Friday, November 4, 2011

Is there a Message in this Medium? Consumer Materials in Contemporary Art

The Canzani Center Gallery at the Columbus College of Art and Design (CCAD) is now, as so often, an excellent  place to slow down and enjoy an encounter with cutting-edge contemporary art. "Supply and Demand," the first show from exhibitions director Michael Goodson, is curated by Lisa Dent, CCAD faculty member and associate curator for contemporary art at the Columbus Museum of Art. The exhibit showcases art that uses mass-produced, consumer materials in a significant way. The work was chosen from outstanding local collections.
Alejandro Almanza Pereda, White Carpet Treatment, 2009. 20x36."
Pizzutti Collection. Courtesy of CCAD.  
Alejandro Almanza Pereda's White Carpet Treatment is an exquisite work composed entirely of incandescent light bulbs, porcelain sockets, and electrical wire. It must be an especially intuitive, associative process that brings Almanza to light bulbs ("Eureka!"), for this little "carpet" shows the unusual qualities of mind and eye required by an artist who faces the almost infinite world of commodities, yet isolates the one particular item that serves his ideas. This is quite a different thought process from shopping through the departments of an art store, with its time-honored arrays of pencils, canvas, and clay.

Even in 2009, the world was embracing the CFLs (compact fluorescent lamps). Incandescent bulbs will soon be entirely off store shelves. Almanza's carpet is made, moreover, not of the bulbs one puts in a lamp, but of round, satin-finish ones used in a make-up mirror, or even on a marquee; they radiate the abundance of light that signals old-fashioned movie-star glamour. This photograph of White Carpet Treatment in a dark room—like a marquee against a night sky—reveals a pattern carved out by disabled bulbs, in this case a traditional, double diamond rug pattern. But as installed in the Canzani Center Gallery, it sits on a concrete floor in a brightly-lit room, and it hovers like a shimmering cloud.

The title, White Carpet Treatment, suggests a couple of locutions, "red carpet treatment" and "white glove treatment." The Red Carpet is where the principals of marquee glamour pose in the spotlight, even though they are shadows of real royalty for whom the red carpet was first unfurled. White glove treatment is the painstaking care with which important people are treated. Almanza's VIP carpet, however attractive, is reduced to symbol only, though: it cannot be walked. It is brittle glitter only, barely big enough to stand on. What a brilliant use he's made of lightbulbs—soon to be as outdated as glamour and royalty?

Jim Hodges, Study for a Brighter Light,2002, 32.5x25" framed. Collection of Dave and
Nancy Gill. Courtesy of CCAD.
Study for a Brighter Light, detail
Study for a Brighter Light by Jim Hodges (2002) mounts a "broken" (carefully cut) mirror on paper in a manner that can suggest either that it's exploding, or that its shards are being pulled back to the center for reintegration. Study is a work that almost eludes the viewer, there is so little to it—it has just enough frame to hold it together, and it's hung on a white wall in a room where the mirrors reflect yet more white wall. But this succinct work challenges the viewer to hunt around for something to see. The effort is rewarded over and over. It's actually bursting with subtle events, from the way the paper's matte finish and the texture serve as a black hole behind the mirror's shining reflections; to the sharp sparkle given off by the cut edges of the glass; to the surprising discovery that the "empty," flat paper in the middle can feel like a light source. I don't think, though, that Hodges was inspired by a mass-produced object when he made this. It feels more like the mirror was a collage material that, in combination with paper, could reveal his subject: light.

Jeff Sonhouse, Meeting at the Crossroads, 2003, 65x75." Pizzuti
Collection. Courtesy of CCAD.

Sonhouse, Meeting at the Crossroads, detail.
Similarly, Jeff Sonhouse's colorful, aggressive double portrait, Meeting at the Crossroads (2003), is an exceptional painting enhanced by the use of burnt book matches to represent the Afro-styled hair of the subjects. Sonhouse takes pains to dress his fashion-conscious conjoined twins in luxury pinstriped suiting and silk ties. One twin wears a match-book fox stole. The clothing is all painted with trompe l'oeil finesse. In fact, it took some discipline not to touch the painting to determine whether the suits were made of paint or collaged cloth.

Since the close, painted imitation of reality is one important element of Sonhouse's painting, the use of real products (obvious pretenders to reality) stands in a different relationship to the whole than in a work like Almanza's light-bulb sculpture. Here the mixed-medium is the message, and would seem to support interest in mixed personalities, mixed identities, and mixed social roles. Does an Afro made of matches mean something "real" and incendiary—"in your face?" Does a trompe l'oeil pocket handkerchief suggest the elusive, inscrutable reality to be guessed at?

In her catalogue essay, "Marginal Cost," Dent tells us, "'Supply and Demand' examines the work of artists who...contemplate the necessity of the things we think we cannot live without. As the economic health of modernized nations has become more and more dependent on the production and distribution of commodities, developed countries have found themselves drowning under the weight of consumer goods. Many visual artists have found this situation as an opportunity to consider the consequences of a global economy and the possibilities for creative outlets."

The works I've mentioned don't do that. Two works by Brazilian artist Vik Muniz do. Muniz has gained fame not only for work like the pieces in this show, but for his film, Wasteland, which documents his efforts to improve conditions for trash-pickers in Rio de Janeiro. 
Vik Muniz, Orestes Pursued by the Furies, 2006, 53x40." Collection of
Chuck and Joyce Shenk. Courtesy of CCAD.
Vik Muniz, Medea about to Kill
her Children,
 2006, 50x40." Collection of
Mary Kidder. Courtesy of CCAD.
Orestes, Pursued by the Furies (After Adolphe Willam Bouguereau, a late 19th-century academic painter) and Medea, about to Kill her Children (after Eugene Delacroix) are both from Muniz's 2006 series, "Pictures of Junk." Seen from a distance, each photograph resembles a muted-palette version of a painting with a dramatic classical subject. Upon approach, the viewer discovers that the "painting" in large-format photograph of a scene described in junk, laid out in enormous space on a warehouse floor. Orestes, Medea, and the other figures are outlined in chains, cables and ropes; shadows are made by more or less dense arrays of washers or nuts; and the higher and lower values, the shapes in the background, are formed of rusted paint cans, engines, bottles, tires, barrels, crates, hardware, ladders, furniture, appliances...anything inorganic and mass-produced that can be thrown out by one party and salvaged by another. With this paraphernalia, Muniz undertakes to reproduce canonical paintings of ancient Greek myths that are known to us through the great tragedies of Aeschylus and Euripides. Centuries of highest culture translated and retranslated from one elite medium to another until it's on the concrete, defined by junk. Culture shock, anyone?
Vik Muniz, Medea...Detail, interior of figure showing use of washers.
"Supply and Demand" is a fairly pristine show. The two Muniz pieces excepted, the rest of the work--even the Sonhouse painting--makes sparing use of materials. Even if they were pulled from the trash heap, the elements of each work have been purposefully selected to invoke ideas. Muniz's work is different because he doesn't use trash as metaphor for something else, and he uses lots of it, indiscriminately. In his photographs, the junk is junk, barely sorted.
Vik Muniz background includes typewriter, propeller, muffler.

Neither Orestes, Pursued by the Furies nor Medea, about to Kill Her Children protests the heaps of junk, however. Where Muniz the man is apparently involved in social action to improve the lives of people who have to survive off trash; and though he does this by making art works like these and selling them, it doesn't add up that the artworks themselves protest the existence of the junk or constitute activism. The piquant point in this work is the contrast between trash and cultural treasure. Depending on where one stands, either junk or the art canon may be deplored; either may be valued. But about recycling, or the excess of abandoned consumer goods, I think there is no political statement in the works themselves.

U.S. first class postage stamps, 2011
Recycling, consumerism, and over-population are pressing social issues, so it's reasonable that they would interest contemporary artists. It's incorrect to assume, however, that discarded and repurposed commodities are the subjects of art they appear in. For many middle-class Americans in the early 21st century, junk of the sort Muniz depicts induces  mixed feelings. There's the guilt and anxiety we feel about our roles in a wealthy and wasteful society. But guilt conflicts with aesthetic tastes formed by the culture's elevation of what is by now called simply Design. We never imagine well-designed goods as part of the junk stream, no matter how many broken plastic Eames chairs or shapely Crate and Barrel Plexiglas canisters are thrown out. We make socio-economic and aesthetic assumptions when we think about trash.

For others, on the other hand, consumerism's cast-offs represent abundance and play. Tinkerers, flea market optimists, antiquers and collectors will take the risks of finding golden needles in the flotsam and jetsam. They believe not in recycling, but in alchemy.

Jean Tinguely, Heureka, at Zurichhorn. Photo by Roland zh.;
licensed under Creative Commons.
The Dadaists exuberantly appropriated anything they could reimagine. The Swiss sculptor, Jean Tinguely (1925-1991) made kinetic sculpture from his enormous collections of industrial parts and equipment. He was a satirist of mass production in fact, but his work is now beloved more for its antic whimsy than for its sly commentary. It's comparable to movie maker Jacques Tati's anti-industrial irony in the figure of M. Hulot. Hulot's humanity is radiant in any generation and circumstance.
Simon Rodia, Nuestro Pueblo, detail,
Photo by Polylerus; licensed under Creative

Along the same lines, outsiders and artists working in folk traditions have always re-purposed consumer goods as art materials. Simon Rodia's Watts Towers (Nuestro Pueblo) are built from found objects secured to armatures of pipes and mortar. They incorporate cast-offs from a pottery factory, bed frames, and soda bottles. Rodia scrounged materials himself; his project attracted found contributions from many interested people.

Bill Miller, JFK Freak Flag,14x20." Courtesy of
the Lindsay Gallery
Contemporary artist Bill Miller works with folk motifs but isn't motivated by necessity to salvage linoleum from buildings facing the wrecking ball. In JFK Freak Flag, old linoleum patterns put images of the 1960s into a context of folkloric "bygone days." Space travel, the Peace Movement, and iconic images of the Viet Nam war are mythologized—both augmented and de-clawed at the same time. The linoleum lends the feel of the '30s or '40s. That aura of a time even farther away, a period of greater simplicity, adds to the poignancy of Miller's work.

Especially in the Third World, discarded consumer goods are recycled into striking, useful items by crafts workers who profit by their sales. These photographs show how of newspapers that are rolled and used to make mats. The coin purse is made of woven candy wrappers. But these charming works, unlike those sponsored by Vik Muniz, fetch $5, not tens of thousands. Why? They are consumer commodities, not art, that singular commodity that few can afford.

When it comes down to activism—doing something about the proliferation of trash—workshop artisans have it over the artists: They are consistently and systematically doing something to reduce the junk heap. They're trying to earn a living, but their occupation is all about the materials. 

Obsolescence; death; waste; greed; abundance; material display: These are all themes for art. Many materials can be used to express them. The connection between materials used and ideas arising from a finished work of art is a result of the artist's skill. It's unlikely that reassigned materials will tell the story by themselves.

"Supply and Demand" is a terrific show. Dent's catalogue is printed as a glossy pamphlet the right size to carry and read—or to ignore—while viewing the show. Refreshingly, there is not a single label in the gallery. Whenever you're ready for discussion, you have a booklet with the thoughts of a deeply informed person who's been reflecting on contemporary art for her whole career: the ideal interlocutor. My disagreements with Dent on some points are a sign of the show's strength and ability to engage. She gives us great work and pitches guiding ideas. The table's set for a smorgasbord; let the viewer step up. 

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