Sunday, October 28, 2012

Todd Slaughter's "American Primitives:" Art and Argument

Tod Slaughter, Domestic Fortress, 2002. Silicone, polycarbonate,
polyurethane hybrid domestic duck and swan body/beak forms, motor.
11' x 5'6" x 6'6." Author photo.
The boldness of conception; the fecundity and aptness of imaged ideas; the variety of materials; the perfections of fabrication: All these make Todd Slaughter's "American Primitives" a show with unusual visual clarity and impact. The work of the Ohio State University professor will continue at the Canzani Center Gallery of the Columbus College of Art and Design through November 8. It is a show to see, even as a lesson in art installation. It's presented with discerning appreciation for the theatricality of Slaughter's sculptures and installations. The use of the gallery spaces, the wall colors, and lighting entirely support the intensity and strangeness of his work. The whole can be a satisfying, integrated experience of art.
Todd Slaughter, Domestic Fortress,
2002. Author photo.

The gallery-dominating "Domestic Fortress" is a jaw-dropper. It stands alone, a deep blood-red farm complex atop a monumental, slowly rotating cake stand with surface composed of silicone mixed raspberries and blueberries. The farm is guarded by three gargantuan ducks (or swans?) in aggressive poses, with wings unfurled. In spite of the silliness culturally associated with ducks and geese, these have the terrifying presence of mythological scourges—of the basilisk, or chimera. In the dark, spot-lit gallery, the oddness of the scene is secondary even to its creepiness. The slow rotation makes it impossible to elude the monstrous ducks on the unnervingly straight, regular architecture. The buildings are so harmonious that they seem like plastic toys—would they handle like Monopoly hotels if we could lift them? 
Todd Slaughter, Domestic Fortress, 2002.
Author photo.

Why is this rural enclave dished up like a scrumptious dessert in a pastry shop window? The tableau suggests the perfect Linzer torte or chocolate cake with berry sauce, tempting us to salivate and buy. Yet we are driven away from the very desire it is fashioned to create in us by the hostile, hissing farmyard birds.

"Domestic Fortress" measures 11 feet by 5.5 by 6.5 feet: It makes the viewer feel small, for the plate/platform is high and those menacing birds are uncomfortably in one's face as they pass slowly by: They do their job by forcing the viewer to retreat from getting a close look. You can't have this dream. But somebody does: Who inhabits a world on a pedestal? Who claims this American dream for their private property? (And what has it got to do with the title, American Primitives?)
Todd Slaughter, Red Ridinghood
2002. Painted fiberglass and
reconfigured metal hunting stand.
11' x 9' x 9.' Author photo.
"Red Ridinghood Stand" also rises high above the viewer. I simply did not know how to react to this. Rather, I had to sort through an onslaught of competing reactions from amused to horrified—a situation I like to find myself in. 

The red cape is huge, bright, and fixed forever in such a perky drape, with its hem furled and hood jauntily peaked, its bow evenly and brightly tied. It suggests a dreamy, Disney gaiety. By the same token, though, it might suggest stupid, naive confidence, the kind that makes a girl vulnerable, a sitting duck for a predator.
Todd Slaughter, Red Ridinghood Cape, 2002.
Author photo.

But if the cheerful drapery signals simplicity, its situation over a hunting stand is certainly an ironic camouflage. What does it mean to hide the hunter under a girl's cape? To my mind, Slaughter gives us a sick irony, the hunter in the little girl's clothing, the predator assuming the guise of innocence. He reinforces this message with strong design: The flowing triangular shapes in the cape are mirrored by the rigid triangles in the construction of the stand. The stand pushes up into the "little girl" (whose shape would be lost without the structure) and possesses her. I found this work alarming and sinister and fascinating, the more so for having its impact dawn on me slowly: Good work!
Todd Slaughter, Safe Alone,  2002. Cast graphite,
polycarbonate sheet, felt, aluminum, DVD video,
modified wooden chair. 11' x 6' x 5.' Author photo.

"Safe Alone" occupies its own, midnight black gallery. To go in is to remember visits to scary houses of horror: I dare you! The blue-illuminated, translucent structure floats miasma-like about and away from the viewer: You have to walk what feels like a distance into the room to achieve it. The four-square construction is like the toy-house build of the "Domestic Fortress" structures—just a little too realistic.

Upon approach, one finds that there's an entrance to this house on the lower level. There's a chair in there, and I felt no hesitation about occupying it. Something was going on, for there were sounds, like people moving in the non-existent upstairs. Once I entered, I found that the space around me was hollow: I looked up only to the rafters and the translucent roof.
Todd Slaughter, Safe Alone, 2002.
Author photo.

Since Slaughter describes it perfectly in the show's catalogue (to which I'll return), I'll simply quote his description:

"Projected into the interior through the translucent roof is a video of an increasing number of silhouetted visitors pressing together to form a dense crowd on the roof, blotting out the light projected within, while the sounds of the crowd's restlessness become progressively louder. The gallery visitor sits alone within the felt-padded house sheathed with pairs of cast graphite fists until the video culminates in a total blackening out of both the projection and the entire gallery room."
Todd Slaughter, Safe Alone, 2002. Video projection of human forms
onto roof of house, seen from inside. Author photo.

I had a strong physical response to this piece, both as visual art and as theater. My breathing grew short, my muscles tensed in anxiety. The sense of claustrophobia was unnervingly genuine. Why was I so frightened? Who were these looming people? I had all the information to know where I was and the nature of the illusions. Yet Slaughter had created the circumstances in which fear overcame sense, even for a sophisticated viewer in a fine art setting. He certainly connected to the primitive in me.

But here I pause to explain about American Primitive's beautifully printed, full-color catalogue from which I quote, above; it is available for free at the door. The major works in the show are generously illustrated from several points of view; they are described; and for each, Slaughter makes a comment. Furthermore, there are two good essays: the introductory "Bad Blood," by Canzani's Director of Exhibitions and the show's curator, Michael Goodson; and "The Foul Reign of Emerson's 'Self-Reliance," by novelist and essayist, Benjamin Anastas.
Todd Slaughter, Safe Alone, 2002. Video projection of human forms
onto roof of house, seen from inside. Author photo.

It is inevitable that visitors will pick up the catalogue and refer to it (even I who like to "go it alone" couldn't resist the beautiful piece). Finding that it has remarks from Slaughter that "explain" the works makes it a guide that fills in the gap left by the general lack of labels in the show. The only signs are occasional quotations from the Ralph Waldo Emerson essay that Anastas inveighs against, "Self-Reliance." 

The material in this catalogue—either essay independently, Slaughter's comments alone, but certainly the whole package—leaves close to no room for independent viewer experience or assessment of these stunning works. For instance, of "Red Ridinghood Stand," Slaughter's remark is that it is, "a rejection of Red Riding Hood's passivity. It is a pre-emptive strike; she will not be ambushed."

What? Of course, this is what Slaughter means. But for an artist thus to interpret his work for the audience is to encourage passivity in the audience. I bothered to grapple with what I saw, only to reach the opposite conclusion. But with the artist's interpretation in hand, how many viewers will bother to think it through? Slaughter gives an interpretation for each work included, radically undermining the viewer's reason for being there. 

The anxiety to explain the show through the essays feels wrong too, even as stimulating as the essays are in themselves. Goodson explains Slaughter's real-life failure to find natural sanctuary in the Emersonian/Thoreauvian tradition we have all grown up with. Instead, he's found that the get-away to nature offers not comprehensive solitude, but threat from survivalists, paranoid isolationists, and others who have taken the idea of self-reliance to anti-social extremes.
Todd Slaughter, Romance with an American Loner, 2011.
Printed paper and chair. 48" x 60" x 30." Author photo.
Catalogue copy suggests link with story of Eric Rudolph,
 Atlanta Olympic Park bomber and survivalist

Slaughter and Anastas link this threatening contemporary experience of nature to our unthinking reverence for Emerson's famous essay, the specifics of which are belabored by  Anastas. The words in the catalogue fashion t this into a polemical show focused on debunking the pernicious influence of "Self-Reliance."

I wonder why the title of the show neglects the opportunity to signal the relationship that  the printed material insists on between the work and Emersonian thought. But even there, Slaughter doesn't seal the package, for the key word  "primitive" doesn't immediately suggest either self-reliance, individualism, or isolationism.

That the show is visually unified by themes of isolation, self-protection and paranoia is certainly borne out in the work. But that the show is an exposition of the deficiencies in one author's essay (or even in his philosophy as a whole) is forced unnaturally on the art works. The association between Emersonian folly and its consequences in today's survivalist-type movements is thought-provoking and tantalizing; it's a valid underpinning for Slaughter's work. But the artworks themselves have brilliant presence, which is reduced by insistence on a narrowly-described intellectual agenda. Even the expression, "self-reliance" never appears nor is made concrete anywhere in the show.

I like art's ability to be evocative, to complicate an issue, or to open things up. This disembodied focus on "Self-Reliance" is narrowing. Should art be argument about intellectual issues? Sure; why not? Art can be anything. 

What art should not be is unitary. It can't leave the viewer believing that it means This, especially because "the Artist said so." The artist is often the last to know what he or she has wrought and how far its implications extend. An artist concerned to explain work in case visitors "don't get it", may as well be a pamphleteer. Expository statements eliminate any illusion viewers may have that their presence,  attention, or interpretations have any but the most clinical, distant impact on the conversation and importance of art. We go to a gallery to interact with the work of artists, not of professors.

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