November 29, 2007

Neo Flux



“The formalist project in geometry is discredited. It no longer seems possible to explore form as form (in the shape of geometry), as it did to the Constructivists and Neo-Plasticists, nor to empty geometric form of its signifying function, as the Minimalists proposed. To some extent, the viability of these formalist ideas has simply atrophied with time. They have also been distorted and bent to conform to the bourgeois idealism of generations of academically-minded geometric classicists. But the crisis besetting geometric art for the last two decades can also be viewed as characteristic of the crises that have beset formalisms of all kinds in the postwar era: those that precipitated the transition from literary formalism to structuralism and from structuralism to the post-structuralist re-examinations that have taken place in the work of such figures as Barthes and Foucault . . . the crisis of geometry is a crisis of the signified. It no longer seems possible to accept geometric form as either transcendental order, detached signifier, or as the basic gestalt of visual perception (as did Arnheim). We are launched instead into a structuralist search for the veiled signifieds that the geometric sign may yield.”(1)

One could not find a better post-structuralist champion of geometric form than Peter Halley. In 1984, with appropriation in full swing and chants of “painting is dead” in the air, Halley published his essay “The Crisis in Geometry” in Arts Magazine and attempted a vital resuscitation of abstract painting. He denied the Formalist mantra of “geometry’s neutrality” and Minimalism’s achievement of an “intellectual neutrality,”(2) and the results, including Halley’s own paintings, were dubbed Neo-Geo. Whether he revived our interest in form or geometry as a “search for the veiled signifieds” will have to stand a further test of time. Meanwhile, we can quibble with his casual dismissal of Minimalism with regard to geometric form and its intellectual neutrality.

Halley proposed that a “reinterpretation” of geometric form (inspired by his readings of Foucault and Baudrillard) require us to reconsider the “curious claim” of the Minimalists that “geometry constituted neutral form.”(3) Halley’s view is that the “crisis in geometry” begins with Minimal artists positioning their work as intellectually “neutral.” However, Foucault notwithstanding, at this point in his essay Halley drops his line of reasoning on Minimalism’s putative “intellectual neutrality” and proceeds to link Minimalism’s use of industrial production techniques to the capitalist agenda. Before we get to that, a closer reading of Halley’s words might help us to understand his interpretation of Minimalism’s “intellectual neutrality.”

The Minimalists were far from being intellectually neutral. In fact, they were exceedingly intellectual, some would even say, “to a fault.” Arnheim’s Art and Visual Perception was no doubt on their bookshelves, as were Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception and Ehrenzweig’s The Hidden Order of Art. The Minimalists’ ravenous interest in outside fields of knowledge fueled their thought and their work, paving further explorations by future artists using theories and methodologies outside the limited purvey of visuality.

The Minimalists presented their objects as a visual and psychological experience that began with the perception of the object’s (geometric) form. Inspired by theories such as Arnheim’s, they used essential forms, i.e., the cube, to effectively convey the gestalt (the wholeness) of the object and its structure in totality. This opened up the visual experience of the object to additional “theatrical” readings (4) within the context of the site and necessitated a more rigorous perceptual and intellectual experience for the viewer.(5)

Halley’s characterization of Minimalism as flawed theory couched in “rhetoric” must be read as a non sequitur because in his next two sentences he discounts the “conscious intents [sic] of its creators” and says that Minimalism’s use of industrial fabrication constitutes an ideology: “Minimalism first ideologically linked geometry to the material production of contemporary industry by employing industrial materials and finishes without endorsing them (as the Bauhaus did).”(6)

We can probably accept that Donald Judd’s use of sub-contracted fabricators to make his sculptures demonstrates Judd’s acquiescence to the “material production” of industry. Thus, the ideology of material production and the capitalist order become Halley’s “veiled signifieds” coded within Judd’s plywood, sheet metal and Plexiglas boxes. However, it is well-known that Judd (and Andre, Flavin and Morris) adored industrial materials – is their adulation not an endorsement?

There is not enough time to fuss properly with Halley’s other paragraphs but perhaps one more glaring citation taken out of context should be noted. In discussing the “circularity” of the sign, Halley quotes some Baudrillard (“ . . . a simulacrum, never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference”) yet neglects the full context of that quoted passage:

“Thus perhaps at stake has always been the murderous capacity of images, murderers of the real, murderers of their own model as the Byzantine icons could murder the divine identity. To this murderous capacity is opposed the dialectical capacity of representations as a visible and intelligible mediation of the Real. All of Western faith and good faith was engaged in this wager on representation: that a sign could refer to the depth of meaning, that a sign could exchange for meaning and that something could guarantee this exchange - God, of course. But what if God himself can be simulated, that is to say, reduced to the signs which attest his existence? Then the whole system becomes weightless, it is no longer anything but a gigantic simulacrum - not unreal, but a simulacrum, never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference.”(7)

Knowing that Baudrillard invoked the Supreme Being in his dissection of the “capacity of representations,” Halley’s conception of the sign as “characteristic of meaning in contemporary society” becomes somewhat incomprehensible.(8) Is Halley proposing that one of the “veiled signifieds” of geometric form might include the ultimate transcendental signified?

All quite intellectually taxing, of course, but we might find some closure by returning to Arnheim in one of his last interviews (at the ripe old age of 97):

“The essence of an image is its ability to convey meaning through sensory experience. Signs and language are established conceptual modifiers; they are the outer shells of actual meaning. We have to realize that perception organizes the forms that it receives as optical projections in the eye. Without form an image cannot carry a visual message into consciousness. Thus it is the organized forms that deliver the visual concept that makes an image legible, not conventionally established signs.”(9)

In this statement by possibly the most influential theorist for Minimalism may be a rebuttal to Halley’s critique of geometric form. It bears repeating: “It is the organized forms that deliver the visual concept that makes an image legible.” That is, the legibility (or meaning) of an object proceeds first from its elemental form perceived through our senses. Granted, our legibility may be conditioned by our knowledge of extraneous text, for example, Halley’s own essays about his painting in relation to art history. However, the object (image, sign or photograph) maintains its fundamental essence (or gestalt) based on its denotative form. This may be ignored, superseded or exaggerated through the “circularity” of meanings based on the supplemental knowledge we ascribe to the object but the primary signified of a geometric form exists independently of any connotative meaning we might attribute to it. Red bars do not a prison make.


Image: Red Bars (2007) © Copyright by Peter Halley.

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1. Halley, Peter. "The Crisis in Geometry," Arts Magazine, New York, Vol. 58, No. 10, June 1984.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Minimalist Theater, September 28, 2006.

5. For more on the post-sculptural, see Rosalind Krauss’ “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” in Postmodern Culture, London, 1985, pp. 31-42.

6. Op. cit.

7. Baudrillard, Jean. "The Evil Demon of Images and the Precession of Simulacra" in Postmodernism: A Reader, New York, 1993, 194.

8. Op. cit.

9. Grundmann, Uta. "The Intelligence of Vision: An Interview with Rudolf Arnheim", Cabinet Magazine, Issue 2, Spring 2001.

November 15, 2007

Beware the Supplement

Administrator's note: Due to pressing matters requiring urgent attention I am republishing this post from November 2006.

Much of contemporary art needs the supplement of theory to be approached, yet often a particular critical reading of an artist is rendered inaccurate by its theoretical position. Singaporean essayist Lee Weng Choy questions the privileging of “only one reading” of an artist’s work and suggests that it is the contradictions in artwork that “make it possible to speak to the work critically in the first place.”(1) I propose that even contradictions within a misguided critique of an artist can open the possibility of a different reading under close scrutiny. If we are to expand the discourse on contemporary art theory, we must question previously held yet problematic beliefs, always at the ready to re-write art history with supplemental critiques based on more stringent or diverse critical perspectives, especially points of view that counteract accepted and published critical positions.

For instance, one accepted critical perception on the performance art of Paul McCarthy has to do with the desublimation of masculinity and this will serve to demonstrate the inherent weakness within theoretical supplements that function as a validated art historic assessment but may possess misrepresentations that have not been fully explored.

According to this exemplary theory, McCarthy’s effort “to expose that which patriarchal culture represses in order to reverse the sublimatory effects of civilization” has resulted in performances of orgiastic frenzy with the artist simulating castration, sexual abuse, menstruation and childbirth.(2) Using Freud’s psychoanalytic theories, including castration anxiety, this position maintains that McCarthy “desublimates masculinity” by “reversing the processes of sublimation and repression.”(3)

While this critical position certainly exhibits scholarly research, there is the simple contradiction of McCarthy’s performances, which manifest an insistent and embodied phallocracy. In actuality, McCarthy’s work does not “reverse” sublimation as much as reinforce the patriarchal hierarchy, investing his stereotypically abject actions with an aggressive sexuality that supports male dominance over women. One might find it additionally disturbing and contradictory that McCarthy’s putative desublimation of masculinity has been couched within feminist frameworks, i.e., masculinity as “fundamentally dependent on that which it must exclude.”(4)

Judith Butler has argued that “gender is a cultural meaning that is ascribed to human bodies” and “does not derive naturally from the biological sex of the individual.”(5) However, McCarthy’s performances are wholly dependent upon the biological sex of his body (male) and the workable frisson his transgender “play” provokes. In Sailor’s Meat (1975), McCarthy wears a wig (female) while engaging in intercourse with a pile of meat; in Bossy Burger (1991), he plays chef (woman’s work?) while fornicating with various holes and doors in the set; in Heidi (1992), McCarthy plays Grandfather and penetrates a knothole while voyeuristically spying on Heidi (incest?). All of these acts are staged within the parameters of masculine biological function, based on gender identification defined by genitalia. McCarthy does not desublimate the “prohibitory apparatus of culture”(6); he denies it as a workable definition of gender, preferring instead to rely on the semiotics of essentialist difference. This kind of contradiction in a critique of an artist absolutely requires our attentiveness to the nuances within the supplemental discourse.

McCarthy’s work obviously begs for a thorough reading, possibly based on the “frustration experienced under the phallocentric order,”(7) yet it is not only male artists who have been misrepresented in the theoretical supplements. The paintings of Marilyn Minter have been viewed for some time as recalling “Jacques Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage, in which our identities are built around the desire to attain the whole and unified body we saw in the mirror as infants.”(8) True, Minter’s paintings do typically depict fragmented feminine form as body parts (feet in high-heels, toothy-mouths biting pearl necklaces) but this would seem to recast the erotic object of film theory as a static and fragmented fetish, rather than propose a longing for a unified perfection of form. Any functional display of women in a fragmented, objectified image can also be interpreted as the furtherance of the phallocentric “symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies[sp] and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.”(9)


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1. Lee Weng Choy, Authenticity, Reflexivity, and Spectacle in Theory in Contemporary Art since 1985, Z. Kocur and S. Leung, (eds.), Oxford, 2005, 251.

2. Amelia Jones, "Paul McCarthy’s Inside Out Body and the Desublimation of Masculinity" in Paul McCarthy [exhibition catalog of Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art], New York, 2000, 126.

3. Ibid., 127-128.

4. Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex, New York, 1993, 51-52.

5. David Macey, Dictionary of Critical Theory, London, 2000, 52.

6. Jones: 128.

7. Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema", originally published in Screen 16:3, Autumn 1975, 7.

8. Joshua Shirkey, New Work: Marilyn Minter [exhibition brochure of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art], 2005.

9. Mulvey: 7.

November 9, 2007

(In)Appropriate Behavior


If the process of appropriation has its roots in history, its narrative here will begin with the readymade, which represents its first conceptualized manifestation, considered in relation to the history of art. When Duchamp exhibits a manufactured object (a bottle rack, a urinal, a snow shovel) as a work of the mind, he shifts the problematic of the “creative process,” emphasizing the artist’s gaze brought to bear on an object instead of manual skill. He asserts that the act of choosing is enough to establish the artistic process, just as the act of fabricating, painting, or sculpting does: to give a new idea to an object is already production. Duchamp thereby completes the definition of the term creation: to create is to insert an object into a new scenario, to consider it a character in a narrative.(1)

Thus, Nicolas Bourriaud joins the growing legions of critics who continue to solidify Duchamp’s impact on art, especially conceptual art, nearly 100 years after his first readymades appeared. Bourriaud also neatly unpacks a key theoretical component of appropriation: the insertion of an object into a new scenario “relocates” both the object and its context. It is this equivalence of “choosing” and “fabricating” that echoes an idea put forth by Walter Benjamin, that artistic skill was “incidental” to the “exhibition value” of art objects.(2) Benjamin becomes even more relevant when we consider photography in relation to appropriation but first let us look at the artistic practice of Richard Pettibone and Sturtevant (“those eternal copyists”).

The more obsessive of the two painters is Pettibone. His miniscule copies of iconic artworks by Brancusi, Duchamp, Ellsworth Kelly, Barnett Newman, Ed Ruscha, Frank Stella and Warhol are meticulous beyond belief, often painted at the “exact size of their reproductions in Artforum.”(3) If we were to critique the appropriationist as a throw-back to the older tradition of developing one’s skill as a painter through “copying” the iconic artworks of the masters, then we might judge Pettibone guilty as charged. Yet the scale of his copies ought to at least introduce the possibility that his real concern might be the original “site” of the reproductions within the pages of the art magazine. As an institution, the art magazine provides authentication through reproduction, as if to say, “This is art because we reproduced it and reviewed it.” We might also speculate upon possible connections between Pettibone’s magazine-scaled images with Dan Graham’s exploration of “site” in his photo-text piece, Homes for America, of 1965. Particularly with regard to Graham’s institutional critique of art magazines and their association to reproduction, as “the work shown in galleries depends on photographic reproduction for its value in the media.”(4)

The recalcitrant Sturtevant is a “tougher” nut to crack. Exasperatingly, she denies that she “appropriates” the work of others: “The brutal truth of the work is that it is not copying.”(5) This could clearly be read as defensive, perhaps even evasive. Truly, if Sturtevant’s work is “an apparent content being denied”(6) then its essence should be a disavowal of originality and authenticity. However, making or, more accurately, “taking” an existing artwork and calling it your own does not negate the original artist’s work. If she is evincing her work as a denial of authenticity in general, it is difficult to recognize in the face of her obsessive attention to details within the individual “copies.” We might suspend our disbelief in the face of clever theorizing, however, Sturtevant’s smoke-screen becomes even more cloying when she describes her own obsessive craftsmanship:

“Photographs are not taken and catalogues used only to check size and scale. The work is done predominantly from memory, using the same techniques [as the artists in question], making the same errors and thus coming out in the same place.”(7)

Hard to believe? It is intriguing that Sturtevant introduces the catalogue as a reference point “to check,” and yet she emphasizes her “memory” of the appropriated image as to how the work is “done.” Again, like Pettibone, this is misrecognition of the originary power of appropriation as proposed by Duchamp, and mistakenly revalues the “hand of the artist” as the qualifier of “what makes good art.”

Returning to photography and Benjamin’s thoughts on “mechanical reproduction,” we can see that the mechanics of reproduction virtually guarantee a loss of that mystical “aura” that inhabits an original artwork. Continued repetition of an image through the process of photography eventually “empties” an image of meaning and makes photography the ideal vehicle for appropriation, as Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince and Louise Lawler have discovered. Photography’s establishment of a false “presence” through reproduction clearly reinforces photography’s preference as the “medium” of choice for artists who intend to investigate the “absence” of originality in either artworks or art itself.


Image: Four Jackies (After Warhol), © Copyright by Richard Pettibone.

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1. Bourriaud, Nicolas. Postproduction: Culture as Screenplay, New York, 2000, 19

2. Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations, New York, 1969, 225.

3. Princenthal, Nancy. “Look Again: Surveying Richard Pettibone,” Art in America, March 2006, 135.

4. Graham, Dan. “My Works for Magazine Pages: A History of Conceptual Art,” Dan Graham, Perth, 1985, 13.

5. Princenthal, Nancy. “The Other Truth,” Art in America, December 2005, 103.

6. Blistene, Bernard. “Label Elaine,” The Brutal Truth, Frankfurt, 2004, 37.

7. Hainley, Bruce. “Erase and Rewind,” Frieze 53, June-August 2000, 85.

November 2, 2007

Dolls Without Nipples


Unlike previous female “body artists” (Carolee Schneemann, Ana Mendieta, Hannah Wilke), Vanessa Beecroft does not use her own body in her art but prefers using other female bodies for her work. Since 1993, Beecroft has presented various self-initialed and numbered tableau as “performances.” These notably involve nude or near-nude models and feature accessorized fashion. Furthermore, the models’ “actions” are controlled by Beecroft’s “orders,” i.e., “do not move; do not talk, do not interact with the audience.” There are a number of ways to begin a discussion of Beecroft’s work but the emphasized components of nude femininity coupled with fragmentary and fetisihized fashion might raise one particular question: do some female artists re-enforce male objectification of women’s bodies through their sexualized imagery?

In many of Beecroft’s performances the models wear high-fashion clothing such as the Gucci bikinis in VB35. This was intensely juxtaposed with a few completely naked models, all of whom stood for hours in the Guggenheim’s rotunda. Beecroft’s blatant exploitation of the nudity clearly suggested that jaded viewing was required by museum visitors, both male and female alike.

Feminist theorists influenced by psychoanalysis have defined “the gaze” as active (male) and passive (female). As a simple binary, this theory has a definite structure that supports male-dominance. The words of Laura Mulvey may as well be describing one of Beecroft’s performances in this excerpt:

“The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to striptease, from Zeigfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire.”(1)

If we “read” Beecroft through Mulvey’s theories of “the gaze” then Beecroft’s use of “erotic spectacle” perhaps becomes clearer and her re-affirmation of those male and female roles is evident: her “exhibitionist” models are passive objects presented for the controlling and objectifying “male gaze.”

This is far from being a subtle use of nudity, however, as one reviewer noted that Beecroft's fetishized fashion might have a suspicious intent:

“Beecroft treats her girls rather like pillars, requiring them to stand at attention for the long pointless hours of any one of her exhibitions. And although the girls may be spared the discomfort of a pediment on their heads, really Beecroft just redistributes the weight, since the girls are required to wear high heels. This has the effect of minimizing the area of surface contact between the model and the ground, literally reducing the plane of the foot to two points (a toe and a heel), thus making it more difficult for a girl to support her own bodyweight.”(2)

It must be stressed that Beecroft did not invent the high-heel shoe yet she conspires to use its hideous design to virtually cripple her females. Undoubtedly, if a male artist had presented the same tableau he would have been charged with cruelty to women. Yet Beecroft has been given a “pass” on her use of high-fashion heels on bikini-clad or nude women.

We should also note that the feminine archetype Beecroft prefers is the incessant high-fashion vision of “perfection.” Beecroft's models are extreme ectomorphs – tall and thin with long limbs – who represent a body type virtually unobtainable for most women. It might be argued that Beecroft’s adulation of this privileged archetypal female body was empowering to women but we cannot ignore its authentication of female erotic objects for male “phantasy.”

Dominance through image or control is at the root of Beecroft’s work. It is no accident that in her early tableau the models were arrayed in a phalanx like soldiers ready for the commands of the general. What is Beecroft’s strategy? Is she subversively “taking back” the objectified female body to assert feminine autonomy? This would be an easy response for the women artists who used their own nakedness in their performances. Instead, Beecroft uses other naked women as her medium yet seems uncomfortable with their nudity: “I’m ashamed of the nude body myself, and so I throw it in the face of people.”(3)

Marina Bolmini may represent the wholesale acceptance of female “phantasy” body-type as the “plaything” of men. Her digital “alter ego” is replicated in multiples in her “Play with me” series and we recognize Bolmini’s features in her virtual females. Her work shows a “new media” influence of video gaming and the art world legitimacy of feminist art figure references (Beecroft and Cindy Sherman are mimicked). However, her multiple nudes can also be imagined as literal simulacra of glossy skin-mag “puppet” objects for a “determining male gaze:”

“The manikins[sic] don’t want to be what they represent or replace: ‘I found a doll without nipples,’ shouts the artist excited by her creative gains. ‘I think it’s better suited for Beecrofts!’ It’s a clarifying statement about an operation which isn’t a ‘copying’ but an exasperation of the real protagonist’s tensions, artists or their works, to which Bolmini gives voice, hers. The puppet’s body is also her own body, but again it isn’t precisely represented, but it is standardized and optimized in order to be harmoniously adapted to the digitalized world round them.”(4)

If Bolmini represents a disturbing and irresponsible deployment of empty spectacle and fetishized feminine accoutrements, then she joins Beecroft in a post-feminist denial of gains made by 1970s era women artists. Their work is vapid in its passive acceptance of the patriarchal social coding without a critical questioning of the underlying implications for women artists. It is work that irrefutably continues the perpetuation of male-dominance in visuality through its use of combined ideologies of advertising, image manipulation and fashion fetishization.


Image: © Copyright by Marina Bolmini.
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1. Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16.3, Autumn 1975, pp. 6-18.

2. supervert.com

3. Wallace, Susan. “The Life and Art of Vanessa Beecroft”, www.artviews.org, 2002.

4. Giardino, Lucia. “Marina Bolmini in Play With Me”, Galleria Marconi.