September 25, 2014

"3rd Order Readymades" (Part 4)

Conceptually combined commodity objects, 3rd Order works comprise nearly a third of the exhibit, and I take this as a positive sign in the transitional development of the humble readymade in the 21st century. The combination of commodity objects, itself a remnant of the Surrealist theory of juxtaposition, can awaken subliminal meanings in the viewer, infusing the objects with reverie, apprehension or humor.

Individually, the 3rd Order artists bring varying skill-sets to the game: some couple a walker with ab-cruncher (Renee Regan), or Toast electronic devices (John Cairns). Others use their titles as punch-lines; Anne Mourier mounts a pair of domed plate covers on doilies to recall My First Bra and M. L. Van Nice’s dried fruit in a box suggests that it’s Altogether Too Late for the Pratfall. Chee Wang Ng offers 108 Global Rice Bowls in the exhibit’s only video, featuring a harmonic succession of differing white bowls, each heaped with rice and accompanied by a single chime. Adrienne Moumin puts her Baby Shoes in Cage; Michael Hyman makes Pop Art with a crushed Coke can and a pristine Pepsi badge; and Alex Mayer installs a double-threaded screw in the business end of a pencil and screws the pencil into the gallery wall.

Two 3rd Order artists stand out in particular. Ruth Lozner demonstrates her respect for the readymade’s legacy in Autumn Landscape Somewhere, a piece that honors the “rectified” idea of using existent artworks to comment on art, like L.H.O.O.Q. Her brilliance lies in how she adds a “paint-by-numbers” template to partially mask her “Picture Craft Oil Painting” readymade’s stale fawns-in-nature cliché, setting up a subversive play between subject and object.

Travis Childers’ Stapleshirt displays his understanding of the visual power of juxtaposition, and also his obsessive adherence to repetition. A work of intellectual rigor and dexterous athleticism, this shirt is both homage to, as well as critique of, punk fashion and design. Further still, his readymade is a symbolic nod to two heroic Conceptual Art projects in the decades since Duchamp — On Kawara’s date paintings and Roman Opalka’s Infinity series — where both artists conceived Herculean tasks to devotionally pursue.


IMAGE: Travis Childers, Staple Shirt, 2012; white shirt, staples, gel medium; 23x32 inches; © Copyright by Travis Childers; photo by MCB.

GALLERY TALK: Join curator, Mark Cameron Boyd, for his talk about Readymade@100 this Saturday, 9/27, 4:00 - 5:00 pm; info & directions here.

September 19, 2014

"2nd Order Readymades" (Part 3)

These objects are presented with an “assist” or additional intervention by the artist. Some Duchampian scholars designate further categories of readymades “aided” or “rectified” but I view all three types as 2nd Order. Duchamp’s “assisted” readys are Bicycle Wheel and With Hidden Noise, while his “rectifieds” include Pharmacy and L.H.O.O.Q. Whether “assisted” or “rectified,” these works have minimal interventions that maintain the inherent object’s characteristic.

Benjamin Kelley’s untitled piece, easily recognizable as a bisected auto body, reflects the artist’s view of how quickly art moves “between the relic and modernity.”(1) The speed at which today’s “modern design” is fossilized by advances in technology is simply conveyed in Kelley’s precise bisection of a 1971 Chrysler Newport, its partially exhumed body transforming the museum into a reliquary. Adam Farcus’s unassuming flashlight bears the weight and mystery of its title, We go to bed, but we don’t sleep too hard, coupled with its unassuming placement on the gallery floor that disguises the fact that it’s “on” and suggests poetic resonance for us.

Another view of the “unique relationship between the ancient and the contemporary” is Persian Spring by Eric Parnes, a “squat toilet” with the signature of “R. Mutt” in Farsi, referencing the anonymous signature Duchamp inscribed on Fountain. Parnes explores what he calls “Neo-Orientalism™” – a term that the artist has trademarked – and proposes that today’s “delineations between the East and West are increasingly blurred, with the cardinal points both exporting and interpreting their respective societies.”(2) Thus, his adaptation and “transliteration” of Duchamp’s urinal melds conceptualism’s global thrust with a rejection of cultural racism.

Rex Weil’s object exhibits a delightful degree of irony and wit as he references both critical theory and Duchamp’s infamous defacement of the Mona Lisa postcard. His Readymade Readymade (double L.H.O.O.Q.) is a pair of L.H.O.O.Q. posters that he purchased on-line and then “re-defaced the defaced image.” Weil’s work engages the issue of originality via this “copy-of-a-copy,” while also reminding us that avant-garde art can be inevitably absorbed back into commodity status through the Spectacle’s practice of “recuperation.”(3)

The majority of 2nd order readys in Readymade@100 evolve with a simple “assist” from the artist. With reliable validation from the tried and true pedestal context, Frank Fishburne’s God mounts a motorcycle fork wrench to a base, Gary Orlinsky mounts a hand-turned Crank, Robert Braczyk mounts a Pike Pole Head, while Alexander Ney’s Intertwined wraps tangled LAN cable around a shaft. Other “assists” are more complex: Cody Arnall bolts two shovels together, a clever reference that mirrors Duchamp’s snow shovel; Chris Chernow’s balloons are popped, stretched, and nailed to the gallery wall; and Rodolphe Delaunay’s Delay props multi-colored candles in a corner, each one burnt down 8 minutes, 19 seconds—the amount of time it takes for the light of our sun to reach earth.

One mind-bending example of how far an artist can take the “assist” can be found in Jeanette May’s archival pigment print of a Fox, an off-the-shelf plush toy, discarded or dropped by its “owner.” Such an object’s absence from our physical site becomes ritually transfixed within May’s photo-limbo narrative, and its supposed plight is further enhanced by our anthropomorphic tendencies to provide this fox an identity as well as a “story.”


Top: Jeanette May, Morbidity & Mortality: Fox, 2013, archival pigment print, 24x36 inches; photo courtesy of the artist; © Copyright by Jeanette May.
Bottom: James Cole, Bidet, 2014, prefabricated plastic water gun, 18x6x5 inches; photo by MCB; © Copyright by James Cole. 


1. Quote from undated statement by Benjamin Kelley.

2. Quote from undated statement by Eric Parnes.

3. “Recuperation is the process in which subversive ideas and images are commodified and incorporated into the capitalist machine/mainstream society/ruling discourse. This is problematic in that it allows radical ideas and images to become commodified and therefore carry no subversive power. This relationship is exemplified especially with propaganda as well as with famous avant-garde artworks and their current mediation (think Duchamp). The spectacle’s power of recuperation remains something artists who are looking to challenge society will have a constant battle with.” Quote from Madison Killo; “The Spectacle’s Play With The Subversive;” March 27, 2012;    

September 13, 2014

"1st Order Readymades" (Part 2)

An object, usually singular, that is virtually an “off the shelf,” commodity item that is designated as art by the artist within the context of an institutionalized display; Duchamp’s Bottle Rack, Fountain and Trap (a coat-rack) are prime examples.(1) These unaltered or “pure objects” display the closest conceptual rigor and allegiance to Duchamp’s invention.

At first glance, Three standard lossages, an “osteological specimen” by Ana María Gómez López, suggests a moderate takeaway on the readymade’s power of contextualization. However, these “bones” are 3D printout replicas that have a “potential for commercial circulation, as their accompanying .obj files can be made rapidly available on fabrication websites.”(2) Gómez López riffs on Duchamp’s Three Standard Stoppages, a work of chance placement of string, to underline her idea that an individual’s bones rendered universal through commodification are re-contextualized (again) as an “art object.”

Such 1st Order readymades as Olga Alexander’s McCall’s block & lot #4620 (a jacket pattern), Larry Lairson’s Untitled (pole) and Angela Smalls’ Silver Raindrops, a pile of hex-head bolts, negate the essence of an object’s privileged usefulness via the artists’ choices and our institutional validation. Simultaneously, these objects both are and aren’t “art.”

Many of the 1st Order readymades rely on titles to maximize their frisson. Andrew Simmons unnerves us with his title proclaiming that a razorblade holds the Cure for Human Suffering, while Bill Conger promises that the wearer of his sunglasses will have the Deepest Darkest view. On a lighter note, it may be a stretch to connect Joseph Orzal’s Picasso, baby t-shirt to Reaganomics but we can easily envision Kristin Richards’ framing nail strips laid edge-to-edge on the floor as a Rug.


IMAGE: Detail of Rug 001 by Kristin Richards; 31,876 framing nails; 8x12 feet; photograph by the artist; © Copyright 2014. 

UPDATE: Michael O'Sullivan's Art Review at WAPO.

1. Duchamp wrote titles and/or signed some of these but most scholars do not view these inscriptions as alterations. In “The Unfindable Readymade,” art historian Hector Obalk says Duchamp gave us only 10 “pure objects” as readymades;

2. Quote from undated statement by Ana María Gómez López.

September 6, 2014

Curatorial Essay for "Readymade@100" (Part 1)

It is hard to name a more polarizing event in 20th century art history than Marcel Duchamp’s selection of mass-produced, commodity items and their re-contextualization as art objects. 

Clearly, Duchamp’s theoretical positioning of commercially manufactured things as “art objects” has continued to provoke controversy and to influence subsequent generations of artists. His act of “choice” has become the exemplar of an art practice that would birth Conceptual Art as an art theory stressing the idea as paramount over the form an object may take. Duchamp himself may have foreseen the potential impact of his invention when he said: “I’m not at all sure that the concept of the readymade isn’t the most important single idea to come out of my work.”(1)

Duchamp had lost interest in painting by 1912, partly from disappointment at the reception given to his Nude Descending a Staircase and partly because so-called advanced painting of that era, in its emulation and admiration of scientific or optical theories of color, had continued to reinforce the existing aesthetic canon that Duchamp would come to dismiss as “retinal art.”

Ironically, Duchamp’s decision to mount a bicycle wheel atop a stool was perhaps related to his fascination with movement, as he described watching that wheel turn was like “looking at the flames dancing in a fireplace.”(2) By the time Duchamp arrived in America in 1915, and discovered the English word readymade that described machine-made clothing, he retroactively tagged two of his most memorable commodity object choices, Bottle Rack and In Advance of the Broken Arm (the snow shovel), as readymades. Duchamp now understood that simply through his intellectual selection of these industrial forms he was given a means of “substitution of the handmade by the already manufactured.”(3)

To address the legacy of the readymade, as well as attempt a determination of its evolving “definitions” in current art practice, are the chief curatorial goals for this exhibit. Thus, Readymade@100, a Centennial Celebration of Duchamp’s invention, included an “open call” exhibition opportunity for contemporary artists to submit “new readymades” that would honor his concept and/or significantly expand upon the readymade concept.

In early reviews of artists’ submissions, I began to grasp how the collective and continued understanding of Duchamp’s idea was sometimes respectfully copied and just as often brazenly ignored, but frequently indelibly transformed by contemporary artists. It became abundantly clear to me that our Readymade@100 exhibition, far from being mere homage to “The Old Fox,”(4) may also provide us an opportunity for an appraisal of the multiple trajectories this marvelous, contrary and liberating concept has taken into the 21st century.

My curatorial vision was to maintain an emphatic reverence for Duchamp’s selection of the unaltered, manufactured object as encompassing both a disruption of the object’s function and its concomitant transformation through its new context as art. Further, and on this point most scholars agree, Duchamp was first to designate unaltered, manufactured objects as art and to present these commodity objects as his readymades. Thus, he distinguishes his choice as the conceptual act of “making art” from existing mass-produced objects and this distinction separates Duchamp’s readymades from works that were created from “found objects” and then further modified and/or altered by artists.

In curating the submissions for Readymade@100, I applied strict criteria for acceptance based on what I perceive as Duchamp’s original vision. Moreover, this required respect for a century’s worth of academic and scholarly research on the subject. Before discussing my curatorial selections, I want to clarify my elimination of assemblage from the exhibit. Assemblage is “made from natural or man-made objects, is labor-intensive, sculptural and an additive process to develop form. As such, it is far from the essence of a readymade, even though it is sometimes constructed of found objects,”(5) because the result becomes one’s aesthetic composition that drifts away from Duchamp’s conceptual act of choosing a commodity object. Thus, the essence of Duchamp’s anti-aesthetics, this “anesthesia” of taste in his readymade act, is that “the abandonment of craft constitutes the craft.”(6)

But let Duchamp speak for himself as he strictly adjudicates all paintings as assemblage: “Since the tubes of paint used by the artist are manufactured and readymade products, we must conclude that all the paintings in the world are ‘readymades aided’ and also works of assemblage.”(7)


IMAGE: Illustration by unknown artist that appeared in a Parisian newspaper on the 65th Anniversary of the readymade; English translation of the caption reads, Marcel Duchamp buying at the Bazar of the Hotel de Ville one of the objects he brought to New York in 1915 and called Readymades. (Reproduction courtesy of Lila Snow.) 

1. Tomkins, Calvin. Duchamp: A Biography; New York: Museum of Modern Art Edition; 2014; p. 155.

2. Schwartz, Arturo. The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp; New York: Delano Greenidge; 2000; p. 588.

3. Alkhas, Anita. “Heidegger in Plain Sight: ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’ and Marcel Duchamp;” Journal of Philosophy: A Cross-Disciplinary Inquiry; Vol. 5: No. 12; Spring 2010; p. 5.

4. Walter Hopps’ characterization of Duchamp in letter dated August 20, 1963 to Frederic S. Wight, then chair of UCLA Art Department; original in Norton Simon Museum Archives, Pasadena, CA.

6. De Duve, Thierry. “The Readymade and Abstraction” in Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp’s Passage from Painting to the Readymade; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press; 1991; p. 158.

7. Duchamp, Marcel. “Apropos of Readymades” in Salt Seller: The Essential Writings of Marcel Duchamp; (Michel Sanouillet, Elmer Peterson: eds.); New York: Oxford University Press; 1973; 142.