THE CONCEPTUAL VERNACULAR IN RECENT AMERICAN ART
at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through April 17
In recent years, a group of artists has emerged whose work challenges the conventional wisdom that a great work of art is ever changing and rewards long and repeated viewings. We have instead works that ask, even demand, to be apprehended in a minute, or in a glance. Some larger installation pieces may require many minutes to be seen once, but they partake of this aesthetic by seeming to offer up no new secrets on second or third viewings.
These works are often based on mass-manufactured objects and frequently use photographs and video–all media that reveal little sign of the artist’s hand. A few elements are juxtaposed to make an immediate impression whose instantaneity is in some ways similar to the glimpse of a billboard from a moving car or a fragment of a TV program caught while switching channels. Art is no longer seen as offering transcendence, lifting the viewer out of the present, but rather as refocusing her attention on our mass-manufactured world. Organic signs of the vagaries of individual consciousness–the myriad tiny lines of a Rembrandt–are expunged in favor of machine-produced objects, or of objects and images that mimic their qualities.
Irregular, idiosyncratic, hand-drawn lines can, in the hands of a master, encourage a wide range of responses in the viewer and remind him of his individuality. Works constructed out of mass-manufactured materials, or mimicking their appearance, tend to remind us of the social identity we share with others in our culture. Such works owe much to the fashionable view that individual autonomy is illusory, and that whatever identity each of us has is a chimera “constructed” for us by our culture.
These ideas are expressed, in varying ways, in the work of the eight artists, Dan Graham, Mike Kelley, Louise Lawler, Cady Noland, Hirsch Perlman, Charles Ray, Edward Ruscha, and Christopher Williams, in the exhibit now at the Museum of Contemporary Art, “Radical Scavenger(s): The Conceptual Vernacular in Recent American Art.” The title comes from the enigmatically titled Ruscha painting Radical Scavenger (included in the show), while “conceptual vernacular” refers to the way each artist marries relatively simple formal patterns, often borrowed from conceptual or minimal art, to subject matter from the everyday world, from the mass culture. The first show curated by the MCA’s new chief curator Richard Francis, it fills the museum, allowing each artist to be presented in some depth.
The strongest and, perhaps not coincidentally, best-known artist in the show is Ruscha. Though his paintings can be apprehended fairly quickly, there is an oddly suggestive use of printed texts in them. Words and phrases, sometimes humorous, always somewhat mysterious, linger in the mind like untranslatable little poems.
In seven paintings made between 1987 and 1993, Ruscha juxtaposes a few printed words over images of the sky or of Los Angeles seen from above at night. In some, the text seems to act as an ironic advertising slogan for the image behind. In Irresistible Singles, “Irresistible Singles Win Incredible Dates” is printed in large white letters over an out-of-focus (smog-blurred?) grid of LA lights. In Cellular Void, the words “Cellular Void” printed over an even fuzzier grid offer an obliquely poetic commentary on automobile space, linked by cellular phones but devoid of real human contact. But in Hot Rip Stop, those words printed over a blue sky make little logical sense. Yet each word is itself charged with a certain force, even a hint of violence; they strike the viewer like pieces of disembodied words from road signs, glanced at too quickly from the freeway for more than a single word to register.
In the film L.A. Suggested by the Art of Edward Ruscha (1981), by Gary Conklin, on view in the museum’s orientation space, Ruscha talks about how words intrigue him “like objects” and describes how when driving, things “go by you so fast that they seem to have more power to them.” His signlike paintings convey this odd presence that words, used logically or illogically, can have, while at the same time expressing a somewhat alienated relationship between words and landscape. These works evoke the near-chaotic disconnectedness of a modern city.
Also on view are five of Ruscha’s printed books from the 60s and 70s that use photographs to depict LA’s physiognomy, thus displaying his attitude toward the city that serves as his inspiration. Unfortunately, only one, the folding book Every Building on the Sunset Strip, is displayed so that all of it can be seen; the others are opened to single pages behind glass cases. (When will museums learn to display photocopies that can be thumbed through of such books next to the originals?) A look at all of Some Los Angeles Apartments (at the Harold Washington Library) reveals that Ruscha includes widely disparate architectural styles, from pseudo-Miesian to various forms of kitsch. Thumbing through it, one realizes that not all of the contradictory styles can be “true”; their juxtaposition has the effect of making every style seem arbitrary, every choice seem meaningless.
This devaluing effect is central to much of the art in this exhibit, and to much of what is often called “postmodernism.” Whereas in earlier styles of art the form and subject matter of a work were seen as crucial choices with vast implications–Mark Rothko once declared that art’s subject matter must be “tragic and timeless”–for the postmodernist, style and content are fashions to be shed like last year’s garment in favor of another. The difference between one and the next has little significance because there is no organized meaning to the world, and no unified self with which to see it. All forms of seeing are equivalent, and none means much of anything. Thus in some of Ruscha’s paintings the text seems to refer to the background, in others there is no apparent connection–and yet in all the text has the same haunting, disembodied quality, which is what saves them from triviality.
The arbitrariness of styles and classification systems is also a subject of Mike Kelley’s Craft Morphology Flow Chart (1991). Over 100 stuffed dolls, mostly of animals, are arranged on 32 cheap folding tables that fill an entire room and part of a corridor. These dolls, purchased from thrift shops, come in all varieties and colors: they evoke the world of childhood play, but laid flat on the tables they also seem like corpses in a morgue, giving the work a powerful creepiness.
The dolls are grouped on the tables according to various classification schemes, none of which agrees with any other. One table has dolls that are all green; another has three identical monkeys, one with a longer tail than the other two; another has diverse animals whose surfaces have a similarly coarse woolen knitting. A few animals–presumably those so unique that no pairings could be found for them, like a large whitish octopus–sit on tables alone.
On the walls are photographs of the dolls, each set against a ruler, thus establishing its length. This seems as arbitrary and meaningless a method of classifying them as any of the others proposed; one is left with the breakdown of all classification systems. The unpleasantness of seeing icons of childhood laid out like corpses is magnified when one realizes that for all the work that went into this mortuary, nothing “coherent” has emerged. I found myself shutting out Kelley’s nonschemes and looking at the individual dolls, with their sensuous, playful attitude toward color and form. The artisan who placed two black eyes peering improbably out of the surface of a shellfish, or the one who constructed a cat by attaching a pillow shaped like a head to a stack of differently patterned and colored cloth arranged like pancakes to form the cat’s torso, betrays a loving attachment to specific forms that Kelley’s arrangement, and the whole postmodern enterprise, seeks to undermine or deny.
Louise Lawler is represented by several different kinds of works, the most interesting of which are eight hemispherical, crystal, paperweightlike objects, each placed on a pedestal and enclosed in a glass case. The viewer approaching one from its side sees fragments of the museum room in the glass, but when one views it from above a small color photograph comes into view. Most are of room interiors, with works by well-known artists on the walls; for some of the pieces, wall labels identify the artists whose work is present in the rooms.
Looking at these room photos, I was reminded of the use of art collecting and display as a way of enhancing the appearance, and even power, of one’s room. Untitled (Dreams) (1993) shows a part of a couch or bed and a table with a phone and a lamp on it in the foreground; on the wall behind are a Ruscha and a Lichtenstein. The wall label identifies each as personally owned by art dealer Leo Castelli, and then lists the exhibition history of each work, including the dates of each return “To LC apartment.” Another room, shown in Untitled (Attachments) (1993), displays works by Jeff Koons and Peter Halley; the wall label doesn’t identify the artists, but does list the actual sale prices of the two Koons pieces (“One hundred and twenty thousand dollars”).
Here Lawler is commenting on the commodification of and preciousness imputed to art, and its use as an almost fetishized power object. Viewing these rooms almost as if they were a peep show, the viewer is made aware of her own gaze. The photos are not complex; their details can be apprehended in a few seconds. The real subject is the process of looking–at Lawler’s art, and at the marketable artworks depicted within. The superficial glance, or peep, that these embalmed-in-glass photographs encourage appears to fulfill Lawler’s critique of the superficiality of looking in our culture. One imagines that the collectors whose rooms we see remain as distant from their art as the viewer does from Lawler’s photos. Unless, that is, one knows anything about Leo Castelli–that, for instance, his eye sought out the work of Jasper Johns when it was still unknown.
Cady Noland is represented by several pieces; the strongest, the 1989 Frame Device, has some of the ominous creepiness of Kelley’s work. Horizontal metal poles are attached to vertical posts to form a rectangular, playpenlike enclosure; at each corner are three metal walkers, their tubes similar to those of the enclosure; some are hooked into the enclosure’s tubes. The suggestion is of some awful urban mistake–a playpen or boxing ring for the elderly.
Another Noland work, Nuts ‘n’ Shit (1990), is more problematic. Red ink is silk-screened on a metal rectangle to form what could be a poster for a circus–a round tent bearing the work’s title at the center, framed by a curtainlike pattern at the top and bottom border. The four-letter word and a certain steely elegance notwithstanding, this work produced an experience very much like that of looking at an advertising poster.
Likewise worthy of only a minute or less of viewing is Charles Ray’s rather endearing Boy (1993). This mannequin of a young boy is built to Ray’s own height, creating a humorous incongruity. His clothes seem to define him; he wears unisex but girlish-looking shoes, socks, and blouse, and his skin is a pale, almost bloodless white. He could in a way stand for every artist in the exhibit; each displays a similarly unfixed identity, one determined by the things in the environment, rather than one coming, as would be the case with most modernist artists, from within.
The most disturbing view of the destruction of identity is provided by Hirsch Perlman, in a room-size installation of several works, with two video monitors and a huge series of prints on the side walls. The title of each work (all dated 1993) begins A Layman’s Guide to Interrogation Techniques and Practices. On the video monitors, placed at either end of the room, a man seated at a desk endeavors to repeat the text of the “Guide” as read or recited to him by a mostly offscreen man. In the wall photos, the offscreen man is seen posing in various positions with a chair, each position illustrating an interrogation attitude–“coercive,” “irreverent,” “obliging.” The visitor who lingers a while–the videotape is almost an hour long–begins to feel, thanks to the droning voices and the walls of photos, like an interrogation victim. This feeling doesn’t change qualitatively over time; it merely grows more intensely unpleasant. By creating a work that seeks neither to liberate the viewer from such oppression nor even to understand its causes, Perlman comes dangerously close, as does Noland in Nuts ‘n’ Shit, to simply duplicating the conditions he purports to critique. Here, as throughout the exhibit, the modernist artist as creator of the world has been replaced by a more passive artist as reflector of the world.
That the rejection of modernism inherent in this replacement may stem from a misunderstanding of, and devaluing of, its achievement is suggested by a frequently silly essay by Kathryn Hixson in the show’s illustrated catalog. She repeatedly compares modernism to suburbia, finding a wide range of correspondences: I’ve been to many suburbs, and have yet to have an experience there even faintly evocative of the complexity of works by Kandinsky, Malevich, or Rothko. At one point she announces that “the utopian claim of modernism and suburban traditions can be deemed failures through simple scientific observation.” Hers is the only catalog essay without footnotes.
Her essay also left me with the lingering suspicion that one reason some artists make such a simple, even vacuous use of form is that they have not experienced the transformative power that form can exercise in a great work. Or perhaps they don’t want to; perhaps the model for active self that such works imply seems utterly alien to them.
In a letter, Mike Kelley describes “an ex-neighbor of mine whose apartment was crowded with frog knicknacks. I, of course, assumed that he had some special interest in frogs. But when I asked him about it he replied that he had no interest in frogs, that he had once been given a ceramic frog and others, seeing it in his house, believing him to like frogs, continued to give him such things until he had a large collection of them.” Each of these artists behaves in a way like Kelley’s neighbor. The world thrusts itself, including its most mindless artifacts, on them, and they accept this deluge as a mantle that becomes their “constructed” identity. In this they create an art whose relation to the world is that of the television viewer.
Most of the works in the show I found engaging, even pleasurable to look at; almost all made me reflect on my own relation to our culture. In these senses they were valuable. But in refusing to go beyond the passive relation between individual and world (Ruscha is a partial exception) that mass culture encourages, each artist makes a highly questionable, even dangerous, choice. On a planet troubled by murder, war, and the prospect of eco-ruin, how badly do we need artworks that provide us with a replay of the experience of the highway billboard, the interrogation room, the art collector’s parlor, the advertising poster?
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Prinz.