May 27, 2009

Critical Fragments: Style

“In every work of art, style is a promise. In being absorbed through style into the dominant form of universality, into the current musical, pictorial, or verbal idiom, what is expressed seeks to be reconciled with the idea of the true universal. This promise of the work of art to create truth by impressing its unique contours on the socially transmitted forms is as necessary as it is hypocritical. By claiming to anticipate fulfillment through their aesthetic derivatives, it posits the real forms of the existing order as absolute. To this extent the claims of art are always also ideology. Yet it is only in its struggle with tradition, a struggle precipitated in style, that art can find expression for suffering. The moment in the work of art by which it transcends reality cannot, indeed, be severed from style; that moment, however, does not consist in achieved harmony, in the questionable unity of form and content, inner and outer, individual and society, but in those traits in which the discrepancy emerges, in the necessary failure of the passionate striving for identity. Instead of exposing itself to this failure, in which the style of the great work of art has always negated itself, the inferior work has relied on its similarity to others, the surrogate of identity. The culture industry has finally posited this imitation as absolute. Being nothing other than style, it divulges style’s secret: obedience to the social hierarchy.”(1)


Whether this is “social hierarchy” or critical hierarchy remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the casting of style as the great secret of visuality is seductive. The absorption of art by the dominant discourse (the mainstream) is what Adorno and Horkheimer speak of as a “promise,” a teasing dream of capitalist fulfillment, supported through the culture industry’s use of the ideology of style.

The existent order (the art world) retains its power through a calculated dispensation of success (financial, critical, historical) that is further bolstered by the misapprehension within the ranks of the culture producers (visual artists) that art is measured by “harmony” or “unity of form and content.” It is these kinds of aesthetic quests that will result in inferior art that desires only a “similarity to others.”

To negate these traditional conceptions is to deny the damages that are inherent in the search for a “style.” To reject style altogether is to embrace failure on many levels; chiefly those attributed to financial success but certainly encompassing the nature of creation itself with the ever present possibility that risks taken become failures realized.

The necessity of re-positioning art practice as capable of revealing these kinds of “truths” remains the single most worthy endeavor of the producer of culture. Absolute allegiance to imitative style, however sanctioned as a certainty for financial success within our embattled art market, risks much more than a simple loss measured in capital.

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1. Adorno, Theodor / Horkheimer, Max. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, (Translator: E. Jephcott), Stanford, 2002, 103-104.

May 13, 2009

Collage: the Stuff of PoMo

Administrator's Note: One of my Corcoran College undergraduates wrote the following essay on collage as “the reproduction and recontextualization of signs.” The student has requested me to list the author's name as “Yon Zois.”

I asked Zois for permission to post the paper here because of its fascinating theories on visual art expressed as “message” and a novel (if somewhat brutally cynical) depiction of the malevolent inclination of that message. The assaultive aspects of representation are too often critically neglected and Zois suggests interesting possibilities for further investigation of the “dominant discourse” of media communication. For within the verbal structure of semiotics lies an implicit coercion that Zois reveals to be a profound interpretive mode for considering visual art as postmodern address.

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“[Collage is] an organization of already organized elements.” - Damien Hirst


Quoting others’ words in one’s own writing is in tune with the current western system of communication (a system that creates systems). Why say it in your own words if someone else has already said it more concisely, more elegantly, and above all—first. Enter Postmodernism. The gaseous, multi-generational sensibility called an “era,” in which its inhabitants can no longer look up toward a brighter future because they finally realized that they’ve been standing on what they’ve been smelling—the enormous mound of shit called civilization.

Arguably realized anywhere between 1965 and 1985, postmodernity, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “characterized by a return to traditional materials and forms (as in architecture) or by ironic self-reference and absurdity (as in literature),” or it can be “of, relating to, or being a theory that involves a radical reappraisal of modern assumptions about culture, identity, history, or language.” Postmodernism is, more importantly, a rejection of the specialization and elitism that defined the Modernist culture of the earlier part of the twentieth century, abandoning its hierarchical and polar (i.e., black and white) characteristics across the board of life (from politics, to art, to philosophy, etc). With more grey area came more complexity and nuance, more nooks and crannies, more niches and places for social deviants and outsiders to camp out and oftentimes institutionalize themselves, creating both alternatives and contributions to the mainstream cultural milieu. Postmodernity’s primary visual mode is that of appropriation, sampling and referencing, visually constituting the praxis of collage, d├ęcollage, in its three-dimensional form: assemblage, and in its most refined form: bricolage.(1) This paper will be exploring postmodernity, using collage (as metonym for our larger collective sensibility or outlook in today’s world) as its vehicle, complete with 4-wheel-drive and fuzzy dice hanging from the extra-large rear view mirror.

A bitter alcoholic named Guy Debord once wrote:
“The theft of large refrigerators by people with no electricity, or with their electricity cut off, gives the best possible metaphor for the life of affluence transformed into a truth in play. Once it is no longer bought, the commodity lies open to criticism and modification, and this under whichever of its forms it may appear. Only so long as it is paid for with money, as a status symbol of survival, can it be worshipped fetishistically. […] The Los Angeles rebellion is the first in history able to justify itself by the argument that there was no air conditioning during a heatwave.”(2)

He was speaking about the 1965 Watts riots in LA. Three years after that, 1968 erupted in uprisings all over the world that amounted in a shift in the consciousness of an entire generation of people. It proposed a severe and total threat to traditional top-down structures of all kinds, though the world still had its lines in the sand, (like the cold war) it amounted to nothing less than the beginning of a new era in cultural production and theory. The appropriation and recontextualization Debord was writing about was the realization of the theoretical tenants of collage; theft as a bi-product, and more importantly a reversal of the effects of the “society of the spectacle.” He was very receptive in finding the art in the everyday (or in this case its antonym).

The “yBa’s,” decades later, knowingly played into the very same spectacular economic system in which their choice of media (collage, assemblage/ready-mades, and appropriative art) was a critique of. Damien Hirst bypassed the antiquated authority of the art critic toward “popularist mediation” in which everyone was their own critic.

James Gaywood breaks down the mechanics of the act of “collage” (or the reproduction and recontextualization of signs) as used by the “yBa’s” as such:
“[…I]n the context of postmodernism, art production invokes the cultural superimposition of reproductions, where what is signified can only refer to a sign itself (in essence Baudrillard’s ‘simulacrum’), disengaging the object from any historical precedent, engendering the justification for a multi-variety of surface interpretation.[…] Since transgression is confused in postmodern situations where the abolition of the subject renders a ‘sense of loss’ rather than an access to structural cohesion apocalyptic rather than generative the appropriation of signs engenders postmodern pastiche: ‘art as a complete imitation of objects incurring the loss of its (structural) sign function.’”(3)

To approach this from a societal standpoint, this process is undoubtedly intertwined with issues of identity. An indicator of this dilemma is illustrated by the proliferation of graffiti and illegal public art. Because of its illegality, the participants of the culture(4) oftentimes use self-ascribed nicknames as their nom de plumes creating a persona based on artistic skill and risk taken to write these names on appropriated spaces. The format of these names originally imitated that of the signage of commodities/advertisements, with high contrasted colors and other techniques to be easily noticed by the untrained eye (though evolved from there into its own coded signage). By imitating the language of advertisements for self-promotion, the result incurs “the loss of its (structural) sign function.”

All appropriative acts presuppose hierarchical systems of ownership based on class and/or social status (which in most countries is often based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, physical ability, etc), or more specifically habitus as referred to in the Gaywood article. But to delve deeper into the intricacies of the visual language of collage, we must examine it in terms of a verbal language.

Roman Jakobson, a linguistic semiotician, dissected the process of communication and came up with six necessary parts of a speech event. [Editor's note: see Jakobson's Communication Model.] A mugging is a good example we can use to illustrate Jakobson’s six communicative functions due to the dynamic nature of the coercive speech event (the elementary modus operandi for modern societal control).

Jakobson defines the addresser as the member of the speech event who sends “a MESSAGE to the ADDRESSEE” (the artist). For example, the addresser might make the threat/offer “give me your money or your life,” implying that choosing neither is a non-choice. The addresser’s proposition is not enough to determine whether or not a statement is coercive; we need some account of the addresser’s emotional state as well.

The addressee is the recipient of the message in the coercive speech event (the viewer).

The message in the speech event is the particular content delivered from the addresser to the addressee. In the case of coercion, the message can be literal and spelled out, as in the case of “Give me your money or I will kill you,” or it can play upon the poetics of language.

Context may be understood as the socio-cultural and spatio-temporal “referred to” in the speech event.(5) The spatio-temporal context in a coercive statement may be important if the speech event takes place in a threatening environment where no one is around to intervene or there are limited means of escape from the addresser. Further, the meaning of the harms delivered in the message from the addresser and their interpretation, as potential harms by the addressee are dependent on context (for example how wealthy or physically fit the addressee is).

Jakobson defines contact as “a physical channel and psychological connection between addresser and addressee.”(6) The contact between them might add a particular nuance to the coercive message not visible in the verbal. If the addresser brandished a knife and grabbed the arm of the addressee, for example, she might not need to verbalize the complete imperative choice. She might verbalize the words “give me your money,” while implying “(if you do not give me your money, I will cut you with this knife).” Similarly, if the coercive message were delivered over the phone, the addressee might not feel as restricted by the conative function of the coercive proposition, as they may be in a more secure environment or a great distance from the would-be coercer.

The final function we may use in analyzing a speech event is code. Jakobson defines code as a patterned shared system of language that during a speech event is “fully, or at least partially, common to the addresser and addressee.”(7) Codes may be broadly understood as “a group or set of signs” that give individual signs values or meanings through relational properties.(8)

Jakobson’s six communicative functions offer us insight into the intricacies of communicating signs and symbols. It’s a dissection of that unseen layer of the process toward meaning, and consequently the processes of appropriation and recuperation (both methods of redefining signs). Collage is merely the experimentation and examination of the effects of context of images, signs, symbols, and in a non-art sense: of people and ideas.

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1. Bricolage, in this writer’s opinion, amounts to a more “refined” (conceptually, not always aesthetically) postmodernist mode because of its emphasis on context and place when choosing materials, instead of the more retinal criteria used for classic collage like that of Picasso or Schwitters.

2. Debord, Guy. The Decline & Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy, Paris: Internationale Situationniste, 1966, 99-100.

3. Gaywood, James. “yBa As Critique, from Theory in Contemporary Art since 1985, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005, 93.

4. Yes, cultures sprout even around the senseless act of spraying ridiculous nicknames on things that don’t belong to you… ah, postmodernism.

5. Jakobson, Roman. Selected Writings: Linguistics and Poetics, 1990, 73.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Leeds-Hurwitz, Wendy. Semiotics and Communication: Signs, Codes, Cultures, 1993, 51.

May 3, 2009

Malleable Objects

Methodologies and ideas about art-making have progressed remarkably since the early years at the beginning of minimal and conceptual art. With respect to its increased visibility and critically regarded prevalence in our burgeoning global art world, postconceptualism, as I have termed it, is in need of theoretical de-acceleration so that we may assess the various substantive theories behind the objects and practices before the dizzying pace of production and the concomitant media valorization would catapult us into empty spectacularization.(1)

In my gathering of 21st Century practitioners of Postconceptualism, I have attempted a winnowing of key issues and ideas established earlier in conceptual art. The best of these ideas remain potent enough to generate cultural production that not only emulates the original concept but sometimes (perhaps not often enough) extends and magnifies it in ways that truly focus our criticality. All 17 of the artists selected for the exhibit are worthy of note but I wish to quite briefly discuss three who address the object in quite different ways but whose consideration of the object foregrounds the theoretical promise of postconceptualism.


Breht O’Hearn shows such promise not only with a sophisticated understanding of mass as form but in his introduction of the idea that the work might reflect a self-awareness about sculpture’s history. Sculpture was closely wedded to modernist theory in terms of its dismissal of the pedestal to champion the idea of sitelessness.(2) No longer bound to a pedestal, sculpture was freed of its relation to place and began to expand its exploration of abstraction.

O’Hearn’s monolithic object, itself an elegant reference to Carl Andre’s early totems, engages a subdued critique of pedestal angst through actual destruction. The prized verticality, the solidity of the upright beam, is marred by obsessive drilling to produce a wound approximately two feet off the floor. One would think the resultant loss of mass would collapse the beam yet it remains impossibly erect.

O’Heran’s skillful attack pokes fun at the nagging theoretical distinctions between Modernist sculpture that first abolished the pedestal (site) and later sculpture that would occupy specific sites. Ironically, the removal of wood from the beam creates a kind of pedestal itself through the separation provided by the removal of mass, and provides our talking points: a symbolic attack upon sculpture itself literalizes the distinctions of place and object, and the residual sawdust reads as the resultant discursivity about sites and sculpture, which temptingly threatens to (again) bury the pedestal issue.


In her refined sutured table, Amber Landis does much more than blur the divisions between the art object and furniture. Current fascination with “art as design” have produced a number of purveyors yet the obvious theoretical challenges of this melding reside in its reception in the critical arena. The championing of Jorge Pardo’s lamps, preceded by earlier critical support of Franz West’s “post-sculptural” objects, opened the gates for the current practitioners of hip, fine art furniture. The jury is still out whether much of these makers are “artists.”

There is more at stake in Landis’s table. “Making” versus “taking” becomes a contested issue in her work as her table in fact was not made by her but was appropriated from the many in production. We might mention Duchamp when speaking about Landis’s act of shifting this object from “use” to “exhibition” value through the context of an art show. However, she additionally applied parchment paper to all surfaces of the table (top, drawer and legs) and obsessively stitched every edge with surgical sutures. In and of itself, this is a clever association of craft with function, but decorative functionality is also not her ultimate focus.

There is a point at which these associations of furniture, craft, functionality, art and object become lost amid a psychology of the object. The imprint of the quotidian form of “table” is remarkably strong and a viewer of this object tends to read it well before gaining a closer proximity to the piece. There we see the evidence of the artist’s hand upon the appropriated object and we get this revelation accompanied by its frisson of shocking recognition. This play with furniture as psychological object has a renowned history within conceptual art but is seldom deployed with such strength. The vulgarity of the urinal has been replaced by the subtlety of Landis’s sutured objects. As assisted readymades they continue the tradition with great respect and potential.


Although his work might be regarded as “painting,” Ken Weathersby also addresses missed theoretical opportunities inherent in object-making. The most unyielding of his works, “164”, indeed revels in its enhancement of painting's objecthood, composed as it is of two small stretched canvasses turned face-to-face. With the work's larger canvas facing out from the wall and its smaller companion canvas facing in, we view what Weathersby calls “the disregarded space”(3) of the reverse of the smaller painting. Obviously a space we are unfamiliar with, the reverse side gives us little visual information, forcing us to consider the painting as an object that is constructed of wood and canvas. Weathersby does partially expose the obverse of the larger painting upon which we note a tightly-rendered checkerboard patterning. This immediately addresses the visual methodology of painting and strikes up the conversation between the work's two theoretical positions: painting as illusion versus painting as object.

As explored fully by Frank Stella in his earlier black stripe paintings, the idea was that a painting could assert its status as object through the actions of the brushwork. Weathersby revisits these theories of “painting as object” through an act that is at once more sculptural and more conceptual. Viewing the possible actions a “painter” might take as “terms in a lexicon,” he rejects certain elements of the lexicon that focus our attention on their reduction. Here Weathersby has chosen to “eliminate a term that seems central” - surface - to focus our attention on its reduction as a malleable condition of painting. We know that paintings are objects, obviously, but what has perhaps not been substantively unpacked is to what degree the theoretical appreciation of a painting's objecthood has yet to be unearthed.


Images (top to bottom):
“Untitled” (2009); wood and sawdust; © Copyright by Breht O'Hearn
“Untitled” (2009); table, paper and sutures; © Copyright by Amber Landis
“164” (2009); acrylic and graphite on canvas; © Copyright by Ken Weathersby

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1. “The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual excess produced by mass-media technologies. It is a worldview that has actually been materialized, a view of a world that has become objective.” - Guy Debord.

2. Carson, Juli. “1989” in Theory in Contemporary Art since 1985, Oxford, 2005, 334. [“…an inherent sitelessness, one that in the hands of Brancusi, for example, made claims to being functionally placeless and self-referential, as base and sculpture were subsumed into a single transportable form.”]

3. All quotes from Ken Weathersby taken from a Jan. 26, 2009 statement.