April 23, 2010

Critical Fragments: Circularity

"Artists 'make meaning' to the extent that they can articulate that same context that provides, and limits, meaning."(1)

Citing his oft-quoted and influential essay from 1969, Art After Philosophy, Joseph Kosuth, in his more recent The Making of Meaning, alludes to his attempt at explaining the tautological foundations of art and entrenched definitions of art as flawed at the very least. Now engaged in his new pursuit that has to do with the “demystification and restoration of meaning,” Kosuth is understandably wiser from both vantage points of chronology and art world success.

Still, we remain unconvinced that the underlying conveyance of that meaning, the structure of language is sound and, like a frustrated carpenter who can't make a joint, we are saddled with doubt. If the conveyance of meaning in art relies on that “discourse” provided through text, speech and writing then are we not back at the same post-structuralist position, like the poor worker who can only blame his tools?

Though Kosuth considers art through the “lense” of epistemology, he realizes that this is contingent upon language; all discourse comes from language. This refers to the “circularity” of art; art transforms content into form as a “language system.”(2)

Possibly mellowing from his earlier rebellions against formalist art (Minimalism, et al.), Kosuth now allows that placing an emphasis on either form or content is “conservative.” Thus, “formalist or ‘art for art’s sake’ conceptions of art are one-sided: in omitting from the practice a consciousness of such mediation the ‘practice’ perpetuates the ‘theory’ (and vice versa).”(3)

This is rich with restorative properties: retrenching conceptualism to considerations of form, i.e., the object, allows artists to once again “make” things. Or at least meld the conceptual (the content) into valid forms. But before you run down to Utrecht for art materials, like the true iconoclast he is Kosuth negates the possibility of a “conclusion” with this:

“On the other hand, the attempt to use art to ‘speak directly’ contains its own paradox; one is always saying something else, that else being the prevailing structure of art, uncritically being replicated. In art one must speak in a circular fashion; that is, through the attempt of understanding the language system itself: in the process of that circularity the art process shows and is affected by its collective character, its historicity, its actual location.”(4)

Image: Cathexis 8 & 9 (1981); © Copyright by Joseph Kosuth.


1. Kosuth, Joseph. The Making of Meaning: Selected Writings and Documentation of Investigations in Art Since 1965, Stuttgart, 1981, 51.
2. Ibid., 57.
3. Op cit.
4. Op cit.

April 16, 2010

Artifice and Approximation

To consider the work of Spencer Finch is to witness an artist relating to the beauty and complexity of the natural world while maintaining an allegiance to contemporary art practices. Finch’s installations involve his approximations of perceived natural phenomena and are simultaneously gorgeous and make-shift. They somehow engage us with equal parts poetry and artifice, sometimes referencing 19th Century notions of representation, or molecular structure, or the tenuous relationship of memory and geography, even as the materials Finch uses to create his installations reveal an artist clearly enamored of process and keenly in love with the quotidian.

Take for example, Sunlight in an Empty Room (Passing Cloud for Emily Dickinson, Amherst, MA, August 28, 2004). In what is arguably his best-known installation, Finch “ostensibly re-creates the exact color of sunlight in Emily Dickinson’s backyard” with 100 fluorescents, blue gel filters, monofilament and clothespins.(1) Without debating the futility of just how one might attempt such an endeavor with mere industrial light fixtures and crumpled blue gels, our comprehension of what Finch is attempting gives one pause: to actually “represent” an atmospheric moment of sunlight as if witnessed through a cloud. Can we appreciate the work as a “subjective approximation” rather than an attempt at representation of that particular color of late August sunlight in 2004, and how does that shift importance to attendant supplements such as the title, wall text or documentation materials? Does Finch seriously expect contemporary art viewers to let down their often cynical yet resolutely skeptical postmodern guard and allow his grab-bag of wrinkled plastic and fluorescent tubes to seduce us with sublime reverie? It’s as if Finch is playing Don Quixote to joust with the “white cube” windmill of a visually-jaded, “seen it all” art world.

At a recent informal discussion with artists, students and faculty at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Finch was relaxed and open to queries about his process and practice, enthusiastically sharing his intentions. Surprisingly, we learned that he began as a ceramicist but later switched to sculpture, working his way through its minimalist and post-minimalist diversity, to come out on the side of process. His current practice revolves around random, natural wonder that inspires both research and mediation as he negotiates his way through the often incredibly detailed processes that he will put these diverse materials through.

That his work bears subtle relationships to earlier forms of conceptualism as well is evidenced in his 2001 piece, Rainbow (Brooklyn). Two black-and-white photographs serve to “document” a rainbow Finch glimpsed briefly from the F Train in Brooklyn. Finch says he “remembered” where he was when he saw the rainbow, then used maps and calculations to locate the “approximate” geographical points of where the “legs” of the phenomena would have touched the ground. The photographs are of those locations: a garage door and a grocery store. The tenuous reference to transcendent beauty that Finch witnessed is far from evident in these bland photos, yet to suggest that Finch would be better served to “represent” a rainbow in a more traditional fashion is tantamount to denying the last 100 years of visual art.

Mark Godfrey has written that Finch respects the “prohibitions around natural representation” in contemporary art by showing that the “pot of gold” lies at garage doors and grocery stores, and that this demonstrates that romance and myth are dead.(2) I disagree with this assessment, instead I find that Finch’s work reflects our futility in reconciling our collective memory of beauty, as embodied in sunlight and once represented in painting, with a learned specificity of time and space – is this not a romanticized quest?

Where Finch really begins to intrigue though is in his installations that build layer upon layer of “reality” combined with memory and our accumulated “knowledge.” In West (Sunset in my Motel Room, Monument Valley, January 26, 2007, 5:36 pm–6:06 pm) he stacks a bank of nine TV monitors running looped stills from John Ford’s The Searchers, turning the monitors to the wall to create an “approximation” of sunset he viewed from his motel room. The selection of a Western refers to dual romanticizations, in both American history and the Hollywood version. Apply the additional sense of sadness that that TV glow can create, the “melancholy feel” of motel occupancy that Finch has said he wanted to “reference” with TV’s, and we have the conflation of these psychological “references.”(3) Whether they disrupt or over-power the seemingly tranquil ambiance of Finch’s representation of remembered motel-room light is a topic for us to further unpack. Does the ability to walk between the wall and the TV monitors, and recognize these dual tropes of Americana and Hollywood, divert our attention from a pure, aesthetic perception of light?

This then remains the ultimate challenge for Spencer Finch. For the viewer to proceed from an initial visual perception of one of Finch’s installations to a deepening, resonant understanding of both his process of research and mediation and its attendant meaning is a difficult journey. During our conversation, Finch briefly touched upon this as a dilemma, that there is information that is not conveyed simply within the visuality of the installations but in fact must be grasped through the attendant documentation of supplemental materials such as press kits, reviews, or wall text.

A perfect example of this is Night Sky, Over the Painted Desert, Arizona, 1/9/04. To produce this work, Finch mixed colors in a parking lot by flashlight to match the color of the sky. Then it really gets fun:

“After weighing the physical mass of each pigment in the mixture (Mars black, cobalt blue, manganese violet, and titanium white), the artist calculated the molecular ratio of each colour in the combination. With 401 incandescent bulbs of varied sizes, each bulb representing a particular atom, the artist created electrified models of each pigment's molecular structure. The proportions of the different types of molecules in the sculpture exactly correspond to those of the original colour mix.”(4)

So what appears as a random, abstract assortment of various sized light-bulbs is in actuality a complex “approximation” of the structural relationship of molecular pigmentation to light. Finch has said that he is “not interested in abstraction” per se, but instead focused “on the actual conventions of representation as a subject itself.”(5)

It is imperative that we understand that this quest Finch is on is not about aestheticized notions of “subjective approximations” of perception but is instead about the recognition of structures both visual and intellectual, that the acquisition of knowledge about this kind of installation art requires both our observational and intellectual skills. Artworks perceived initially as abstract and random can have multiple layers of process and meaning, as evidenced by supplementary texts and press materials, and this information is as essential for the apprehension of its meaning as it is as uniformly relevant to its artifice. This is a reflection on the current atmosphere of contemporary conceptualism and the increasingly complex dichotomy between what is or can be merely visually apprehended and the theoretical component of much contemporary art work that may remain cognitively shrouded. Ultimately, it is the mediation between this conceptually challenging visual administration and the “inadequacies of representational techniques” that artists like Spencer Finch are addressing.

I wish to thank the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Curator of Contemporary Art, Sarah Newman and Sarah Durkee, Vice President of Public Affairs, for inviting me to facilitate the first of their “Artist To Artist” discussion series, of which Spencer Finch was the inaugural guest.

Image: West (Sunset in my Motel Room, Monument Valley, January 26, 2007, 5:36 pm–6:06 pm) (2007), 9-channel synchronized video installation with 9 TV monitors, © Copyright 2007 by Spencer Finch.


1. Ludwin, Victoria. “Spencer Finch: As Much of Noon As I Can Take Between My Finite Eyes,” ArtCritical.com, December, 2004.

2. Godfrey, Mark. “Spencer Finch: Measures and Pleasures,” Parkett, No. 79, 2007, pp. 14-19.

3. www.nyartsmagazine.com.

4. “Gravity Always Wins”, booklet produced for Dundee Contemporary Arts (UK) exhibit in 2008.

5. www.nyartsmagazine.com.

April 10, 2010

Howlings In Favour of Malcolm

Once upon a time, when pop music was bland, boring and ruled by the corporate suits, a gang of scruffy London hooligans emerged on the scene, producing a series of scandalous, hilarious, ultimately tragic vignettes and the world of “rock and roll” was never quite the same. Thursday, their self-described impresario, Malcolm McLaren died of cancer, prompting his former lead vocalist in said scruffians to ask us to remember McLaren as an “entertainer.”

Certainly, McLaren was that and more. When he introduced John Lydon to Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Glen Matlock, put them in ripped shirts and trousers and called them Sex Pistols (his clothing shop at the time was named “SEX”) a good time was guaranteed for all. McLaren probably didn’t count on his young charges actually learning how to play their instruments and “punk rock,” as it came to be known, was more sub-cultural phenomenon in Great Britain than it ever became in the United States. Having to do more with the utter sense of futility and hopelessness of England’s dire economic situation in the early 1970’s, punk erupted as a “do it yourself” rebellion, an alternate life-route for dispossessed English youth with “no hope in hell and no career prospects at all.”(1)

The Pistols are now shrouded in the mist of rock mythology, their music survives essentially encapsulated on a single album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, and a handful of poor quality bootlegs. Their legend survives in film as well, the best of which (The Filth and the Fury) reveals that Lydon actually hated McLaren for years after the Pistols’ demise and was only able to recover some of the money McLaren made off with through turgid litigation. Another film, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, tells McLaren’s side of the tale and purports to be his impresario’s guide to the “con game” that is “pop music” – how to create a “sensation,” milk it for all it’s worth and escape with bags of cash. What intrigues me still was McLaren’s insistence that his “creation” of the band was his “art” and that he had used the young men as his “materials.”

McLaren had been an art student in several colleges before dropping out and opening his clothing store with Vivienne Westwood in 1971.(2) During his tenure in academia, he read Society of the Spectacle and became fascinated with Debord and the Situationists. Debord sought to disrupt the social order, to awaken the somnambulant masses through various acts of absurd or nihilistic provocation. This practice was presented as détournement, social actions to upend the spectacular significations of commodity culture with new meanings in a subversive attack on the “authority of the sign.”

All well and good, but can this truly be done within the articulated world of “pop music.” If the actions of McLaren, Lydon, et al were anything at all they were erected within the architecture of commodity, not as détournement but as alternative “taste.” Punk rock, which had socio-economic potential was eviscerated by the very giant it had hoped to topple, Capitalism. Advantage: Suits.

As has been noted before, détournement is eventually absorbed by society to become just another version of the spectacle. The futility of this endeavor perhaps provided the angst, the rage and the power that emitted from Lydon’s “howlings” and the Pistols’ thunder. McLaren is forgiven then, for his pretence of revolutionary importance, but instead for simply believing that the very basic frisson of young men with guitars and drums can still alter the course of at least “style.”

Image: Cover of Bow Wow Wow album, See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang, Yeah. City All Over! Go Ape Crazy, McLaren’s next project after the Pistols’ ended, a send-up of Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l'herbe featuring then underage lead singer, Annabella Lwin.

1. Attributed to John Lydon in Jon Savage’s England's Dreaming, St. Martin’s, 1992, 108–112.

2. “He attended more than half a dozen art schools. At none of them did things go smoothly. He was expelled from Chiswick Polytechnic, and the Croydon College of Art tried to have him transferred to a mental institution.” From New York Times obituary, April 8, 2010.

April 6, 2010

Kittens Under Pews

Both of these New York Times writers assume that the practitioners of “squeaky-clean, well-made, intellectually decorous takes on that unruly early ’70s mix of Conceptual, Process, Performance, installation and language-based art that is most associated with the label Post-Minimalism” are actually producing valid, well-intentioned expansions of the afore-mentioned. Such is clearly not the case with the shallow, derivative work of Gabriel Orozco, Urs Fischer and Tino Sehgal that Roberta Smith mentions. (Roni Horn gets a “pass” for the moment.) Kitty Kraus and Latifa Echakhch, meanwhile, are recycling ideas from Carl Andre, Richard Serra and Felix Gonzalez-Torres. (I think Lucas Knipscher bears further watching.)

There would be a lot more to complain about if there were a decided curatorial shift toward well-conceived, historically relevant exhibitions of this “Post-Minimalism.” However, those museums charged with privileging the various “takes on that unruly early ’70s mix of Conceptual, Process, Performance, installation and language-based art” have not spent the requisite time to research and seek out actual contributors to this modus operandi which, in any case, I prefer to call postconceptualism.

Image: Lucas Knipscher, The Back Is As Big As The Front [detail], 2010. 4 yards of 100 white 2 x 2 in. Heritage Buffalo Hunting Plaid from Woolrich Fabrics, Woodrich, PA; One-Way/Two-Way Mirror Window Film with Silk Screen of Heritage Buffalo Hunting Plaid 101 1.25 x 1 1.5 in. B; Heritage Buffalo Hunting Plaid 101 White 1.25 x 1.5 in. B Photocopied on Greyback Canvas; Four Texts from Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes (Removed from Four Sheets of Vinyl); Two Photographs from the Seattle Arts Commission Photo Survey by Larry Fink in the Collection of the Smithsonian and the Collection of Woolrich Woolen Mills (WP Lavori and Corso srl, Bologna), dimensions variable.
[Thanks to Andrew Russeth for alerting me to this show.]