29 November 2007

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?

24 November 2007

New On ArtCal Zine: Javier Pinon

Hey Turkey-lurkeys. I wrote up something nice about Javier Pinon's new effort at Ziehersmith for ArtCal Zine. Go read it!

Upcoming this week: A review of Liz Craft at Boesky for the Zine, and a couple of posts about sculpture in general that are probably going to be too nerdy for wider publication.

Bonus Round: I have also been working on a transcript of the Middlebury college talk last month.

So stick around!

19 November 2007


Liz Craft and Charles Ray are in Chelsea, Martin Puryear is at the MoMA, and this can only mean one thing:

It is time for extended exegesis on the manifold meanings and glories of sculpture!

If you don't want to hear about the relationship between the inside and the outside; about what the word structure means; the drawbacks of fetishizing materials and the ballsiness of reclaiming a commonly fetishized material; homogeneity versus armaturefulness; the Charles Ray Payoff (or The Need For An Explanation) Problem and Why He Is Still a Small God Anyway; and how one makes a sculpture work in time just by walking around it, then go to a different blog! I mean it! I am fucking stoked! It's sculpture season!

15 November 2007

Javier Pinon: Don Quixote and Other Stories

This image of Javier Pinon's work has been shamelessly lifted from ZieherSmith's website

I really liked this show, in part because all that cowboy stuff is where I am from, and partly because I am a sucker for collage. But I also liked it because it was all about references, but it didn't quite make sense.

Surrealism is like science fiction in that there is a terrible temptation for the author to get caught up in explaining this alternate reality that should really just emerge. It's great that Pinon resisted the urge to actually connect Don Quixote and specific cowboy movies to alligators and St. Sebastian and medusa and the rodeo and the southwestern landscape and all the rest.

10 November 2007

Old Man Finch Could Do So Much More Than Scare Kids Off His Lawn

Don't believe anything I have ever told you before. I make sculpture because I identify with crotchety old men. They're always saying what needs to be said, but usually from the lamest perspective.

As regular readers of this blog know, I have written extensively on a few versions of the Old Man Argument, which is, in a nutshell, that everything used to be so great and now everything is a shitty, hollow simulacra of that former greatness.

There are problems with the Old Man Argument that we can all easily point out. It's really easy to romanticize one's own youth, for instance. And about the only thing that's easier is to assume that what you grew up with or worked to create is "right" and that everything that comes after is therefore "wrong." The Old Man Argument is full of expectations, and when you expect anything you are cruising for a letdown.

Just about the only sane old man response to that inevitable passage from actor to spectator comes from Dave Hickey. At least he admits that he wouldn't know the next hot thing if it came and bit him on the nose.

But even with those disclaimers out for everyone to see...I kind of liked Charlie Finch's latest effort. It is classic Old Man, and therefore has this basic backward-looking dismissiveness that is not particularly helpful. And it is classic Finch, so look out for lazy rhetoric that depends on whores and namecalling to get any intellectual work done.

But his point is worth a little time. He is talking about the difference between real openness and the illusion of openness that is actually a playground for exclusivity. It is rhetorically lame that the only way he can talk about that is by talking about the past. Instead of calling the taste of Rirkrit's curries "foul," he could talk about exactly how boring and calculating the dinner-party-as-art phenomenon is, and exactly how the curry show divides up viewers into the haves who eat dinner and the have-nots, who are treated to the janitor's-eye-view.

This clubhousey art, which hopefully jumped the shark at Deitch this summer, is weak and cynical. It is merely about power. Finch misses an opportunity when he shrouds criticism of this current highschool scene in a wistful rememberance of galleries past. Not only is it possible to talk about that cynicism in the present tense, it's important to do so.

06 November 2007

Last Chance: New Orleans Elegy at Socrates Sculpture Park

If you have not already hauled your butt over to Socrates to see this self-destructing map of New Orleans*, beautifully installed alongside Takashi Horisaki's Social Dress New Orleans, then you should stop procrastinating. This is the last weekend before Takashi and I fold up our wares!

*The streets of NOLA have been represented with steel. Bronze was then laid over this steel map armature. The bronze and steel chemically react to one another, causing the steel to corrode. Every day, there is more corrosion and less steel. Eentually, the steel will vanish completely, leaving only a depression, or memory, of its former existence.

02 November 2007

Amen, Brother Hickey!

Dave Hickey is offering the simplest gospel. All he is saying is that judgement is power.

To have a reasoned and insightful judgement that another person can actually hang their hat on is to create real value. In fact, right now, it is to create more than value. It is to create a unique opportunity for another person to watch you and not someone else. To quote:

“If you want to be an icon of virtue, this is the moment because you’ll stand out”

This is not "Deathwatch Cheerleading." This is straightforward positivism. He is talking about the power of individual action and individual virtue when the zeitgeist screams You, individual human, are powerless! You can do nothing! This is about vast sums of money and power that you don't possess!

I know that the last line of this article is about thousands of Icari plummeting or plunging into the surf or whatever, but I think Edward is taking it too literally. Hickey is talking about gathering power in the face of a market that has the potential to render dealers (as well as critics, curators and artists) powerless. Gathering that power is fundamentally about cultivating judgement. It's not about believing in your artists, as Winkleman argues already happens. It's about "not being wrong" in Leo Castelli terms, or to cultivate and offer one's judgement. To offer that kind of rigor or structure, Hickey is offering, is to promote change.

Let me put it this way. You can take a crap on a gallery floor and plant an American Flag on it and call it art. You can go buy a bag of Doritos and put them on a pedestal or tack them to the wall and if you have called them art, art they will be.

Gallerists, therefore, do not legitimize art. But when they cultivate and offer sound judgement about artists that others can use, they cut through the bullshit that is inherent to art, and to do that is to cultivate power. Gallerists, as well as curators, critics and other artists, generally sidestep this power for two reasons. First, they learned in college that it is better to deconstruct other people's power than it is to have your own. And besides, they don't want to be seen as bumpkins who don't understand the basic premise above--that everything is art. And what Hickey is saying is that this act of stepping aside, of simply saying that art is good, or that my artists are good, represents a missed opportunity.

This is why the Top Ten List delights Tyler Green, and more and more I agree, even though it's a suspiciously easy idea. This is why I write criticism, and it's why I keep a blog. I don't have time to spend answering all the Plagens questions via Grammer.Police, but if I did, every answer to every question would invoke this idea, that judgement is power.

01 November 2007

Raymond Pettibon Review Hits Your Inbox

This just in from the Shameless Self-Promotion desk:

Fuck You, Ray, Here's YOUR Irony Back made the "headlines" on this week's Artkrush.