May 3, 2009

Malleable Objects

Methodologies and ideas about art-making have progressed remarkably since the early years at the beginning of minimal and conceptual art. With respect to its increased visibility and critically regarded prevalence in our burgeoning global art world, postconceptualism, as I have termed it, is in need of theoretical de-acceleration so that we may assess the various substantive theories behind the objects and practices before the dizzying pace of production and the concomitant media valorization would catapult us into empty spectacularization.(1)

In my gathering of 21st Century practitioners of Postconceptualism, I have attempted a winnowing of key issues and ideas established earlier in conceptual art. The best of these ideas remain potent enough to generate cultural production that not only emulates the original concept but sometimes (perhaps not often enough) extends and magnifies it in ways that truly focus our criticality. All 17 of the artists selected for the exhibit are worthy of note but I wish to quite briefly discuss three who address the object in quite different ways but whose consideration of the object foregrounds the theoretical promise of postconceptualism.

Breht O’Hearn shows such promise not only with a sophisticated understanding of mass as form but in his introduction of the idea that the work might reflect a self-awareness about sculpture’s history. Sculpture was closely wedded to modernist theory in terms of its dismissal of the pedestal to champion the idea of sitelessness.(2) No longer bound to a pedestal, sculpture was freed of its relation to place and began to expand its exploration of abstraction.

O’Hearn’s monolithic object, itself an elegant reference to Carl Andre’s early totems, engages a subdued critique of pedestal angst through actual destruction. The prized verticality, the solidity of the upright beam, is marred by obsessive drilling to produce a wound approximately two feet off the floor. One would think the resultant loss of mass would collapse the beam yet it remains impossibly erect.

O’Heran’s skillful attack pokes fun at the nagging theoretical distinctions between Modernist sculpture that first abolished the pedestal (site) and later sculpture that would occupy specific sites. Ironically, the removal of wood from the beam creates a kind of pedestal itself through the separation provided by the removal of mass, and provides our talking points: a symbolic attack upon sculpture itself literalizes the distinctions of place and object, and the residual sawdust reads as the resultant discursivity about sites and sculpture, which temptingly threatens to (again) bury the pedestal issue.

In her refined sutured table, Amber Landis does much more than blur the divisions between the art object and furniture. Current fascination with “art as design” have produced a number of purveyors yet the obvious theoretical challenges of this melding reside in its reception in the critical arena. The championing of Jorge Pardo’s lamps, preceded by earlier critical support of Franz West’s “post-sculptural” objects, opened the gates for the current practitioners of hip, fine art furniture. The jury is still out whether much of these makers are “artists.”

There is more at stake in Landis’s table. “Making” versus “taking” becomes a contested issue in her work as her table in fact was not made by her but was appropriated from the many in production. We might mention Duchamp when speaking about Landis’s act of shifting this object from “use” to “exhibition” value through the context of an art show. However, she additionally applied parchment paper to all surfaces of the table (top, drawer and legs) and obsessively stitched every edge with surgical sutures. In and of itself, this is a clever association of craft with function, but decorative functionality is also not her ultimate focus.

There is a point at which these associations of furniture, craft, functionality, art and object become lost amid a psychology of the object. The imprint of the quotidian form of “table” is remarkably strong and a viewer of this object tends to read it well before gaining a closer proximity to the piece. There we see the evidence of the artist’s hand upon the appropriated object and we get this revelation accompanied by its frisson of shocking recognition. This play with furniture as psychological object has a renowned history within conceptual art but is seldom deployed with such strength. The vulgarity of the urinal has been replaced by the subtlety of Landis’s sutured objects. As assisted readymades they continue the tradition with great respect and potential.

Although his work might be regarded as “painting,” Ken Weathersby also addresses missed theoretical opportunities inherent in object-making. The most unyielding of his works, “164”, indeed revels in its enhancement of painting's objecthood, composed as it is of two small stretched canvasses turned face-to-face. With the work's larger canvas facing out from the wall and its smaller companion canvas facing in, we view what Weathersby calls “the disregarded space”(3) of the reverse of the smaller painting. Obviously a space we are unfamiliar with, the reverse side gives us little visual information, forcing us to consider the painting as an object that is constructed of wood and canvas. Weathersby does partially expose the obverse of the larger painting upon which we note a tightly-rendered checkerboard patterning. This immediately addresses the visual methodology of painting and strikes up the conversation between the work's two theoretical positions: painting as illusion versus painting as object.

As explored fully by Frank Stella in his earlier black stripe paintings, the idea was that a painting could assert its status as object through the actions of the brushwork. Weathersby revisits these theories of “painting as object” through an act that is at once more sculptural and more conceptual. Viewing the possible actions a “painter” might take as “terms in a lexicon,” he rejects certain elements of the lexicon that focus our attention on their reduction. Here Weathersby has chosen to “eliminate a term that seems central” - surface - to focus our attention on its reduction as a malleable condition of painting. We know that paintings are objects, obviously, but what has perhaps not been substantively unpacked is to what degree the theoretical appreciation of a painting's objecthood has yet to be unearthed.

Images (top to bottom):
“Untitled” (2009); wood and sawdust; © Copyright by Breht O'Hearn
“Untitled” (2009); table, paper and sutures; © Copyright by Amber Landis
“164” (2009); acrylic and graphite on canvas; © Copyright by Ken Weathersby


1. “The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual excess produced by mass-media technologies. It is a worldview that has actually been materialized, a view of a world that has become objective.” - Guy Debord.

2. Carson, Juli. “1989” in Theory in Contemporary Art since 1985, Oxford, 2005, 334. [“…an inherent sitelessness, one that in the hands of Brancusi, for example, made claims to being functionally placeless and self-referential, as base and sculpture were subsumed into a single transportable form.”]

3. All quotes from Ken Weathersby taken from a Jan. 26, 2009 statement.

1 comment:

Artoni Wells said...

I don't really have time to think about this re: huge test tomorrow at Harvard, but I like your comments about the acceleration of art progress.

Perhaps there's some self-reference problem here? Because the more art is coming to exist, the less is seen which means that less is truly existing. The tension between these concepts is killing me… kind of like my test!

Best wishes,
Artoni Wells Harvard '11