Exhibitions like this happen rarely. A readymade collage of discarded trash sealed in plastic, as in Arman’s “poubelles” or in Cesar’s crushed cars, offers an alternative point of view relative to the highly polished, glittering multiplex items so frequently displayed in most galleries today. Rather than high-end, digitally-produced sculpture, fabricated in anodized aluminum, or gargantuan works made with welded steel, Day-Glo resin, and aluminum struts, the works shown in Accumulation at the Allan Stone Gallery (113 East 90th Street) present various forms of detritus, leftover from another cultural time and space. Less about indulgence than waste, less about gluttony than putrefaction, less about computation than scatology, the works in this exhibition reveal the repeatable remains of both under- and overused objects, incessantly manufactured and saturated in repetitive advertising. This is a show neither for the faint of heart nor for megalopolitan spendthrifts, but for humble esthetes educated into the middle class who may occasionally need visual reinforcement in order to believe that good art still exists beyond blatantly omnipresent commodities.
This is Accumulation. The remains are everywhere, yet ironically, if not paradoxically, sealed off in containers of one kind or another. The works of Arman and Cesar, two prolific members of the artist group called Nouveau Réalisme, which flourished in France in the sixties, were anointed by the late French critic, Pierre Restany. These were the conspirators behind this show. Conspirators? Let’s be polite, and call them influences. Both artists were inclined to collect junk, any sort of garbage, found here and there, and then recontextulaize it in a packaged form. One of the truly dynamic works at the entrance to the gallery is an accumulation of welded revolvers, by Arman (formerly known as Armand Pierre Fernandez). There is also a Plexiglas container of French aspirin tubes, and a cast plastic cube filled with tubes of epoxy paint. These works are all from the 60s. Yet there is a supreme irony in these alien works. Why on earth would one want to package what was already once packaged and then thrown away?
We might propose the same question to any of the artists included in this healthily subversive exhibition, many of whom have historical importance. For example, we might ask Dan Basen why he collected buttons and sealed them behind a grid in 1964, later named “Concentration Camp.” Or we might ask Krista Van Ness why she saved cicada shells and put them in a large glass frame. Why does Linda Cross simulate metal containers in painted cardboard and then present them as if embedded in the landscape? Are they the last remains of consumerism that have gone on to damage the natural cycle of Earth’s fertility? “Unearth” (1989), as it is titled, asks some major questions that have further intensified over the past two decades. The message is more indirect for Kathryn Spence, who in 1960 made perfectly realistic, surrogate birds—as proportionately accurate as Deborah Butterfield’s horses—constructed from found trash, string, and wire. They are utterly convincing as if mummified and preserved for eternity.
Then there are the fantastic twisted wire works in which trash is sealed inside swirling forms. These works were made by an unknown and unnamed street artist, and discovered by the gallery’s founding proprietor many years ago. After trying in vain to discover the whereabouts of the artist, he finally conceded to calling him the Philadelphia Wireman. (The artist was designated male because he was seen by others making the works.) One may be tempted to call the work “outsider art;” but somehow the category just doesn’t make the grade. One might rather call these sensible bundles of abstract form eccentric abstract expressionism. They invite the intimacy of being held in one’s hand rather than mounted on a wall. The magic is there, and so is the force and commitment of the artist who made them.
One might argue in favor of a transcendent aspect to many of these works; yet at the same time a Freudian analysis of the human need to accumulate detritus in one form or another might lead in the direction of a scatological interpretation. The opposition between the two—transcendence and scatology—is interesting, yet does nothing to devalue the importance of the works in this show. According to St. John of Patmos, presumably the author of the Book of Revelation, the last book in the New Testament, there is a prophecy of the coming of last events, or what theologians refer to as eschatology. If one were to combine Freud and St. John in the context of Accumulation, one might discover an important new synthesis in art, not altogether irrelevant to our time. For the moment, let’s call it eschato-scatology, or more precisely: Shit matters! Again, here is an exhibition that happens rarely. A great show.
Accumulation is on view at the Allan Stone Gallery through April 3, 2010.
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.