06. Michael Pepi On “Between Spaces”

Part of the allure of the artist’s craft involves condensing broad ideologies into physical objects. The critical theory surrounding consumer culture is one of the text-based traditions of cultural critique that gets passed down to audiences though these abstract metaphors. The more the expressions of such ideas lack specific arguments, proposals, and particularities, the more fashionable they seem. Some critics cite a similar flaw within the detached and linguistic inquiry of post-structuralist academic feminism; visual art, too, celebrates those who subject venerable social theories to obscurantist post-modern discourse. But these actions usually do little more than convey to the audience the supposed complexity of ideas behind the work, and any prospect for actual intellectual engagement is difficult to find.

Regardless, deconstruction, feminism, post-colonialism, and critiques of our insatiable appetite for consumer consumption became the foundational doctrine for a generation of artists intent on layering high art with socially relevant neo-Marxist concerns. The curators of “Between Spaces,” a small group show at the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, have chosen eleven emerging and established artists whose work speaks to this tradition in that they “suggest new contexts and possibilities” for a set of materials that came to prominence in the last century’s collective love affair with mass-produced consumer goods. The wall text explains that the artists “recast […] the functionality of standard materials,” including linoleum flooring, fluorescent light, and soda, to “challenge the viewer’s perception of domestic material conventions.”

To comment on the various uses and spatial power of common consumer goods, the artists appeal to a staple of the modernist playbook: de-contextualization, a well-practiced artistic technique whose intellectual origins lie in Dada, most directly in Marcel Duchamp’s “ready-mades.” If a shovel and a urinal were shocking in 1917, then today’s bourgeoisie should be equally appalled at television screens and venetian blinds, symbols of our big-box, brand-name obsessions. In this tight and well-apportioned show, however, there is a thematic twist: how do we make sense of materials whose value has been diluted by the de-sanctifying power of consumerism? Various interpretations are available. It is never evident, for example, whether the pieces are supposed to lament how consumer culture has de-valued these materials, or if the artists’ use of them in this context is an ironic riff on their meaninglessness.

The viewer must take great pains to shed their preconceived notions about the quality of the materials, most of which we have been taught to disregard as disposable and devoid of cultural significance. The artists explore objects made from vulgar materials, using everything from a rusted barrel, in Robert de Saint Phalle’s Quarry (2008), to manufactured die-cut aluminum, in Zack Kitnick’s The People Behind Our Products (2009). But instead of employing such materials for purely aesthetic ends, most of the work is complacent in the irony of its disposability. Take Marc Swanson’s Untitled (Black Fabric with Chains) (2009), a sun-stained flag masquerading as a hung canvas on the gallery wall. Here, as in Swanson’s Untitled (Window Box) (2009) (a picture printout of a dilapidated window inside an actual poorly-constructed wood box), Swanson merely re-enacts the irrational physicality of Robert Rauschenberg, perfected in the late artist’s Pink Door (1954), Bed (1955), and other works from the 1950s. Window Box would at first seem to contribute nothing more to Rauschenberg’s inventive parlor game except for the fact that it properly executes the show’s theme of “shift[ing] the aesthetic and cultural connotation” of the factory-installed window.

In Swanson’s Untitled (Light Bars) (2009), we find another almost one-to-one replication of a standard trope of high-modernism, this time in the form of a sort of lo-fi Dan Flavin light arrangement. Swanson’s cheap wood and retro round white light bulb arrangement is perhaps the clearest example as to why much of the show lacks the staying power of their modernist forbearers; the economic associations of the works’ materials are in themselves the essential and cerebral characteristic of the work. Few operate at a visceral level.

Upon entering the exhibition’s fifth, exceptionally well-lit room, we find one work that succeeds in transcending the materials’ socio-economic issues to create something with identifiable aesthetic ends. David Altmejd’s Plexiglas installation, which as a man-sized “cabinet of curiosities” takes up virtually the entire space, is as visually pleasing as it is somber, totemic, and downright macabre. The transparent case looks like a science fiction prop. Works like this might come across as pure spectacle, but Altmejd’s cryptic application of yarn puzzles and engrosses all attempts at coming to terms with the piece. A survey of the artist’s past work suggest that the case contains a nascent life form, a fact also indicated by a discernable rib cage and central nervous system formed by elaborately strung yarn. The presentation is amplified by the way the light illuminates the Plexiglas, and for the first time in the exhibition, we are treated to a work that accentuates a material’s best qualities.

Earlier on, artist Alex Da Corte’s Soda Pop Painting combines the process art idiom with the expressive, chance applications of the abstract expressionists. Homemade soda is spilled and has hardened flat across the gallery floor. Given the theme of the show, the use of soda perhaps stands as a comment on the commercialization of culture; and the proliferation of different flavors, here expressed as colors, are mocked as supposed vehicles for meaning. Da Corte explores the accident — the quotidian occurrence of a spill — and mines it for its aesthetic worth, though without much success. The entire premise of this work has an overwhelming reliance on the cerebral; Da Corte’s accidental spills are derivative of the abstract expressionists’ experimentations with the artist’s medium, although where Pollock, Kline, and even Twombly achieved both beauty and cognitive power, scarcely any viewers of Soda Pop Painting will find as much.

Elsewhere throughout the show there is little actual artistic production or alteration, as if the most efficacious formal strategy is to leave these materials to define themselves. This is not simply referring to the lack of the physical act of making art, but also addresses the lack of any second layer to the limited metaphorical basis of the show in general. And still, the calculated impressions of these of mass-produced materials are often lost, since many of the artists tacitly endorse the plasticity of their medium, and revel in the aesthetic worlds that they create. In doing so they frequently undermine the neo-Marxist impulse that casts the proliferation of such products as mere kitsch.

Martin Soto Climent’s Parabolic Dust (2009), while playfully re-figuring Venetian blinds along openings in the gallery’s walls, makes us appreciate the craftsmanship of the industrial designers behind what appear to be a standard, store-bought product. The work is notable, too, for it is emblematic of an overarching paradox in the show: if “Between Spaces” was organized as visual exploration of consumer goods and their attendant aesthetic problems, then curators Tim Goossens and Kate McNamara have made a curious choice by selecting artists who speak to these issues through the hackneyed device of material de-contextualization. They assume in the viewer a sort of mechanical acceptance of the socio-economic connotations of pieces on view, something that was integral to the very first experimentations with avant-garde anti-art forms.

The problem, then, with this particular confluence of ideology and method is that the curators overestimate, or don’t estimate at all, the popular currency of their neo-Marxist perspective on modern goods. Where Pop art of the 1960s and 70s had opened new iconographic avenues by using images from our collective imagination, “Between Spaces” attempts to tease out the aesthetic possibilities of manufactured materials with equal resonance. But the main conceit of the show — repurposing everyday objects with new contexts, so as to question our relationship with them — demands that everyone be on the same “anti-consumerist” page to even advance to the next phase, where comprehension of the irony of the “recast […] functionality of standard materials” finally delivers the show’s full intellectual impact. It’s a difficult road to follow without some sort of intermediary, be it a pedagogical wall text, or the translation of a critic.

In light of the twenty-first century’s surfeit of styles and variable critical voices, contemporary curators continue to seek works that recycle themes at the conceptual heart of early modernism. In Neo-Avant Garde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955-1975 (2003), professor of art history and critic Benjamin Buchloh posits the systematic reappearance of the modes of cultural production established in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Buchloh adds how Duchamp and other early modernists who established anti-art and the “ready-made”, troubled, if not reduced to obsolescence, the critic’s authoritative position. In the era following, critics were suddenly tasked with making sense of works on a new intellectual plane. “Between Spaces” presents the full extent of this development, but also its sedentary history. In fact, the show’s premise wholly validates what Buchloh refers to as the critic’s definitive “privileged modes of seeing,” which implies that to be relevant and progressive, the work should preserve the narrow accessibility and assumed knowledge of academic critiques.

One of the biggest prospects at the outset of modernism, the idea that certain formal hi-jinks might marginalize the role of the critic, has instead given the critic a safe harbor by virtue of the routinization of a set of obscure aesthetic devices. Despite what the curators had perhaps intended, this exhibition contains no grand attacks on convention. Rather, it is just another neat arrangement in which the works’ illegibility must be fed through a system of critical interpretation before consumption. The unintelligible meaning so casually strewn about throughout “Between Spaces” would seem to further necessitate and empower any and all who subscribe to “privileged modes of seeing.” If not, the public aspect of the work of art would have beginning.

Lest we find the contemporary critic in a seemingly fragile — or worse, silent — state, we continually find shows that reaffirm and define the position of the cultural arena’s most enigmatic figure. “Between Spaces” forces us to reconsider the perpetuation of high modernist narrative, especially the manner in which today’s artists and curators maintain a healthy stable of both art historical and esoteric academic references.

One of modernism’s seminal works, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), is nearly a century old. Duchamp would have been 123 years old today. His work stands as the most indelible in the early modern tradition because his ready-mades, glass drawings, and even his early experimentation with cubist and futurist idioms were so imbued with a doubt about what art would come to represent. In 1924 he famously gave up art for chess, since the game had “all the beauty of art — and much more.” “It cannot be commercialized” Duchamp noted, “Chess is much purer than art in its social position.” While Duchamp’s iconoclastic tactics are still alive and well, what manifested from his underlying contempt for authority is now working in a different if not altogether opposite direction. In light of the past century’s ability to regenerate the same avant-garde themes, each time in service to various metaphysical concepts, perhaps Duchamp’s frustrated disengagement from the art world was actually his most prescient act.

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