January 31, 2011

Postconceptualism: The Malleable Object

As originally posited in the 1960’s, Conceptual Art focused attention on the idea behind the art object and questioned the traditional role of that object as the conveyer of meaning. Subsequently, those theories cast doubt upon the necessity of materiality itself as conceptual artists "de-materialized" the art object and began to produce time-based and ephemeral artworks. Although total dematerialization never occurred, the art object became flexible – malleable – and that malleability, coupled with semiotics and process, has resulted in the postconceptual object.

The possible dematerialization of the art object was always a threat to its exchange value. Conceptual Art questioned the status of the object as commodity and it was no longer possible to insist that artistic value lies solely within the object. Postconceptual artists elicit inquiry on the ability of an art object to contain any value, including “use value” and “exhibition value,” without the contextual support provided by supplemental texts (essays, lectures, reviews) and institutional validation. The successful postconceptual artist explores and defines use, exhibition and exchange values. The tenuous nature of value attribution through that cultural validation makes it doubtful that cultural values are “guaranteed” to any art object.

Postconceptualism: The Malleable Object explores the work of nine artists who individually extend and expand upon the theories and ideas of Conceptual Art in unique ways. As postconceptual artists, the selected artists approach the art object as the “always already” signifier it never ceased being. Yet they use process to circumvent aesthetics, approach perception through deciphering, reconfigure commodity through intention and convert data into form.

Postconceptual art remains suspicious of the art object as commercial “product” and frequently disrupts this commodification and its static nature. David Williams reconfigures the artifice of commercially manufactured product containers to “transcend the original consumer intent of these materials” and re-envisions their temporary “rubbish” status as a metaphoric re-contextualization through the exhibition context. William Brovelli mocks the historical ideal of paintings as precious, fixed entities through his contractual “interaction between the artist and the collector” that extends the act of painting by prohibiting his object “from permanently settling into a static condition after purchase.”

Postconceptual art trumps “taste” by adherence to process and eliminates subjective judgments by the artist during the making. As Sol Lewitt said, “To work with a plan that is preset is one way of avoiding subjectivity.” Information is conveyed through language and Meg Mitchell shows us that a “non-discriminatory body of data” resulting from her Google search can also yield form. By using erasure as both action and critique, John James Anderson memorializes the interminable “disappearance” of newsprint journalism and newspaper culture as we succumb to ubiquitous digital media.

Intentionality in postconceptualism often benefits from an artist’s procedural transformation of a pre-conceived idea through functional, environmental or intellectual designs. Cat Manolis radically alters modular and environmental design processes to consider our “spatial relationships with the natural world.” Manolis creates a space in which gridded “tiles” merge with architecture to “become a visual/physical/psychological navigation system” that provokes our perceptual experience of space. Diane Blackwell’s screen, The Word, quite literally transforms “the basic elements of language” as both contextual and supplemental support of the art object. Originally conceived as utilitarian “furniture,” Blackwell’s object is “deconstructed” through a definitive metamorphosis as “art” supported by language. Recent work by Ken Weathersby resurrects painting through a negotiation between the intellectual and physical properties of the support. Weathersby subverts the “language of painting” through a three-dimensional manipulation that disrupts our perception by creating a “no-space space.” Reuben Breslar documents his “personal experiences” through multiple medias that ultimately reflect upon art objects as ways to visually interpret our procedural engagement with perception.

My own contribution to this exhibition continues my exploration of participatory art through spectator perceptions. My installation is conceived as both a literal and contextual stage where art is accessed through action and memory. Initiated through performance, the site becomes activated by participation as viewers are invited to decipher language heard moments before as spoken word. The site is time-based, to be continually modified by spectator contribution throughout the exhibit, and temporary. When the site is dismantled its contextualization as art is also “erased” as its physicality evaporates. The perceptual experience of immateriality is realized through art’s transcendence from objects and further evidence of the dominance of concept.

Postconceptualism: The Malleable Object champions the assembled artists, their individual visions and their commitment to the continuation of key theoretical ideas of Conceptual Art. The best of our ideas generate art objects that not only expand upon the transformation of the object within the context of art but also refocus the object’s critical potential within the contemporary art experience.

Postconceptualism: The Malleable Object opens March 10, 2011 at University of Maryland's Stamp Gallery.

Image: Space is Language is Space (detail); wood, urethane; dimensions variable; © Copyright 2011 by Meg Mitchell.

January 8, 2011

Other N-Words

News that a new and politically correct edition of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would be published this year by NewSouth Books has been met generally with derision and condemnation from Twain scholars.(1) The concept seemed suspect from the start. As proposed by Auburn University professor and the NewSouth edition's editor Alan Gribben, the plan is to eliminate Twain's over-abundant use of a certain racial slur, the n-word, and replace it with the slightly less offensive, presumably more humane, and thus imminently more "teachable" word, "slave." Gribben's waffling explanation didn't help much to dispel the disingenuousness of it:

"The n-word possessed, then as now, demeaning implications more vile than almost any insult that can be applied to other racial groups. There is no equivalent slur in the English language. As a result, with every passing decade this affront appears to gain rather than lose its impact. Even at the level of college and graduate school, students are capable of resenting textual encounters with this racial appellative."(2)

Without a doubt, Mark Twain (aka Samuel L. Clemens) used the n-word in Huckleberry Finn because he felt it was the only way to authentically depict the attitudes and mores of the 1840's-era characters in his fictional work. To give his novel the most realistic ambiance of a pre-Civil War America, Clemens had his fictional characters use such words and thereby attached an immediacy and relevance to their actions within their particular epistemic conditions. What is more, Clemens effectively encapsulates both class and generational distinctions by showing how his young protagonists, Huck and Tom Sawyer, and the majority of the "uneducated" adults in both Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, used the n-word but the older narrator carefully avoided the pejorative term and instead uses "colored" or "Negro."(3)

Let me quickly and parenthetically introduce a sidebar on that questionable word's appearance in published works, so as to provoke a discussion on whether or not NewSouth Books should have also elided "Negro" from Huckleberry Finn. That other n-word has fallen in and out of favor over the years, and we can thank the good folks at Google for their new Ngram Viewer (yet another n-word!) to allow us to peruse data on the use of both n-words in print over the last 200 years.

It goes without saying that as a teaching tool Twain's stark rendering of bigotry, hatred and prejudice opens up the potential for productive conversations between students and educators about race relations in the United States, both prior to the Civil War and after. Noted Twain biographer, Ron Power, spoke out passionately about this last week:

"Huckleberry Finn and the use of 'nigger' is the ultimate teachable moment in American literature," Powers says. "It cries out for conversation between teachers and students. It cries out for context."

Instead of being frightened and uncomfortable by Huckleberry Finn and its use of the n-word, teachers should approach this head on. For example, students might be interested in defending how some African-American rap artists use the n-word, and perhaps this would be a way to engage ideas about the social implications of language and its cultural power. The n-word has a deeper connection within African-American culture and is bandied about differently by blacks. What are the issues concerning the perpetuation of a 200-year old racial slur and its subsequent "flattening" through sustained and, dare I say it, loving use by emblematic power "Playas" in urban contemporary music? Will these kinds of conversations ensue over Twain's use of the word "slave" in Huckleberry Finn?

Ironically, Prof. Gribben might be compared to Mark Twain's own perceptions of Huck Finn that was found in one of Twain's notes. Huck was described as having "a sound heart and a deformed conscience" and one might characterize Prof. Gribben in similar terms. Gribben's intent to soften Huckleberry Finn to make it palatable for potential new audiences perhaps reveals "heart" but his mis-recognition of the contextuality of language reflects the often shoddy foresight of those educators who would damn art in pursuit of ideology.


(1)"Indeed, Twain scholar Thomas Wortham, at UCLA, compared Gribben to Thomas Bowdler (who published expurgated versions of Shakespeare for family reading), telling PW that "a book like Professor Gribben has imagined doesn't challenge children [and their teachers] to ask, ‘Why would a child like Huck use such reprehensible language?'"

(2) From An excerpt from the editor's introduction to Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The NewSouth Edition by Dr. Alan Gribben.

(3) It was also troubling that this week in their reading of the Constitution of the United States in the House of Representatives, members skipped those passages that condoned chattel slavery, as if their censorship would deny that slavery ever existed in America.