Saturday, January 26, 2013

Ephemera and Endurance: Installation by Vivian Hyelim Kim

Vivian Hyelim Kim, Visual Diary, 2013, detail. Installed at Virginia Center for Creative Arts. Author photo.
During my current residency at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, where I've been working on a book, I've been lucky to meet a working installation artist. I've never really understood the practice of ephemeral art—the "why" especially—so I've been delighted to learn from  Vivian Hyelim Kimwhose work has opened my eyes.

Kim's cutting worktable at VCCA.
I had looked at Kim's website and seen pictures of the magical work she's done with paper cut-outs, building installations from shapes she cuts at random from all kinds of paper, then arranges into beautiful fantasies of color, light, and, one feels, breath. In her studio I found traces of that work (she continues to cut, accumulating ever more of her structured shapes in plastic bags; she can never have enough when she needs them for the next project). 

But now Kim's up to something new. Pinned and taped with masking tape to the wall were all manner of weeds and seeds, the detritus and prizes of the forests, fields, and cow meadows that surround VCCA's bucolic campus. Each tiny arrangement of natural materials includes one man-made scrap: a cash-register tape, a tea bag, the folded corner of a page from an old book. The work is three-dimensional, tactile, and above all, ephemeral—doomed to swift decrepitude even as it is in the process of becoming.

Vivian Hyelim Kim, 1.17.13. (lichens and fungus) Installed at VCCA. Author photo.
Kim, who arrived at the colony just before the New Year, considers this work a visual diary, with a visual note marking each day of her stay in Virginia, which lasts through mid-February. She will continue composing her entries from native materials. When she moves on at the end of the month, to colonies in Minnesota and then Wyoming, this installation will be given away, abandoned, or consigned to the compost heap. 

As Kim moves from place to place, traveling westward, eventually to Korea, where her parents live, she is also keeping a daily photographic diary, but one unrelated to this work. Eventually she will compile her photos into a book, a book that records her relationship to the presence of beauty every day of the year.

I readily confess that my instinctive reaction was that this wall of pretty arrangements seemed tentative and slight. Why bother? What could give it significance? But those two questions should always be asked consciously, for they're useless as long as they remain rhetorical. Kim's installation provoked worthwhile insights about the nature of art-making both in the grand scheme, and at this moment of 2013.
Materials for use in installation, in Vivian Hyelim Kim's studio at VCCA;
First: For Kim, traveling unburdened by a large kit of artist's materials, she knows she will have to forage for the central elements of her work. Her studio, then, is not the exclusive realm of art-making, where she remains shut off with her equipment and ideas. She's been gleaning in the wild lands around the colony, looking for interesting materials with possibilities that she cannot always predict (Will it change color? Will it disintegrate?—Will it give her a rash?). 

These naturalizing trips are essentially opportunities for her to go outside and observe the landscape up close. She touches and visually examines matter that she's never seen before, even common leaves or twigs that we rarely pause to focus on. The installation materials are in themselves objects of beauty and wonder that invite her own investments of contemplative time. Though Kim will arrange them into a larger scheme, each element compels her attention as if it were itself an artwork. When she finally places all of them on the wall, each is removed from the nature's visual noise so its beauty and curiosity, now isolated, can be shared. 

I was struck that Kim does not gather materials in order to transform them into something else, as one uses charcoal or clay to make art. These materials are not modified at all, but only by arrangement become the art work. The point is enjoyment of the materials for their own aesthetic qualities.

Vivian Hyelim Kim, 1.18.13, 2013. Installation
at VCCA. Author photo.
Next, the process of collection has become a communal activity. Once her fellow artists and writers learned what she was doing here, Kim began receiving from all quarters gifts of materials that her colleagues thought beautiful, novel, and potentially useful for her piece. Thus, she had transferred the process of looking to everyone around her—the central purpose of the installation was accomplished before the installation could be said to exist in a material way at all. Everyone around her has become involved in examining the details of nature on their daily walks, slowing down to perceive what they had not taken time for before—or actively seeking out curious or exquisite to contribute to Kim's installation. 

I found this community effort beautifully simple, as when elementary school children bring to their teacher items gleaned in a nature walk. Everything is acknowledged as useful and special, as worth of study: in this case, as having the properties of art. Anyone who thinks about the project and then studies a leaf with renewed curiosity becomes part of the artwork, or begins thinking like an artist.

As the work grows more participatory, in what sense, I wondered, did Kim consider it a diary? In writing a diary, most people distinguish one day from another by noting events that stand out, like a birthday, a holiday, or the day on which an unexpected or longed-for event occurs. Nothing in the series so far would seem noteworthy in a way that invite particular memories. Nothing outstanding marks New Year's Day, for example.

Pinecone "blossom" in Kim's VCCA studio, January 2013.
The artist's point, of course, is continuity. Time can be measured in many ways, and one is to be where you are when you are, observing your environment and its beauties. This is not a diary that will recall events, happiness, or disappointment, but that one coexists with beauty every day of the year. The work is contemplative at its core. It is on the one hand grounded in the pleasure of immediacy and in the inevitability of decay. Even as the passage of days extends The physical presence of the artwork, its composite natural materials are dropping seeds and spores, growing brittle, flaking, or decomposing before our eyes. By the end of Kim's six-week residency, the entries of the first week will have slid farther into ruin than when they already were when installed. The palpability of physical failure, of dust-to-dust as an embodied theme, gives significance to this casually taped-up array of straggling weeds and crumbling fungi.

A final noteworthy point about Kim's ephemeral art, is that it avoids many of the expensive impediments to art making that plague young, creative people. The assumption that fine art is durable art is the backbone of a system of endless expense for people who too often have little money to invest in their careers. At the dinner table at VCCA or any art colony, one hears repeatedly about the dilemmas of artists who push their pennies between a room to live in and a studio across town. Add to these the costs of documentation, framing, showing, shipping, and storing work, and it's evident that there are good artists who cannot practice professionally for purely financial reasons.

Vivian Hyelim Kim is a peripatetic artist who travels very light, who thinks about the weight of her luggage and how to avoid airline fees. The power of observation, and her willingness to dissolve into the present are gifts that travel well and for free. 

When I wondered what Kim would consider the "whole" of such an installation as her visual diary, it finally occurred to me that she is the whole. Her own ability to stand in one place and imagine the past and the future in the beauty of the present moment—that is its unity. Dust to dust, beginning and end, yet focused with every thought and sensation in the excellent here.

Materials for use in installation, in Vivian Hyelim Kim's studio at VCCA; 
experimenting with bittersweet as a pigment.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

No Tatting or Whittling: The Renwick's 40th Anniversary Show

Exterior of the Renwick Gallery, Washington, D.C. Photo by Ron Blunt,
courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum.
40 Under 40: Craft Futures is the dramatic show with which the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum is celebrating the fortieth year of its founding. This big exhibition throws elbows, breaks the china, and rattles its chains to demonstrate that things ain't what they used to be in the world of crafts. The Renwick is the Smithsonian's branch for American craft and decorative arts and its Fleur and Charles Bresler Curator, Nicholas R. Bell uses this occasion to assert that this museum is alive to the here and now, not only a repository for historical objects. 

All the work presented has been produced since September 11, 2001. The press release suggests that, "This new work reflects the changed world that exists today...and what it means to live in a state of persistent conflict and unease." The opening text for the show declares that, "Now, more than at any point in the last thirty years, craft is about making a better world. A recharged philosophy for living differently...unites these artists living in the turbulent early years of the twenty-first century." 

From the beginning, I was confused by emphasis on two themes not necessarily related.First is the obvious, "Here are is the generation of young Turks, the future of craft." The other is, "Here's how 9/11 has upset the world of youth producing craft." The show is big, eclectic, and full of energetic, imaginative, and challenging work. The umbrella of post-9/11 anxiety seems awfully small to cover much of it. Better, I think, are questions raised by wall text, which add up to, "What do we mean by craft?" Very few pieces didn't have me thinking, "What's this doing in a craft show at all?" After 40 Under 40, I'll be asking from an expanded idea of craft the next time.

Stephanie Liner, Momentos of a Doomed Construct, 2011.
Upholstery, plywood, fabric, sequins, yarn, embroidery, adhesive,

cardboard. Photo by John Kohler Art Center. Courtesy of the 
Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Stephanie Liner's Momentos of a Doomed Construct  is very evidently not a work that's all about the satisfaction of making furniture nor the achievement of fine craftsmanship. Nevertheless, this globe—or Cinderella's four-windowed pumpkin—is a piece of excellent workmanship. Queen Anne chintz in two colors decorates the interior and exterior, secured with perfectly applied welt and ribbon trim and, inside, with yarn stitching that highlights details of the printed designs. There are four windows and a small door, through which the beautiful maiden may enter and exit.

Isn't she lovely, like a cameo picture? One can look at her from four different angles. She cannot, however, alter her position because the skirt of her dress is part of the interior upholstery, making her literally a part of the furnishing. This piece drips feminine references: Cinderella in her pumpkin, pin cushions—the round sort, and the ones that are dolls whose cushioned skirts take the pricking pins and needles. Yet here the woman sits, objectified, to be gazed at, unable to free herself from her decorative status.

The Momentos works well for being coherent in idea, yet having many points of entrance and of allusion. Its contemporary statement about women is lodged in fairy tale visuals--yet we know that this piece of furniture was in fact hand crafted. Our fantasy about that involves men, who traditionally frame and upholster furnishings, as well as the settings in which women appear. Is this craft? Craft plus, I think: the materials and workmanship are lavishly highlighted, but to the end of a socio-political message. It's a political statement that derives its power from artful understanding and masterful use of craft. 

Sabrina Gschwandtner, HulaHoop, 2010, Smithsonian American Museum of
Art. 16 mm film, polyamide thread.Gift of Chris Rifkin in honor 
of the 40th anniversary of the Renwck Gallery.Photo by Sabrina Gsanwandtner.
Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Is this quilt craft? If it isn't, what is? Does it matter that it's made of 16 mm. film deaccessioned from fashion collections, each frame depicting a garment, a posing model, or another image from the clothing industry? Sabrina Gsanwandtner has presented a handsome traditional quilt, hand stitched, and on the same scale as an Amish quilt—but the "fabric" only refers to fabric. Is this craft, or a work of art and social commentary that uses the forms of craft? Or is it craft as decoration, amplified by witty use of new materials?

Gsandwandtner is among the majority of artists in 40 Under 40 whose resume and exhibition history do not mark her definitively as a craftsperson. She is an art polymath, who turns to the medium that best conveys the thoughts she's thinking and the associations or feelings she wants to communicate. For her, as for many here, the vocabularies, histories, and connotations of crafts are tools in the well-stocked chests of artists who do not produce traditional bodies of work and who show in a variety of settings.

Joey Foster Ellis, China Tree, 2011. Porcelain sauce pots, string,
 LED lights. Courtesy of the artist, photo by Joey Foster Elllis.
Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Similar to Gsandwandtner in his range of enterprise is Joey Foster Ellis, whose China Tree takes craft into performance, or staging at least. Among his other activities, he is a ceramicist who handcrafts production wares. Here he has suspended clusters of Chinese sauce pitchers—plain white, handled vessels larger than an espresso cup but smaller than a standard creamer. These are held together by bags of plastic net and hung as the photograph shows, with lighting, to form an enormous decorative piece, a large focal point the components of which are, ultimately, indifferent. Were this a Chihuly glass sculpture, almost ubiquitous in museums these days, we would marvel over the craft. Here we enjoy the effect and wonder not at all about its craftsmanship: It is a tree of light. Here, the making (of the pots) is secondary to the greater conception. Craft is the means to this end, which, unlike Gsandwandtner's quilt, does not really even represent craft.

Two show-stopping cut-out paper  sculptures by Mia Pearlman have some points of similarity with Ellis's tree of porcelain and light. They are extraordinarily beautiful, and not really subject to interpretation beyond the aesthetic pleasure they give. Their air of spontaneous artfulness is completely engaging, and one marvels at the artist's control over her material. Her paper works are among the most ephemeral work in the show: I doubt that one would purchase such a piece, install it at home, keep it dusted, and expect it not to sag and fade within a year. So though we have seen cut paper for generations, especially as silhouettes, this is something new and the opposite of commemorative (though others are doing similar work as art, not presenting it as craft). Pearlman, like Ellis, works in several media. She is a sculptor above all, fascinated with this set of cloud or atmospheric shapes, which she studies in steel as well as in paper.
Mia Pearlman, ONE, 2012. Paper, india ink, tacks, paper clips. Dimensions vary.
Courtesy of the artist and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Jewelry is an area that has always combined art and craft. The jeweler works within a broad and deep world of significance: the materials, the type of piece (ring, bangle, cufflink), and its drama. Jennifer Crupi's Ornamental Hands, certainly refers to this history of the jeweler's craft  and the cultural significance of adornment. She mixes it, though, with awareness of nineteenth century medical posture aids to produce a silver bracelet that splints the fingers into fixed positions.This photograph of the piece on a model's hand does not correspond to its display in the show, where it is mounted in a box that also contains pictures of feminine hands from Renaissance paintings, the hands all held in the beautiful gesture this ornament forces the wearer into. Straighten up, ladies, and bless us all. 
Jennifer Crupi, Ornamental Hands, Figure One, 2010.
Sterling silver, acrylic, ink jet print on vellum.
15 x 8.5 x 5.5." Courtesy of the artist and the 

Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Several artists in the show are dedicated craftspersons in the deep, traditional sense of knowing and exploring their materials. Matthew Szosz is one of these, a studio glass artist dedicated to finding out what more his material can do. In 40 Under 40 he presents two wonderful sculptures formed by inflation: He blows air into "pillows" of glass, fuses them and stops them up. They rest on their starchy points, seductively plump, reminding me not only of pillows, but of the sweet and prickly nature of fruits, stuffed savories, and sex.

Matthew Szosz, Untitled (inflatable) #43, 2010. Fused and inflated window glass.10 x 20 x 20." Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of
Elmerina and Paul Parkmanin honor of the fiftieth anniversary
 of American Studio Glass.
Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum. 
Stacey Lee Webber, The Craftsman Series:
2011. Pennies. Each, 58 x 10 x 6."
Courtesy of the artist and the Smithsonian
American Art Museum.
Stacey Lee Weber is a metalsmith who, like Szosz, works within the traditions that include both deep knowledge of and exploration with her materials. The two shovels she shows are tall and sturdy looking. It's a surprise to discover that they are fashioned entirely of pennies that she has cut to
purpose. At the base of their installation lie the hollowed out frames of pennies, each lightened by the removal of an interior square—absent its Abraham Lincoln. The shovels would be gathering empty pennies—were it possible to lift such heavy implements. Webber's shovels are workmanly in every possible sense. They are so well made, so solid, that it's possible to neglect the fact that they are composed of thousands of tiny pieces. I emphasize the "man" in "workmanly" too. This piece feels like a paean to those who would wield the shovels, perhaps grown so heavy with the tradition of hard manual work for low pay. There's a unity of message and medium here that I found compelling. It seemed not only well thought out, but deeply felt.

The wall texts in 40 Under 40 make it clear why the show presents the work it does. Whether the work submitted led to the show, or whether Mr. Bell's theories prompted the selection of just this work I do not know. In a statement titled "Understanding the next generation," the note tells us, "The persistent questioning of authority, the celebration of relativism and hybridity, the use of relativism, the prevalence of sampling and the embrace of digital culture are all evidence of postmodernism's influence on this generation." In this show, this is true. But how representative of this generation the show is seems to me open to question.

As the viewer travels admiringly and questioningly through the galleries, the wall notes suggest further thoughts: the crafted object has traditionally been the repository of values, but now some artists ask us to value the process over the object; crafts now employ synthetic and recycled materials, the latter especially in a quest for a more sustainable world. Perhaps most startling is the claim that war is a thread common in the work of all forty artists. "While many in craft employ hand making as a political, even polemical tool against current military policies, the most compelling objects are those objects are offering a more nuanced perspective"— or no perspective on war or politics whatsoever? I wondered if the writer had been to the show. This is an idea that seems entirely imposed on the show.

All in all, I think that 40 Under 40 may be an eccentric show, driven by one person's taste and vision, but ultimately all shows are or should be. I'd like it not to be broadcast as the wave of the future or even what a generation is doing. Some young people have these new concepts, but we have no idea what we're missing, either traditional or avant garde and there are too many hints that the curator's authority is open to question. Moreover, many of the artists in this show do not show regularly in craft settings. Does that mean that artists are pushing the boundaries of craft in the ways generalized, or are curators?

Sebastian Martorana, Impressions, 2008. Marble. 8 x 24 x 18."
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Patricia A. Young in honor of the
fortieth Anniversary of the Renwick Gallery and the thirtieth Anniversary of the
James Renwick Alliance. Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
I'll admit that my favorite work is another one deeply connected to the past, one that  exemplifies master craftsmanship and direct expression of complex emotion. Sebastian Martorana is a stonecutter and stone sculptor whose carved marble pillow is deceptively like one made of down and covered in smoothest cotton. This work is disconcerting for an airiness that comes from the grace of the carving and also from the perfect selection of stone. Not only is the marble light in color, but as one looks into the central declivity, the impression of the head no longer there, its topography has an air of time long since gone about it—time so past it is counted in strata, or the rings on trees.

Marble is the medium in which heroes and great events are commemorated, and it is the stone that fills cemeteries with grave markers and statuary to honor the dead. Martorana's pillow is an understated memorial for his father-in-law, whose head he lifted in death from such a pillow, who is present in the impression he made. The mixture of tenderness, durability, rigor and warmth in this piece touches me for representing qualities attributable to both the mourned and his mourner.

40 Under 40: Craft Futures strikes me as a very young show. Of course it is meant to feature the work of a new generation, but that's not the only thing that "young" can mean. Most of the work is admirable and smart. I could have used more like Martorana's and Webber's that is also wise.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

"Adolph Gottlieb: Sculptor," at the Akron Art Museum

Adolph Gottlieb: Sculptor, installation view, Karl and Bertl Arnstein Galleries,
Courtesy of the Akron Art Museum
Abstract Expressionism was a movement of painters, and Adolph Gottlieb was not the least of them. But I hadn't known that Gottlieb had also turned to sculpture late in his career (during the '60s and '70s) until I saw the handsome show that runs until February 17 at the Akron Art Museum. Organized by the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation, it presents Gottlieb's small sculptures, showing his cardboard maquettes through wooden templates to the finished steel objects composed of flat, painted shapes. The completed pieces are collections of circles, arrows, rectangles, arcs, and "bursts." The simple shapes are those one imagines a child would cut from construction paper. These shapes are well known from his paintings of the same period, but they give the sculptures a special air, suggestive of—but not the same as—the whimsicality of Calder and the brightness of Matisse cut-outs. They feel different from his paintings, in which shapes assume a weight of significance that seems lacking in the steel versions.

Abstract Expressionism notably thought big, and indeed the Gottlieb paintings that accompany these sculptures are reasonably large (Red or Blue, 1972, is 90 x 108 inches; Three Elements, 1964, is 96 x 48 inches). Although Gottlieb produced work for placement in landscape, the bulk of his sculpture was table-top sized. Presented here is work as large as Petaloid's 32.5 x 31.5 x 15 inches, the depth being on account of the base. (Petaloid, 1968 is featured in the foreground, above.) A lovely, chunky and otherwise articulate Untitled (not pictured), which lines up three shapes cut from wood and painted brown, is a mere 8.25 x 9.75 x 3.75 inches. Hardly heroic.

Adolph Gottlieb: Sculptor, installation view, Karl and Bertl Arnstein Galleries, 
Courtesy of the Akron Art Museum. NB, this is reverse view of image above:
Petaloid, 1968 is seen left, from opposite side. Foreground is Untitled, 1968,
appears from opposite end in picture above, in the background, right.
In my review of David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy at the Wexner Center in spring 2012, I noted what had gone without remark, that the celebration of his cubes skipped over the fact that a good deal of his work explores planes rather than three-dimensional shapes. Gottlieb was apparently a friend of Smith's and an admirer: Gottlieb was certainly investigating some spatial questions that intrigued Smith as well, though Smith's flat works are, I think, more challenging. They tend to lead our eyes into negative spaces that continue his positive marks. Gottlieb's sculptures are more truncated in gesture, and I found their beauties to be more centered—more aggregated in the close relationship of positive shapes. Most of the shapes are slotted into flat rectangular bases that not only secure the upright forms, but serve as horizon lines or as definition of a world in which the visual event is collected. The base is, in fact, like a different, more open kind of organizing picture plane.

But of course sculpture's not a painting. The delight of this sheet metal sculpture is that its appearance, content, and significance are protean, shifting with every move the viewer makes. The flat shapes can disappear and reappear like characters in a drama: The eye loses them whenever one's position reduces them to line.

Adolph Gottlieb was born in 1903 and died in 1974. He began his studies at the Art Students' League in New York in 1919; 1968 was the year his retrospective filled both the Whitney and Guggenheim Museums. It was during the preparations for this career retrospective, when he was sixty-five, that he undertook sculpture, gleefully, for the first time, creating the work now seen in Akron.

Gottlieb and Mark Rothko, as part of a 1943 joint statement, said,"We favor simple expression of complex thought...We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth." Both men were "post-painterly" abstract expressionists, whose work was more distant and cool than theatrical. Gottlieb nevertheless considered his work, balanced and cerebral as it was, to be expressive: "I try, through colors, forms, and lines, to express intimate emotions." This thought applied to the sculptures no less than to his painting.

Adolph Gottlieb: Sculptor, installation view, Karl and Bertl Arnstein Galleries, Courtesy of the Akron Art Museum. Foreground, Arabesque, 1968,painted steel,
 26.75 x 38 x 12.25;" Painting, Red vs. Blue, 1972, acrylic on canvas, 90 x 108.
The generous documentation that the Gottlieb Foundation and Akron Art Museum provided as background suggest that the body of work in this show, "challenged the distinction between painting and sculpture," pointing to Gottlieb's continued use of long-perfected painting tools, such as touch, visual balance, and surface quality.

The photographs provided (individual photography was not permitted in this show) highlights the similarities between the design elements of Gottlieb's paintings and sculptures. In the view of Arabesque posed before Red vs. Blue, similarities are quite obvious in mirrored shapes, calligraphic strokes, and simplification of form and color. 

In both the sculpture and the painting, there is a tension between a sense of rest and the possibility of eminent take-off or propulsion—yet they feel very different nonetheless. Gottlieb may "challenge the distinction" between the two forms, but I think this photograph demonstrates that the challenge leaves the distinction standing firmly in place. I further think that it contravenes the notion that the sculptures might convey "intimate emotions" or "reveal truth" in a way comparable to the paintings.
Adolph Gottlieb: Sculptor, installation view, Karl and Bertl Arnstein Galleries, Courtesy of the Akron Art Museum.
 Two Arcs,1968, painted aluminum, 26 1/2 x 37 x 24 3/4." Painting: Three Elements, 1964, oil on linen, 96 x 48."
(Back, left, maquette for Two Arcs, cardboard with pencil notes.)

I think the big difference in what these two media offer Gottlieb lies in the nature of the way positive and negative space are defined by either. In the sculpture, Two Arcs, above, the shapes cut from steel, mounted in a stiff steel base, have crisp, clear edges. Their definition is absolute. The fact that the curves are not geometrically perfect is part of the interest of the piece, but the imperfection, like everything else, is perfectly stated. Likewise, though Gottlieb hand-painted the sculptures himself, I will offer only my word (since no close-up is available) that each painted element is uniformly coated with paint. Despite the occasional dried drip, there appears to have been no impulse to let serendipity have its day, or to attempt effects through variations in paint coverage. The simplicity is based in part on disciplined definition.

Such clear definition is important for this kind of sculpture because its components are visually very light and can disappear with a viewer's movement. The sculptural elements stand on their own, supported only by their inner relationship as seen from any particular angle. Their visual background—the room, the other artworks around it—can detract considerably if the installer is not sensitive to its positional delicacy.

Paintings composed with similar shapes and colors are altogether different because they are framed into permanent environments separated from the rest of the world by the colors and edges of their backgrounds. The backgrounds, in both of the paintings pictured above, contain smaller, colored environments against which shapes are set. So even while we are asked to understand these as "flat forms" and "flat surfaces," we instinctively know they are not. As soon as there is overlapping, we feel dimension. Moreover, on the large canvases, Gottlieb has not coated surfaces in the uniform way he covered his steel cut-outs. It's easier to see (on this scale, especially) in Three Elements than in Red vs. Blue, but layered paint on canvas allows (or begs) for shadows of past color applications and gestures to show through. The definition of the space inhabited by the shapes is largely given: There are four edges they relate to.

In Three Elements, Gottlieb uses edges crisp, fuzzy, and ragged for a variety of purposes: to impart definition to shapes; to invoke dissimilar emotional and intellectual responses in us. This powerful tool—the use of edge—isn't possible, working in sheet-metal. For reasons like this in the nature of materials, the sculptures don't have enough complex or nuanced elements to satisfy like Gottlieb's paintings do.

I'm sorry that I can't include any photographs of the maquettes for the sculptures, however, for these little painted cardboard trials in fact come very close to being comparable to the paintings in emotional effect. Several of these are pictured in the show's catalogue, Adolph Gottlieb: Sculptor, published by the Gottlieb Foundation (ISBN 978-0-9642065-2-6). The maquettes are, to my mind, more eloquent than the finished sculptures because they are so evidently simple, expressive of complex thought and intimate emotions. The cutting of cardboard with scissors doesn't produce exact products. Gottlieb wasn't exact or even decisive in painting them, so we see that painting history the final products lack. Cardboard isn't very strong, so some of the maquettes slump or list in a way that allows the emotion to show in the materials themselves. There is a wish—an aspiration—there is nuance in each maquette that the purity of the final, inflexible steel can't imitate. Those qualities of nuance, breathing room, or open potential exist inside of paint on canvas but around the steel cut-out sculpture. The maquettes, existing in a material world between the two, seem to participate in more of the soft virtues of painting.

I found Adolph Gottlieb: Sculptor to be a delight, especially because of the way the show allows the visitor access to the artist's process, presenting all the working stages of the sculptor's design process, and coordinating examples of Gottlieb's imagery in both media during the period. Good luck for Midwesterners: Akron will have the show until mid-February. After it closes there, it will open again in Ann Arbor this fall. The University of Michigan Museum of Art will have it from September 21, 2013 through January 5, 2014.

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.