Thursday, January 3, 2013

There's Something Strange About "Simulacrum"

By simulacrum one can mean a simple representation: Mme. Tussaud's Wax Museum, for instance, presents simulacra of famous individuals. But a simulacrum can also be an inadequate or slight copy: "He said their house was a palace, but it was a mere simulacrum of anything palatial."
Tony Matelli, The Idiot, 2011.
Stainless steel, paint; 11 x 8 x 20." Courtesy of Leo Koenig, Inc.,
New York. Author photograph.

I loved the current show called Simulacrum at the Canzani Center Gallery of Columbus College of Art and Design. It's a big show with nothing that fails to grab the eye and intellect. In fact, that's its special delight—that all the ideas here are not merely illustrated by the physical objects: the objects embody the ideas. Of every work, the viewer has to ask in what sense this is a simulacrum, and of what original? Is there only one copy here? What does this work reflect or resist about the original or the world the original occupies? "No ideas but in things," William Carlos Williams wrote, and this show is the next step out from that idea. Then why copy a thing? Why even make the simulacrum? Who wants it?

At the show's entrance is this wonderful, provocative opener, Tony Matelli's The Idiot. It's a simulacrum of what, exactly? Certainly it's a perfect painted, stainless steel representation of an opened Coors beer container. But into that box has been ripped, or blasted—as if by a rifle at close range, when someone ran out of beer bottles to shoot?—three holes in the configuration of a face, with two eyes above a mouth. So the imitation box is itself a crude simulacrum of a face. At Halloween when I was child, a box or paper bag with holes served as a mask; so it's a simulacrum of a disguise or anonymity too. But the crudeness of the face, the rough punches, the indifference of the language (since the box is oriented on its side)—all this plus the mounting of the piece by itself like a hunting trophy on the white wall, certainly suggest that The Idiot is in fact named for its original. And maybe this is a simulacrum more significant than its original, a beer-swilling, aggressive, inarticulate man with a gun, a hunter taking trophies—or simulacra thereof.

Lee Stoetzel, Small Meal #2, 2007, detail (one of three elements).
Cypress, mahogany, hickory, and zebrawood. Dimensions
variable (under 6"). Courtesy of the artist and Mixed Greens,
New York. Author photograph.
Lee Stoetzel's Small Meal #2  has three parts, a cold drink cup with straw, a burger box, and this french fry cup, all obviously modeled on a McDonald's meal. On the one hand, unlabeled, they look like a design engineer's models, reminding us that considerable marketing art goes into the presentation of the most common and ephemeral material aspects of our world.  But on the other hand, these make us think too of timeless Harry Winston jewelry, when common everyday items—a shoe, an insect, a chair—can be the basis for a jewel-encrusted clasp, brooch, or hair ornament. Stoetzel's rendering with minute accuracy in precious woods—mahogany and zebrawood among them—mass-market burger and fries elevates the lazy and trashy to the precious dazzling. We take a deeper look, even if our notice begins in a joke. Is the simulacrum of McDonald's fries the simulacrum of Schiaparelli-like fashion whimsy?
Robert Gober, Bag of Doughnuts,
1989. Polyester resin, paper,
11 x 5 x 3.5," Private collection, NY
Robert Gober, Bag of Doughnuts, 1989. Interior.

Robert Gober also offers a simulacrum of food, but to a very different effect. His Bag of Doughnuts appears to be just that, in size and materials. The paper bag is a paper bag just the right size, and looking in, there are those fried cake donuts, yum yum. Gober has chosen to make his real white paper bag look as if it were just that by drawing in pencil the trademark "Union Camp" and the assurance, "Made in America." The treats inside, once their authenticity is called into question by Gober's have made the bag less authentic, plummet from appearing goodies we'd still like to dunk in coffee, to the repellent, dense, indigestible matter that they are. Gober's interest in materials seems focused on the subject of food itself, on the comparison between doughnuts as a dainty and as something that is barely food at all. There's a fine line, perhaps, between food and what we accept as edible.

Chris Bradley, Grease Face #3, 2012. Steel, aluminum, cast bronze, plastic strapping,
spray paint,oil paint, colored pencil. 24.25 x 22 x 2.5." Courtesy of
Shane Campbell Gallery, Chicago.

Simulacrum includes three empty, greasy pizza boxes doodled on in seeming idleness by Chris Bradley. All this is in a manner of speaking, of course, for this box isn't made of cardboard and grease, though the tacks are tacks. Bradley's work is the perfect replica of an empty pizza box, on which he has lavished materials and cunning to create realistic illusion. This (and its neighboring boxes) impressed me with awareness of the ignored lulls in life that may take up more time than the experiences we insist on attaching significance to. Bradley's torn "cardboard" edge resembles the result of restless fingers with no more pizza to pick up, which then resort to shredding its box. If the viewer reaches toward that edge, though, its chillingly clear that it's nothing like cardboard at all, but more akin to razor wire that could send you bleeding to the hospital with a mistaken move of the arm. It's lethal. The points of the corners are like edge tools. The face, idly made from the grease spots left after the good stuff is gone, feels sinister in its blankness—as if it refuses to be eradicated just because bellies are full. Life goes on after the meal is eaten, and there is considerable interest in that apparent idleness. We sit and play with the trash; we talk as our minds wander to our constant preoccupations, and our restlessness reveals what we don't discuss. What comes after the pizza party? Rubbish? Our genuine feeling and expression that preexist and linger after the pie has been ordered and swiftly consumed? The box looks back at us empty and blank much longer than it wasn full. Bradley's simulacrum represents a box; it represents our time and streams of consciousness.

Chris Hanson and Hendrika Sonnenberg,
Chandelier, 2006. Polystyrene, hot glue, painted
steel armature. 86 x 86 x 58." Collection of the
Artists Pension Trust, New York
The 2006 Chandelier by Chris Hanson and Hendrika Sonnenberg adds yet another twist to the idea of a simulacrum. Fashioned to make us think first of the extravagant swags and dangling crystals of  Rococo illumination, the artists undermine the larger design not only with industrial materials but by replacing candelabras with microphones. The swags are in fact dripping electrical lines that will hook the microphones to recording equipment. The "chandelier," rather than shedding light, bugs the room, spying on anyone within its monitoring range. This work not so much represents a chandelier as the obvious lies we gradually grow to accept. Have we grown so accepting of privacy invasion that we no longer recognize the concept? If imitation or representation are at the heart of Chandelier, it is with a sinister irony.

TAYLOR McKIMENS, Truck, 2005. Oil and acrylic paint on cardboard and paper,
98  x 54  x 48 inches. Collection Neuberger Museum of Art.
While the Hanson-Sonnenberg chandelier stretches the idea of "simulacrum" almost into the realm of synesthesia by laying "oversight" on top of "illumination," the Truck Taylor McKimens constructs pushes us even harder. Yes, it's a light cardboard simulacrum of a pickup truck, that emblem of rugged manhood advertised by images of tough working men with ripped muscles, driving through godforsaken places to get motors to the turbines or hay to the heifers. McKimens' pastel truck is a clunker with broken windows; tangles of unattached wires; a domestic potted plant where the monstrous payload should be, and "Sorry" across the bumper where we're expecting to see "Semper Fi." It is a satire, a pathetic pick-up in girly colors.

A cardboard truck is a simulacrum of a tough-guy steel truck, just as a beat-up truck is a faint imitation of a real, big, shiny pick-up. But the essence of this wonderful work is that its essential point is the premise of this and every art show: that to be making art at all is to be dealing in Plato's cave of shadowy copies. The most lively thing about McKimens' work is that it is so conspicuously drawn. The artist took up paper and paints—the traditional materials of drawing—and "made a truck." It's folded, to boot, but essentially it's the sort of thing little children do very young; it reflects that very simple impulse to record on paper the thing that's out there and to make it one's own. Certainly any representational art, and even art that claims to record emotional or psychological experience abstractly, explores the idea of simulacra.This and McKimens' other pieces in this show—including a drawn cardboard television, turned on—seem to me to make this point with a beautiful, innocent poignancy. His work lacks the edge, the satire, and irony that most of the show is premised on. By making art at all, one makes comparisons: It's not even a matter of attitude.

How much more basic can one get than drawing a simulacrum of a truck? It does seem to me that Mary Temple takes it one heady step further in her imitation of light and shadow.

MARY TEMPLE, Light Fragment, 2010. Acrylic paint on sheetrock,
acrylic gel, 
stain and urethane on hardwood. 30 x 36  inches. Courtesy of the artist and Mixed Greens, NY

Temple's delightfully named Light Fragment is surely one of the most convincing illusions in the show, and comes as a surprising lift amidst the mechanical, man-made, and trashy.  Many of the artists collected here deal with issues of comparative inherent and socially constructed value; with physical and psychological scale; with reconsiderations of beauty in the constructed, everyday world. Temple, like McKimens, draws what she sees, but brings a natural subject inside—where it, too, is an everyday occurrence. Any attempt to represent light is a simulacrum, but it also incorporates the subject itself. Painting and drawing are rooted in light and its properties. So, whether she imitates the fall of shadows through a window to create a simulacrum of shadows, or whether she uses her knowledge of light's properties to create a beguiling scene is either a fine question of philosophy—or it is utterly indifferent. What a satisfying work on the face of it.

Simulacrum is a much larger show than this review can begin to reflect. It closes on January 11; I recommend starting now to see its marvels. Curator Michael Goodson's achievement above all, I think, is in having chosen a topic that works in so many ways. The show is funny and thought-provoking. To anyone who maintains either casually or deeply their own inner conversation about what art may be, this show will heat up that discussion.

No comments:

Post a Comment