May 28, 2014

A Teachable Moment

In about two weeks the open call for submissions of “new readymades” for our “Readymade@100” exhibition will close. Submissions received thus far have run the gamut from highly conceptualized “actions” and constructed assemblage, to definitive commodity objects wrenched from their “shelf life.” We have also received a handful of inquiries on our selection criteria as well as our intentions in mounting a “Centennial Celebration” of Marcel Duchamp’s readymade, as first used in 1914.(1)

My recent research visit to the Norton Simon Museum yielded a bounty of valuable background and information on the museum’s 1963 Duchamp retrospective, “by or of Marcel Duchamp or Rrose Selavy,”(2) that has only reinforced my original intentions for this exhibition: to approach the continued relevance and influence of the readymade as "a teachable moment."

One revelation of our visit to Norton Simon, and our perusal of their Duchamp archive which is actually only a large box of correspondence, photographs and ephemera, was that this ’63 retro was Duchamp’s only American institutional recognition in his lifetime. Moreover, the retro’s opening was attended by West Coast art elites, including Ed Ruscha, Billy Al Bengston, Craig Kaufman, Larry Bell and Dennis Hopper, and even Andy Warhol.(3) This was the show where American artists were fully introduced to Duchamp’s oeuvre, with 114 objects ranging from The Large Glass (1915-1923) to a Fountain replica (1963). Of particular interest to me, and the reason for my own cross-country trip, were the readymades present on that occasion: a total of 13.

The necessity of addressing the legacy of the readymade, as well as determining its "definition" among its many variations, has never been more abundantly clear to me. In my preliminary review of the "new readymades" I have begun to grasp how the collective and continuing understanding of Duchamp's original idea has been respectfully copied, brazenly ignored, but always indelibly transformed by contemporary artists. Thus, I hope to conceive my "Readymade@100" exhibition essay as a pedagogical appraisal of the multiple trajectories this marvelous, contrary and yet liberating concept has taken in the 21st Century.

To that end, let me address two specific comments that were posted on my "Always Alreadymade" essay of April 18:          

First, in answer to the person who requested that I post "samples" of both readymades and "found objects," I shall not be posting examples of readymades or "found objects" on this site. As a curator, this would be tantamount to a prescription of what kind of submissions artists ought to present. At the very least, this would be disastrous to the intention of this show.

Secondly, someone had suggested that my "Always Alreadymade" post evoked a distinction "without a difference" and because "it is an unconscious dynamic that compels the finding of the found object, then, to most disciples of the psychoanalytic, it is an equally unconscious thought that compels the selection of the readymade."
As I wrote in April, "readymades must be found first but let us be clear: it was Marcel Duchamp who definitively established the manufactured, mass-produced, commodity object as a readymade." My intent was to place emphasis on Duchamp's choice of the manufactured as exemplary of the disruption of the mass-produced object's "use" and its transformation through context. Furthermore, the search for a definitive "difference" gets ever more complex when we consider what Duchamp said about his choices:
"A point that I want very much to establish is that the choice of these 'Readymades' was never dictated by aesthetic delectation. The choice was based on a reaction of visual indifference with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste ... in fact a complete anesthesia."(4)
I can only hope that my own selection of "new readymades" for our show will be as well-disciplined and as complete an "anesthesia." As for my "academic niggling," I am guilty, as charged. It is the continuous give-and-take of discourse, and the assertion and counter-assertion of argument, that will compel us to a position of understanding. It is my fervent hope that this exhibition and my curatorial guidance will open a dialogue on the readymade and its various manifestations, whether "authentic," or misguided, but "always already" transformative.   


1. Duchamp first used the word in reference to Bottle Rack (1914).

2. The museum was known then as the Pasadena Art Museum and located at 46 N. Los Robles Avenue in a Chinese-styled mansion.

3. Drohojowska-Philp, Hunter. Rebels in Paradise: The Los Angeles Art Scene and the 1960s, New york, 2011, 10-11. 
4. Duchamp, Marcel. "Apropos of Readymades," talk given at Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 19, 1961. 


May 15, 2014

"The Old Fox"

Marcel Duchamp: a system of paradox in resonance.

The man inspires the highest regard (often the love) of those who know him; the public so often regards his work as anathema. He ranks with the greatest artists of the century without any conscious concern for either greatness or specifically being an artist. None of his peers has produced or exhibited as little as he to achieve such stature. He is "a merchant of wit" who's major works are as complex as any produced in the time. It has been said: Duchamp shows it hard, but in the easiest way. 

The paradox of this characterization resolves in a word (and a pun): an-artist. Being neither "anti" nor "pro" art, he has directly and indirectly further the development of many colleagues and modern art in general, participating in movements without the need to join, warning that art can be "a habit-forming drug," and cautioning that removed from the glare and noise of today's vast art world, vital activities will go on "underground." The gentleman is truly an-artist.

As to Duchamp's achievement ("greatness"), let it be enough to say that in spite of all (and intentions, even) the depth and meaning in his work continues to unfold and seems increasingly pertinent. In his pioneering, particularly that of object art with its marriage of "things" and "linguistic concepts," he has registered an incredible number of "patents." 

Walter Hopps

[Single page document found in Norton Simon Museum archives on MD's 1963 retrospective, by or of Marcel Duchamp or Rrose Selavy; n.d.
Photograph by Julian Wasser;  © Copyright by julian Wasser.

May 4, 2014

"Mayhem" 4/29-5/30/14: Juror Statement

Mayhem – the word conjures so many actions, events, tragedies and catastrophes, and these equally evoke many images in our minds. As a theme for this exhibition at Gallery Underground, I was not certain of what to expect from the artists’ submissions. What I discovered was a wealth of strong visual statements in a variety of mediums that inform us of the multiple understandings of that word. 

It is mayhem that drives the administration of protective services for the public as our first responders attempt to suppress and control random acts of violence and terrorism. Yet the rampant televised media imagery of S.W.A.T. teams and police squads moving into position with bulletproof vests, shields and automatic weaponry do little to dispel our collective apprehension that mayhem cannot be contained. Ernie L. Fournet’s exquisite pen-and-ink acrylic, “Controlled Chaos,” captures both the precision of police forces responding to an unseen “situation” as well as our own anticipatory dread of the outcome. The piercing intensity of the cops’ eyes that we glimpse through their hoods makes it clear a terrible price is to be paid either way.

Mob gatherings, whether to “Rave or Riot,” have the real potential to catapult all those present into instant mayhem. Jessica Mickey’s oil on canvas, illuminated by a single flame, reveals a dark ritual whose inhabitants may be joyful celebrants – or are they bloodthirsty anarchists? The canvas appears to have frozen that moment in time just prior to our resolution of its meaning.

And yet we still optimistically expect our world leaders to craft peace from mayhem and create order from chaos. But Kathy Turner’s kinetic sculpture, “Game of Thrones,” suggests that our world leaders are interchangeable, bobble-head puppets, changing political positions on a whim, and even that “Patriot” whistle-blower is just as guilty for fueling our increasing level of “Big Brother” paranoia.

But at the “End of the Day” it’s just us humans quietly sifting through our frenetic thoughts. Sheila England’s pen-and-ink drawing records one such “day’s end,” her protagonist lost in reverie – or is it anguish? – struggling to make sense of life’s insidious and circuitous questions. Why are we here and what does it all mean? Sometimes our life’s purpose seems to yield only a dead-end, like Bryan Jernigan’s “Internal Dialogue,” an acrylic and bungee cul-de-sac of trussed-up tensions. At other times we may need to mute a troubled past, like Malone Ceppetelli’s “Behind His Eyes,” by layering our memory with color and scrawled text.

One solution to all this mayhem may be art. All the artists that I selected for this exhibit clearly demonstrate that art is both a defense as well as an expression. Art can even use the mayhem as a distraction, like Alex Beck’s nightmarish frenzy of random, drunken couplings in “Passengers on the Wagon,” that provides an exorcism of the continuous sexualized imagery that we’re bombarded with daily.

Contemporary art runs the gamut of all possible expressions by a culturally and ethnically diverse population of artists. Perhaps the constancy of this plurality of styles is simply in response to our times’ mayhem. We have only to gaze upon the distressed features of “Richard,” a powerful portrait by Sarah O'Donoghue, to understand that his face is a visualization of the solitary battle that each of us quietly wages privately within each day. And maybe it is the consistency of our shared struggle that contributes to our humanity in spite of all the mayhem. 

IMAGE: Jessica Mickey: "Rave or Riot" (2013); oil on canvas; 18x24 inches.