Monday, November 30, 2009

Permanent Fixtures

It is somewhat intimidating to begin a new series of paintings. This is especially the case when work seems like sure a radical departure from other current or existing work. And while style changes can prove a greater risk than subject matter, the fear of a lack of acceptance by critics and collectors presents itself like that nagging miniature devil on your shoulder—berating you for attempting anything new, different, or otherwise unacceptable.

I willingly admit that that little apparition spent a good deal of time on my shoulder when I considered a new venture in painting. After all, who would accept Tyrus Clutter as something other than a figurative artist? Isn’t that the brand that has been established for nearly twenty years? Then I had a little discussion with said devil that consisted of arguments on behalf of assemblage/construction works (which are increasingly approaching something far different from traditional figure painting), as well as this proposed series which actually alludes to the figure, though it doesn’t depict it. It was all part and parcel of the same agenda, so there was little point in talking myself out of it.

Nevertheless, I knew that I would need to make a case for the work, and that is what I am doing here. So I begin with the subject matter. Bathroom fixtures. Urinals in particular. I first became interested in depicting them when there was a show at my school (Olivet Nazarene University) during my freshman year of college. It wasn’t all urinal imagery. Only a couple drawings in the exhibit displayed them, but the artist took them out of context and allowed one to see that they did have some aesthetic characteristics that made them beautiful, not just functional. The other thing that has stayed with me from that year is the use of casein paint—a medium I observed in that same exhibit or another. I transferred after the one year, but I am glad to have gained something from the experience.

The question arises—why urinals? It may be more difficult for the female of the species to understand this, since she doesn’t use urinals, but there is an intimate relationship that men have with these objects. They directly relate to our anatomy. They fit us. It may seem rather crude, but it is the nature of the relationship. They openly accept us in our most humble state.

It is when standing before these porcelain structures that men are most vulnerable. We are literally exposed and unable to defend ourselves if need be. All our primal fears rise to the surface. Often, there are partitions between each fixture to create a semblance of privacy. When there are multiple fixtures lined up with no separating partitions it is basically a waste of money since most men observe the unwritten rule that they can’t stand directly next to another man in this vulnerable posture. An open urinal must reside between two men.

Even with this allotted space, the proximate presence of someone else may prove so intense that the intended task cannot be performed. Some men blatantly break the unwritten statutes and engage in idle chit chat with their neighbors. This breach of restroom etiquette can be nerve racking on those with the proverbial "shy bladder." It all reminds me of the time I stopped into a McDonald’s in Amsterdam because public toilets were almost non-existent. I knew McDonald’s would not let me down. They did, however, have an attendant who required a monetary tip for use of her facilities. Luckily, I was able to perform my task even though this attendant walked in to wipe down the sink and counter mid-stream. I was protected because my back was to her, but we weren’t in the red light district so I wasn’t expecting to have to pay someone to observe this very private act. It was unsettling.

You wouldn’t think such a variety of emotions would be attached to such a simple porcelain device. The absence of the figures serves to illustrate the male psyche. It shows how connected our minds (spirits) are to our frail human bodies. We are not dualities but integrated beings.

This series is more about the contemporary American male than that gender in a very broad brushstroke. The discomfort with our bodies is not new, but there is a particularly contemporary strain observed here. Only with the removal of the physical bodies in these images is the full weight of the mental and spiritual completely exposed.

The Puritan strain that runs through American culture makes men quite different from our contemporaries in other world cultures, as well as from men of the past. Americans are far more obsessed with our physical bodies while still overwhelmingly prudish about their functions and processes. We are at once overly sexualized and startlingly priggish at the same time.

This series was created to make this point in a somewhat roundabout way. When an object can convey so much about the people in a culture, in the absence of those very people, it may be time to attend to some things.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Robert Gober: There’s No Place Like Home

It is the universal qualities of art that draw us to it. The ostensible contradiction is that some of the most obscure and highly personal works and themes can allude to this universality. And if the work does not stem from the personal experience of the artist, it will be less likely to deeply connect with viewers. The best work finds a way to subtly bridge the gap.

Robert Gober’s idiosyncratic artistic vocabulary is one of the most unique among artists of the last few decades. His language is not impenetrable, but it tends to be somewhat obscure. Being heavily based in personal experience, it cannot be fully know or completely translated. Yet the overwhelming humanity in the work produces a felt empathy, even when we fail to digest the broader complexities.

The very human characteristics in Gober’s work are often found in the wax body parts that populate his environments. Legs, injected with real hairs, produce an eerie likeness to actual human legs. Placed in corners or protruding from walls, they draw associations with Dorothy’s visit to Oz (minus the ruby slippers) as well as with dismembered corpses.

In Gober’s figures we tend to find only bits and pieces, never complete bodies. Placed in odd diorama-like settings, these produce dream-like dislocations in which the elements of the bodies elicit recollections of persons or experiences, nearer to flashes of suppressed memories. The dismembered figures signal the traumatic. When one considers that most of the work also contends with domestic life, the work is even more unnerving.

The domestic arena, for Gober, presents a contradiction to our concepts of security. The home is the place when children crave safety and form their understanding of life’s systems from what is lived out before them. The security in Gober’s works is skewed. It can sometimes mutate into a form of containment. Often, we find the adult, the parent, or the guardian presence compromising the safe haven.

Gober’s X Playpen provides an obvious example of this contradiction. A playpen is produced as a structure of safety that inhibits the range of movement of the child, so that he or she does not come to any harm. Gober’s structure of restraint not only inhibits movement, it suggests a prison and an apparatus that might even inflict harm. Still, this is a very physical example of what Gober more often advances through clever psychological means.

The disembodied wax legs touch on various psychological traumas based in the domestic realm. They come in many formats. Sometimes clothed with trouser legs, socks, and shoes, at other times they are bare. The separation of the limbs from the body can be conceived in several ways. The head is almost never present in Gober works. If the family is viewed like a body—a living organism whose parts are dependant on each other—then the absence of the head can be seen as an absence of the authority in the family. The deficiency of direction normally provided by the head leaves the remaining members lost.

The dismemberment may also be read like the psychological phenomenon of splitting or suppressing memories. Multiple personalities are the extreme of this, but we all do this compartmentalizing to some extent. When trauma is present the individual may dissociate the event or black it out. This becomes the security for the wounded or injured psyche. Psychological splits—severings—are the coping mechanism.

On the other side of this dismemberment of the family lies the tragic instigations by the guardian figure. Gober’s reconsideration of traumatic domestic settings reveals a dereliction of duty. The parent figure, the one entrusted to provide security, has abdicated that role. Instead of self-sacrifice on behalf of beloved offspring, the authority figure has chosen self-preservation (consider Gober’s image of a fireplace fueled by a set of child-sized log/legs). It is this dynamic that provides a recurring theme for Gober’s work, though the intricacies and personal provocations manifest themselves in a variety of iconographic forms.

This dismemberment coincides with a concurrent track within Gober’s work—Roman Catholicism. The Catholic faith, like several other belief systems intermingled from his youth, is something the artist has jettisoned from his life. Still, it provides a structure on which he rebuilds. The inconsistencies of the institutional faith are critiqued, yet held in reverence.

A 2005 installation by Gober, at the Matthew Marks Gallery, is a primary example of his strained relationship with Catholicism. The central element of the work is a life-sized, crucified, cement Christ figure. The figure is not only "broken" because of its crucified state; it is beheaded. This brings to mind the beheaded statues from the Protestant Reformation. Like the iconoclasts of the 16th century (and the practitioners of countless ancient religions) Gober has rendered this deity mute and powerless. Like the family analogy above, the Church has been likened to a body, with Christ as the head. Here, the authority of the Church is, at the very least, brought into question. The real presence of the institution’s actual power is gone.

The other startling oddity in the Christ figure is that the nipples are open and act as spouts for a continual flow of water that empties into a hole in the floor. The imagery is as paradoxical as Christ’s statement that he is "living water." This fountain relates to many other Gober works that also utilize water—or even bring water to mind through that element’s absence. Like the sacrament of baptism, the water in a Gober work is connected to a ritual cleansing or purifying.

The difficulty in assessing Gober’s full body of work is figuring out if this is a mute symbol—an ironic nod to the futility of a ritual act of cleansing—or an honest grappling with the form. Of course, it may be both. In the myriad sink sculptures (fabricated from enameled plaster with hand-crafted, cast pewter or bronze faucets and drains) many of the sinks lack plumbing. Their convoluted basin configurations often preclude the containment of water. They hint at the transition from dirty to clean—death to life—but they lack the means by which to enact this transformation. Again, they are flawed objects from a domestic setting/system that fail to live up to their promises.

Elsewhere, the presence of water provides further contradictions. Water is a key element in Gober’s 1997 installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (now in the permanent collection of the Schaulager Museum in Switzerland). The central image of this installation is a nearly life-sized figure of the Virgin Mary (again, in concrete, like the image of Jesus—concrete defined by its cold, immoveable, and unforgiving nature) with a drainage pipe bisecting its abdomen, and standing over a large storm grate. There is no actual water present within this figure, but it is still part of the equation. Mary is literally a conduit. But of what? The gift of the incarnate deity? Grace? Our prayers and supplications? It is hard to know.

Water is, however, an active part of the rest of the installation. Inset in the wall behind Mary is a doorway that reveals an ascending wooden staircase. Rushing down the stairs and emptying into a hole in the floor are countless gallons of water. Is this a stairway from heaven that represents Christ’s journey from heaven to earth? Ascent of the stairs is treacherous, if not impossible. Maybe the cleansing act is found in the near impossible journey heavenward. But if our ascent is blocked by water, so is our descent.

On each side of the statue of the Virgin is a vintage suitcase, open. Peering into these we find storm grates in the floor. Beneath the surface can be seen aquatic plant life and a partial view of a man and child. All of these are submerged in water and all are studio fabricated elements. The scenes appear somewhat Edenic, but our full visual access is blocked by the storm grates. These are surely passages. They allude to a journey through their access via the suitcases.

We find wondrous things when looking beneath the surface. It is a world teeming with life. It is almost untouched by the hands of humans. Still, this is also a sewer. The water runoff surely contains all the impurities washed from the surface above. It is difficult to discern which environment is better—the one above or below. And this uncertainty is a reflection of Gober’s investigations of the domestic environment. Often, what first seems true and right might contain inconsistencies and vagaries.

Gober’s iconography draws enough associations with reality that we can decipher some of the artist’s intent. His exhibitions are like a Rosetta Stone, providing a key to translate the language of our contemporary culture and the obstacle course of the domestic setting. Gober’s work is not didactic. It reveals inconsistencies and uncovers our common questions. It does not seek to answer those questions, but reveal them. The answers only come when we begin to ask the right questions.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Travels Along the Road of Life

The spike in gasoline prices over the past couple years has certainly put a spotlight on transportation costs. Those living in major metropolitan centers have long been accustomed to mass transportation. While some of the debate includes proposals of alternative energies and less individual automobile use, the reality is that some parts of the U.S. will simply cease to be inhabited if we have to cut back on automobile use (not to mention pickup and SUV use).

These places are just not walkable. Personally, I like to live in a walkable area. This is one of the things I love about Boston. Whether I would drive into Boston and park or take the commuter train, I would usually walk from place to place and take the T (subway) if I had to go very far. Once, when my cousin was visiting, we ended up walking most of the Freedom Trail, starting in Boston Common and walking to the North End and back, then to the South End and back. It was a great way to see the city and I never would have found one of my favorite bow ties if we hadn’t passed an out-of-the-way men’s store on foot.

I will confess, however, that my primary joy in walking is the discovery of odd stuff along the way. I’m not an outdoorsy person, so my walks do not typically involve any investigations of the wonders of nature. I prefer walking through urban areas where I can come across some of the strangest objects you can imagine.

This scavenging for trash started at an early age, much to the dismay of my parents. We lived two houses down from the elementary school where my mother taught. Once, just days after school let out for the summer, my sisters and I happened upon an overflowing dumpster at the school. I no longer recall what we brought home, but something beyond repair, which had once, no doubt, been in my mother’s classroom, was probably among the newfound treasures. It was matched the excitement of a trip to the candy store and toy store rolled into one.

In Florida, I have to wait until the winter months to go on these trash hikes. It is not as enjoyable to search for these items drenched in perspiration while developing a severe sun burn. I did manage to pick up a few items on a recent walk. I have been considering incorporating a mosaic made from the shattered remnants of taillights and turn signals. which tend to collect at intersections. I did find some bits for that on my five mile trek, but I need to clean up several accident sites before that project can go into production.

The best find on that journey was parts from a couple different cell phones. They are obviously a little beaten up, as one would expect with something found on the side of the road. I always imagine a scenario that accompanies roadside cell phones. It involves a teenage couple—or perhaps a very immature couple in their twenties—in a heated argument inside a car. Likely, one is jealous and when that one wrong person calls, the phone is apprehended by the jealous party and tossed through an open window of the moving vehicle. Maybe this is another indictment against our gasoline powered culture, but I think it has more to do with selfish people who can’t manage their relationships.

Cell phones are a nice convenience and I am grateful to have one on a long roadtrip, as insurance if anything goes wrong. However, cell phones are one of many elements that comprise the broken state of contemporary interpersonal communications. We do not connect deeply and effectively in our relationships. Quick, needless cell phone calls and many text messages often do more to erode our relationships than strengthen them. And I’m not even touching on the inherent problems of email.

Even the best advances of technology become mute hunks of plastic and metal when they end up under the tire of a car. Quick, short communications have become commonplace. These virtual conversations often take place in public settings and tend to cause the persons involved to momentarily abort their in-person communications. How often is a Twitter message more important than a business lunch or the one-on-one conversations people have on a date?
It seems that many in our contemporary society fear real intimacy. It takes time, effort, and concentration to really get to know another person. It takes the same effort to be known by another. Communications technologies provide the illusion that we are deeply communicating. However, quantity of communication should never be confused with quality. And the very private details of a life that are sometimes broadcast on Facebook and Twitter are a far cry from true intimacy.

Maybe all this is why I like to walk. These days walking is intentional. We often do it because we want to, not because we have to. We move at the pace of the natural world. Perhaps it is time to remember what a human pace really is. Living in our physical bodies is not convenient, but it is a life based on the parameters that we have been given.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Frances Trombly & Conrad Bakker: The Value of the Overlooked

For centuries, two primary and essential qualities of artworks produced in the traditions of Western cultures were that they were highly mimetic and well crafted. For many, these still remain definitive elements for any artwork. Once artists began measuring the quality of a work by additional and alternative standards, however, the game changed. Materials came into question. An intentional, apparent lack of craftsmanship held weight as a legitimate conceptual concern. And, of course, representation became only one of multiple options.

Some contemporary artists have brought these traditions full circle. For them, the irony associated with a return to the representational, through high levels of craftsmanship, results in a fitting commentary on culture. Two American artists, one female and one male, are currently utilizing this approach as a way to call the viewer back toward an attention to detail.

Miami-based Frances Trombly produces work that is firmly rooted in the Feminist art of the 1970s. Her materials and processes are an extension of that aesthetic. For earlier artists, such as Miriam Schapiro, the utilization of fabric, sewing, and embroidery was directly tied to the traditional place women were assigned within society. These female artists used processes considered to be "women’s work" as an avenue to call attention to the lesser state to which women had been relegated. The intricacy and attention to detail of such works proves that these, and the works of their anonymous forebears, deserve equal scrutiny and accolades among the traditionally accepted artworks within the canon.

Trombly employs similar processes as the first generation Feminists, yet her considerations cover a broader range. There is a tinge of environmentalism, though probably a deeper concern with consumerism. The artist relies on processes that would traditionally be placed within the category of craft. She weaves the cloth that composes the substrate for additional embroidery work. In other works she knits or crochets non-utilitarian forms that appear, at first glance, to be consumer goods.

Consider both Garden Hose and Extension Cord. Each crocheted tube is produced as a stand-in for its namesake. The reproduction of a mundane, practical object, through time-intensive and craft-oriented means, is a nearly opposite strategy than that employed by so many other contemporary artists. Tim Hawkinson, for instance, has used actual orange extension cord—woven together—to create a pair of shorts. Both artists are fashioning somewhat innocuous items to be designated as objects of fine art. Trombly, however, seems to establish objects within a more camouflaged, everyday experience and environment.

Many of Trombly’s other works bear witness to the disposable quality of contemporary culture. These works may be camouflaged even more successfully because they initially appear as cast-off items--debris. Their placement is an essential consideration for their success. Paper Corner consists of what appear to be more than a dozen sheets of lined notebook paper, crumpled and tossed into the corner. In reality, these are sheets of fabric that the artist has woven on a loom. The likeness, in both thickness and coloration, to actual notebook paper disguises the work so effectively that one would likely bypass it if not for its location within a gallery. Receipt (Publix) exhibits the same properties. In this instance, not only has the artist woven the thin length of fabric, she has also meticulously embroidered the tally of supermarket items on the faux receipt.

It is in works like these that Trombly best calls into question the perceived disposable nature of our culture. What else do we bypass in our daily routines, considering it as unimportant and of no value? To press the issue further Trombly has produced several garbage bags or trash can liners. These drawstring bags are composed of hand-woven fabric which is then sewn together into fully functioning objects. She goes so far as to place one inside an actual garbage can (Trash Can)—making it ready to receive authentic trash.

The subject of trash receptacles and garbage bags manifests itself within the work of Conrad Bakker, as well. Bakker’s work fails to exhibit the qualities of Feminist ideology so integral to Trombly’s, though concepts of consumerism and commodity are a priority. Bakker seeks to camouflage his works, too, but he often places pieces into situations and surroundings of everyday life so that they may be used or "consumed." But these are mute items that fail to function as their prototypes. Under the general heading of Untitled Projects, these works turn the concept of consumerism upside down.

Untitled: [Dumpster] is a full-sized construction dumpster sculpted from wood and painted to look exactly like the real thing. Placed outside of the School of Art building on the campus of the University of Illinois-Chicago, the sculpture was ultimately treated as its prototype when refuse was tossed into it. Again, as with Trombly, it takes more than perfunctory recognition to understand that this object is not what it seems.

Bakker’s garbage bags appear in the guise of a box of "Hefty" trash bags, again, sculpted in wood and painted to appear to be the genuine item. The artist retains a certain amount of the hand crafted in these works. They are not quite as slick and smooth as mass produced products would be. These "commodity" works are placed on store shelves next to their real life kin, photographed, and left. So the unique object, considered as culturally and economically valuable, is offered at the price of the mass produced consumer good.

More pointed references to the consumerist basis of a capitalist society are found in a more recent work entitled COMMODITY [Capital]. This sculpture mimics a volume of "Capital" by Karl Marx. Interestingly, this work, shown at the exhibition The Irresistible Force at the Tate Modern, finds its placement in one of the world’s most elite contemporary art venues. The Tate’s role in the rise of the YBAs (Young British Artists) through the Turner Prize provides an evocative foil against which to consider Bakker’s work. The trends toward excessive pricing and realized auction amounts, so often associated with YBAs like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, is countered by a work that calls our systems of valuation into question.

One final work by Conrad Bakker fully exhibits the playfulness and generosity that resides at the heart of the Untitled Projects. REFRESHMENT [Art Chicago] was equal parts installation and performance. Produced for the Art Chicago art fair, the work consisted of a simulation of a child’s lemonade stand. The card table, sign, cups, and Kool-Aid were all carved from wood and had painted to mimic a refreshment table for the wandering art connoisseurs and collectors.

Bakker sat at the table and sold individual cups of painted, wooden Kool-Aid to passersby for twenty-five cents each. There is obvious humor here, as there is in Trombly’s work. Refreshment provides an interactive component that more fully engages Bakker’s target audience. Those in attendance at a contemporary art fair know the rules of the game. They get the ironic references in contemporary art and are aware of the enormous sums paid for some of those same works. In a system where the middleman—the dealer—is often the contact person for the collector, Bakker has removed a layer and provided a confrontation that is not simply between the art and the collector, but with the artist himself—the originator of the idea.

In all the works discussed the hand crafted, representational nature is employed to hide the work from view. The viewer is caused to question not only our systems of valuation in the marketplace, but our unconscious valuations of life’s intangibles. The exquisite properties of those things that do not shout loudly for attention are possibly those things we most need. Family, friends, and those people who perform the lowliest tasks of life are truly the needful things.

The work of Conrad Bakker is also discussed, along with the work of several other artists, in Tyrus Clutter's essay Material Presence: The Sacramental in Art, featured in the SEEN journal, volume IX.2, 2009.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Affliction of Job: Hope for the Battered and Bruised

I began planning my Affliction of Job series in 2003. That was the year I took the reference shots for the paintings. I didn’t actively paint works for the series for several years. I drew the images but time constraints kept me from completing them. I have recently been finishing up this project and have been able to digest the concept more thoroughly. The ideas always evolve over time.

I have been painting on a variety of old book pages over the past several months. The way each book’s pages reacts to the watercolor is unique. Some pages are slick and the color sits on top of the words, pooling up in halos of pigment. Other pages are over-absorbent. With them, it is difficult to control the intensity of the color and retain precise edges.

The Hebrew Bible pages used for the Job series are brittle with age (printed in the 1880s). They can crack or chip. They are also yellowed from time which causes the outer edges of the pages to produce a duller color than the one applied. The fragile quality of the paper is a perfect match to the story of Job. Our frail physical bodies are pushed and pulled in this world, showing the effects of time and wear to all who observe.

This series was always about suffering. And while the human body is utilized as the primary vehicle for the expression of that suffering, the works do not solely reflect the physical. The full anguish of Job was presented in the entanglement of his physical pain, along with the losses of material possessions and beloved family members. It was psychological and spiritual grief, too.

The solitary images of the Job figures, shrouded in darkness, convey his lonely plot in life. He suffers alone. His wife and friends abandon him. They cease to console him as insult is added to injury. At last, Job is isolated in an abyss where he finds that it seems even God is mocking him.

Job is that first literary figure to experience a dark night of the soul. He is the shining example of one confronted with the inevitable truth that we are utterly alone in the universe. Well, maybe not fully alone. You see, Job realizes that, while he needs people, he can’t ultimately count on them. He also understands that he is more than a mere physical body. When his frustration gets the better of him he presents his argument to God. God’s response is that Job is not the Creator nor the Sustainer of life. His mortal existence cannot fathom the intricacies of the universe and the reasons why life might seem unjust.

One thing that marks this series is that Job, as a figure, is never fully separated from God. Like the pigments on the paper, he is pushed and pulled. His form becomes misshapen, flattened, wrinkled, and flattened again. His form bears the marks of this abuse and in his torment and shame, he hides his face from view. Yet Job, like all of us, is never abandoned by God. The very words of God are woven through his being. And this is the hope of the story of Job—no matter how abandoned and dejected we feel, we are never really alone.