus. Indeed, although everything included is in some way man-made, the lack of a living presence speaks to our dissociation from what we have produced. Andy Warhol’s Death and Disaster series, sometimes discussed as a precursor to Cady Noland’s work, succinctly illustrated this schism while allowing it to reside safely in the past. The violence in Towards a Metalanguage of Evil is both past- and future-tense; it has either already been enacted upon the bodies depicted in its imagery or is waiting to be activated by bodies that enter its space. (The entire work was cordoned off by red and white striped caution tape.) The potential for pain is discomfiting and is a product of the openness with which Noland approaches her work.

Noland transcended the specifically American context of her earlier work to present an artwork rooted in time but not place: the installation is characteristic of an image-saturated late modern moment and culturally relevant to an international audience. The violence depicted in this work permeates the air like a fine mist, subtle yet ever-present, mirroring the way contemporary culture is suffused with suffering, destruction, and confusion. Noland’s prowess lies in her ability to artistically arrange everyday reality to highlight that which we might not otherwise want to see.

THE WAY WE LIVE NOW

There is a pendular theory of historical progression which states that each swing from one endpoint to the other occurs in a decreasing amount of time. The conditions that gave rise to the Nixon-era late 1960s and early 1970s mined by Cady Noland’s art were coming back into view while she made her work twenty years later. Now, a dozen years after her installation at Documenta IX, and faced as we are with an unpopular war on foreign soil, Michael Jackson’s pending court battle, and countless other abnormal scenarios, it seems that the pendulum has once again come full swing. (Think also of Unknown Quantity, the widely discussed exhibition Paul Virilio curated recently for the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris.)

Noland has removed herself from the art world but one cannot help but wonder what she makes of the present moment. The last section of her essay is titled “Time Mechanisms: Rushing and Stalling,” and states:

There are times when X sees that the configuration of elements—be they persons, objects, or events, are in a pattern of environment hostile to the development of his program. X has two choices in this case: he may vacate the situation, or he can wait until a shift occurs which makes the environment more adaptable to his plan.[5]

Perhaps she is stalling and will one day choose to exhibit her work. As we move further from the time of its creation and exhibition, and as her influence proliferates among a generation of young artists eager to plumb the underside of contemporary culture, it becomes increasingly important to not let her significant achievement slip from memory.

SOURCES

1. Nickas, Robert. “Cady Noland: Publyck Sculpture,” MONO: Oliver Mosset, Cady Noland. Zurich: migros museum für gegenwartskunst, 1999. Unpaginated.
2. Nachtigäller, Roland. “In the Garage of Meaning,” Towards a Metalanguage of Evil, Edition Cantz, Stuttgart, Germany, 1992. p. 46.
3. Storr, Robert. “Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting,” Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2002. p. 76.
4. Nachtigäller, p. 46.
5. Noland, Cady. “Towards a Metalanguage of Evil,” Towards a Metalanguage of Evil, p. 22.