“Thick against thin, hard against soft, curved against straight, and the shapes in between.” I first heard this maxim from Knox Martin, my esteemed teacher at the Art Students League sometime in the last century. It refers to contrast, and its value in manipulating perception. But contrast isn’t useful only for accentuating distinctions on the visual side of art; it can also be used conceptually to highlight polemics of dialectical critique.
I recently heard the term “gilded edge art,” referring to hyper-finished, super-shiny works, best exemplified by the output of high-profile artists like Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Anselm Reyle, and Urs Fischer. A lot of these pieces are labor-intensive, requiring industrial workshops filled with teams of specialists fabricating, casting, plating, and polishing. Some use rich materials like gold plate, stainless steel, and space-age lacquers. The fingerprints of the artist are buffed away, and the resultant objects bear a strong resemblance to ultra-high-end luxury goods. The focus on shiny surfaces implies an overriding fascination with superficial beauty, and historically relates to the “licked surface,” a long held signifier of academic art. Beyond its obvious parody of ostentatious baubles for the rich, it also traces the evolution of the blue chip market into the new academy. In the late ’60s, California “Finish Fetish” artists dealt with a previous iteration of surface obsession. Daniel Weinberg, the longtime Los Angeles gallerist who presented Koons’s first shows on the West Coast, commented in a conversation that Koons would spend hours fixatedly polishing the Plexiglas cases of his early works, as if “he could deny death” by achieving an immaculate glossiness of finish.
If dreams of immaculate immortality are linked to the perfectly bright and shiny surface, we Brooklyn avant-outsiders are more intimately familiar with the deep, dark, skuzzier side of this coin, the B.Q.E. part that accepts death and decay as inevitable. Over the last few years, major exhibitions like Unmonumental at the NuMu, a couple of recent Whitney Biennials, and a slew of controversial gallery shows have spawned a new aesthetic discourse on crap. This discussion has sprung up among artists and in the blogosphere at sites like Paddy Johnson’s Art Fag City, which ran an essay by Karen Archy titled “A Brief History of Combining Crap with Crap” (http://www.artfagcity.com/2009/08/26/a-brief-history-of-combining-crap-with-crap/). “Crap,” which was previously called “funk” before morphing into “Funk,” probably starts with the “MERTZ” collages of Kurt Schwitters. Indeed, this dialectic is as basic as the clash between Classicism’s timeless perfection and Romanticism’s fascination with decay, ruins, and fragments.
During the postwar decades, the likes of Robert Rauschenberg, West Coast Beat artist Bruce Conner, and the NO! art group (Boris Lurie, Stanley Fisher, and Sam Goodman) have extended Schwitters’s legacy, followed by hot younger artists such as Agathe and the late Dash Snow, Mike Kelley, and Brooklyn’s own Chris Martin. However, most of this work springs from an expressionistically freeform compositional approach which, in the case of Martin, was unabashedly influenced by the vernacular forms of black Southern artists like Thornton Dial and Lonnie Holley, who had little choice but to employ the most abject of materials.
From Shithouse to Bauhaus
If gilded edge art springs from a utopian desire for immortality and perfection (along with a higher price point), then conversely “crap” and its attendant sensibilities represent a slacker discount dystopia, a brave new world of lowered expectations, dumpster diving, out of control debt, leveraged consumerism, and massive waste, the main purpose of which is to stay in fashion. A most impressive recent example was Black Acid Co-op’s installation (a collaboration of Justin Lowe and Jonah Freeman), which filled the entire Deitch Wooster Street space with burned-out, rotting trailers piled high with reeking meth lab debris. Despite the forces of entropy and putrefaction, traditional paint and canvas have been replaced with castoff clothes, crumbly sun-bleached Styrofoam, piss-stained sheetrock, corrugated cardboard, recycled lumber, and black plastic trash bags. I’ve begun to notice a group of artists who seem newly enthralled with these ad hoc materials, and whose work exploits their sensual and visual qualities in terms of a more purely formalistic abstraction, less a shriek at society’s decay than an astute acceptance of it. Their mission: to restore order to this pathetic mess. This might be an attempted return to classicism, or merely another ironic twist by obsessive “organizers,” but it demands a fresh appreciation of even the most disgusting of matter.
I’ve been to shows by Jim Lee at Freight + Volume that felt like visiting a construction site, sheetrock dust and all. Jim’s brusque application of industrial materials and strange home improvement-style compounds, despite his more structured approach, recalls the urgent directness of Pollock’s drips, while his oddly shaped supports, constructed from networks of struts and crossbars, question accepted notions of a canvas stretcher. Teasing nuanced tones of color and texture out of the abraded surfaces of these unadulterated industrial products, Lee has traded in Duchamp’s readymade for some Home Depot ready-mix concrete.
These artists respond to their environments like chameleons. A visit to Regina Rex at 1717 Troutman Street during a recent show titled “MIN” (abject Minimalism being the theme) might leave one wondering where the cubical construction in this decrepit, mildewed factory ends and the art begins. Castoff plastic tarps or packing blankets draped over stretcher frames by Borden Capalino conjure slapped-together room dividers. “War Cancun” retains the grunge and limp wrinkles of its re-purposed black plastic sheeting, but invites a prolonged gaze, not unlike an early monochrome by Brice Marden, Robert Ryman, or Marcia Hafif. Lisha Bai casts rugged cement into cubic columns that rise to eye level, and in “Harem No. 3” (2009) she even impregnated the sculpture with perfume oils. These austere blocks of naturally variegated dark grays and rough facture stand like plinths, but seem too unsocialized for any crowning accoutrements.
Last season’s show by Derek Stroup at A. M. Richards Fine Art titled Station Pieces also seemed to balance industrial junk and Constructivist conceptualism. Deriving his compositions from billboard and packaging design, the paintings are constructed from sheet metal and studs, pop-riveted together like the boxes of delivery trucks. Using commercial high-gloss enamel, Stroup retains the color planes of highway signage, obliterating the text with a few broad brushstrokes. The showstopper was “Red, White, Grey 2 (Station Exterior),” a floor-to-ceiling divider-like construction of tin beams topped with a horizontal span of paint on metal. Exposed pink fiberglass insulation, metal studs, translucent white plastic sheeting, and electrical conduits become effigies of Rothko’s rectangles of pigment. The unfinished state of “Red White and Grey 2” begs the question of whether it was in progress or regress, something many Williamsburg residents are asking themselves about their neighborhood.
Not all crap art is made from crap, some just ends up that way from abuse and negligence. A Lettuce Slaughter in the Woods at Real Fine Arts, 673 Meeker, was a summer show that tapped into a grungy vibe. A range of works were installed and, according to a prearranged agreement, curator (and Greater New York 2010 alumnus) Dave Miko proceeded to squirt and splash green paint—like some initiation ritual involving gang members pissing on new recruits— around and onto the art, nearly overwhelming the more delicate works, such as a small vertical painting on finger-stained raw canvas by Sam Martineau. In this piece, a thin white outline of a square floats in the upper half of the picture, while a network of slack stripes in tertiary olive, salmon, cobalt, and gray form a diagonal X within. If a well-mannered ennui is palpable in Martineau’s work, the multicolored, flagstone-patterned canvas by Cy Amundson might qualify for the genre by virtue of its lame and cursory derivation of works by longtime formalist funkster Mary Heilmann. Can a “bad” version of “good bad” be good?
Material Issues and other Matters, curated by Michael Mahalchick and Wallace Whitney at CANADA, which presents works by an intentionally scruffy group of artists using recycled goods, seems to hit the rusty nail on its bent head. Hanging sculptures by Suzanne Goldenberg are crafted from wood scraps, fruit bag mesh, cardboard, clothes hanger wire, and string. The unstretched canvases by Jess Fuller, though admittedly expressionistically painted, do contain precisely delineated areas where the artist removed the warp threads, leaving a drooping skein of the woof . This technique has been used by blue jean customizers since the ’60s, but here it functions as a physical de-construction of the canvas, forcing a reconsideration of the idealized status of the picture plane, and where it conjoins with the materials used to produce the painting. Kazimir Malevich would be spinning in his grave if he could see what his Suprematist ideas have come to nearly 100 years after “Black Square.”
It was Malevich’s name that popped from both of our mouths during a chat with curator Mahalchick about “Untitled (corked)” (2010), one of a group of sewn pieces by Josh Blackwell. Perhaps as representative of “Funkster Formalism” as any piece thus far discussed, “Untitled (corked)” (2010), is a wall hanging, perhaps a tapestry, that uses a black plastic “bodega bag” as its foundation. The bag has been aged and softened by wear or reuse, and flattened against the wall it takes on the shape of a cartoon animal head, with the handle slots becoming ears or eyes. Just off center to the left, Blackwell has sewn in a diagonal square brocade of thick black organic wool yarn. The chunky stitching is primitive or childlike, but robust in comparison to the plastic membrane, which appears grayed next to the rich black wool. Through this conflation of materials, Blackwell implies that despite the blandness of mass-produced throwaway products, by virtue of a fixated humanistic action, a more substantial durability can be achieved. Perhaps ironically, for seekers of enlightenment, there’s a greater potential space for transcendence in a skuzzball dystopia than in shiny utopias, or maybe I’m just being Romantic.
JAMES KALM has written extensively on the Brooklyn art scene. In 2006 he began posting video reviews of local art exhibitions at his two YouTube channels that have generated over six million views.