Sculpture As Intellectual Burden, and Liz Craft as Deliverer and Victim of Said Burden
So, I have been thinking a lot about that Liz Craft show at Boesky... trying to figure out what exactly to say about it because it's a real departure for Craft, and it's a departure that makes me feel kind of sad and deflated.
If you've been to art school, you already know this. Sculpture has a lot of baggage as a medium. Even more than printmaking. There's the Guy Thing (also known as the Romancing The Blueness Of My Collar Thing), the Monumentality Thing, the Bronze Thing, the Craft Thing, the Effort Thing, the Plaza Thing...
...and once you've cleared that brush, you still have to wrestle with the actual intellectual meat of this godforsaken enterprise. What is a sculpture anyway? Why is it that nobody can tell you what it is, but you know when you've made a bad sculpture because someone suggests that you put a light in it? Bad sculpture winds up wishing that it was a lamp or an ashtray, and there is such specific logic to this, but the worst, loosest arrangement of words. Keep taking sculpture classes and you will wind up with packets upon xeroxed packets of obtuse gobbeldygook that attempts to explain this problem. Donald Judd will tell you, in too many words, that the only way to make something that isn't a lamp or an ashtray is to make a thing that refuses anything but thingness. Michael Fried will tell you that Judd is full of shit, that a thing that resists its longing to be useful actually manages to refuse its very thingness.
Pretty soon you are sitting in a dark room, listening to Charles Ray talk for hours about this tiny shape beneath the feet of an ancient greek sculpture at the Met that looks like a lima bean and represents space in this incredibly meaningful way. And even though your gut was screaming YES! the whole time you were listening to him talk, you will not be able to make sense of it even a week later, and this will discourage you. And half the time you make anything you are still winding up with either a lamp or an ashtray.
You start dabbling in video and performance art.
The bottom line is that sculpture is deeply nonverbal and deeply intellectual at the same time, and that paradox is its most profound baggage. It's doomed to be as misunderstood and mispracticed as dance. Sculptors, even good ones, are always killing sculpture in an effort to keep it alive, and I include myself and this blog in this assesment. I literally cannot stop myself from blithering about the nature of what I do, even though every time I say something about what I am doing in my studio it winds up being untrue, winds up hindering actual understanding. My mouth is always coming up with systems, and the world is always smacking these systems out of my hand. And all I can say is that when I am good, I remember that my mouth is not very smart and I let the system go. When I am being a bad clingy intellectual, I work very hard to let the words and ideas win.
I don't know how else to put it. Sculpture is about this very basic set of existential problems. It asks where we are--in our minds or in our bodies. And it wants to know how much of this spatial world we live in is of our own making and how much just sits out there apart from us. Is space empty or is it a sensation of interconnectedness? And is it made out there, or in here? Inside me, outside me? Is space the sensation of my perception of the world (my insides) colliding with what is outside me?
This is an intellectual burden that sculptors either avoid or wallow in... sometimes both. Richard Serra, Charles Ray and Jennifer Pastor all wallow, often deliciously. Matthew Barney is a weird hybrid sculptor who avoids the issue of sculpture by making film, but uses film as an opportunity to wallow in sculptural problems ad tedium.
Then there are people like Liz Craft. In 2003, Craft's first show at Boesky easily positioned her as some sort of empathic genius who managed to get all the way down deep into the creases of the existential meaning of space, but without any of the heaviness or tedium. Even though (because, really) it was bronze.
It wasn't just bronze. It was a room full of figurative bronze sculpture. A big, sassy fongoo to the uncoolness of not just bronze, but representation, craft, bluecollar, effort, monumentality and every other thing that you swore off after you left your provincial little state school where you got your BFA. This shit rocked. It didn't just play into every single negative stereotype about "Sculpture Magazine" sculpture, it took on every single artworld cliche from skeletons and unicorns to "the seventies" and biker kitsch. In a show devoid of irony. That havered not to the intellectual morass of how strange and difficult sculpture is, but to a vision that was as silly as it was existentially and spatially complex.
Contemporary sculpture tends to be about devices that pull the viewer into a conversation that is not about objects, but about space. And this was a room full of objects--of traditional statuary--that became a mountain range of obese poopwomen, and a vacant lot, and the graphic on someone's t-shirt hovering out at you. The whole time you weren't unaware of the fact that this is a room full of statues. But you couldn't help but create a space in your mind that brought these pieces together into a unified... not narrative... but a space in which they could co-exist.
I had never seen anything quite as smart, or quite as confident. Every single burden sculpture (and contemporary art in general) had to give, Craft took on and actively used to her own ends. It felt so good to watch an upstart actually play with the same strong, serious ideas that Serra, Ray and Pastor tend to masticate thoroughly, slowly and seriously, for their own sakes.
So, I am not surprised to report that Liz Craft has, in 2007, proved herself mortal and made work that is not catapulting over the myriad burdens of sculpture but instead wallows in the particulars of the contemporary sculpture dialogue as such. It's got inside and outside spaces. It is, therefore, an explicit depiction of spaces that are unified and not discrete because they are all the same white aluminum. It is not about the thingness of the individual cast objects but the spaceness of these boxes. And there is paradox here, because the thing that creates the sensation or understanding of unified space is the fact that each cubey sculpture is one thing, not an arrangement of things or a mini-installation.
In other words, it's academic. And if Liz Craft hadn't already proven herself so utterly beyond an academic discussion of what sculpture is and what it does, well, then the overall effect would not be so disappointing. But honestly, it's as if Queen Elizabeth dropped kicking Spain's ass in order to begin an effort to explain to everyone why she is the Queen of England by describing who was heir to whom.
I've been staring at that last sentence for awhile now, trying to figure out whether or not it's hyperbole, and I am going to let it stand. Sculpture is incredibly important for exactly the same reasons that it is so fucking fraught. It's elemental--it's about you and your relationship to the world in a way that has nothing to do with your insides, your moral, psychological or rational self. We live in a world where our insides--our image of what we want the world to be--has fucked reality up so badly that sculpture might actually become more than an intellectual playground for hamfisted, tonguetied bigbrains with dirty sneakers. It might become intellectually useful if it becomes more outward-looking. Whenever someone like Craft actually applies sculpture to ideas, that basic relationship to reality that troubles us so gets just a little more mutable. Why not admit that Craft is capable of grandness, and that a show that is merely interesting or sculpturally correct is therefore missing the larger mark?