Writings and Conversations

Doug Ashford
Writings and Conversations
(Mousse Publishing, 2014)

Writings and Conversations, a small and austerely designed book, provides a useful introduction and overview to Doug Ashford’s work with Group Material and a consideration of his beautifully conflicted current work. The conflict, or complication, lies between Ashford’s developing thoughts about working with both a radical social practice and his honest effort at the intimacy of painting.

Beginning in the 1980s as a member of the collective Group Material, Ashford worked to develop a form that could articulate and exhibit ideas of democracy and social justice.

Our discussions on the choice of themes, sites, objects, and artifacts, and in planning models of address and structures of display, were fundamentally about projecting ideas we had of ourselves, which were dialogic and inclusive, onto art institutions, which appeared myopic and falsely neutral. The possibilities for art were made real in the relationship between collaborators first, then exported … in the form of a model.

Recently, at dOCUMENTA 13 in Kassel, Germany, and currently at the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter in Høvikodden, Norway, Ashford’s exhibitions of his own work have questioned the ability of abstract forms to address empathy. In mid-December, I visited Ashford in his Brooklyn studio as he prepared to ship work to Oslo, where he was to be included in an exhibition organized as a response to the attacks on a government building and summer camp in the summer of 2011. Continuing with a form that Ashford developed for his exhibit at dOCUMENTA 13, his current installation plays with three primary elements first used in Kassel: small formalist paintings, photographs of people, and the elements of display.
The dOCUMENTA exhibit was economical and precise in its use of the three elements: 18 small formalist paintings (painted with the same Constructivist-like aesthetic); one New York Times photograph of an adult couple catching each other as they collapse in grief at the scene of a tragedy; and several small photographs of two actors reenacting that scene of empathetic embrace. All elements were installed in a small and simple outdoor hut made of glass and pine. The paintings and photographs were hung on the wall at various heights and placed leaning on shelves. The installation filled the small building in a seemingly random and casual way.

While formalist painting can appear to occupy an arid territory of intelligent placement of shapes and colors, devoid of attention to the issues of the world, Ashford raises two interesting propositions for the function of painting. First, through the curious reversal that occurs in his formalizing of a highly emotional real-life moment, the formalist paintings (and the form of the exhibition) must then be likewise recognized for the empathetic thought behind them. We suddenly might see that these formal paintings perhaps contain empathetic information, as we suddenly see that the tragic photograph has become formalist through its re-enactment and photographing. Second, the earnest paintings, with apparent formalist rigor, inevitably fall over into the current conversation around what Raphael Rubinstein has labeled “provisional painting.” Ashford’s paintings are not made by an accomplished painter with a long and serious painting project. These paintings are not ironic; they represent an honest effort by someone coming late to painting, to test out the possibilities of this way of thinking. In that way, they are provisional. And yet they offer a very different approach to provisionality than most of the painters Rubenstein speaks of. He is speaking of accomplished painters choosing to go casual, rather than a casual painter (and serious artist) choosing to take painting seriously.

Several of the essays and conversations in the book discuss the history of Group Material and consider both its development and its legacy. In “A Boy in the Park,” Ashford attempts, with exquisite empathy and imagination, to enter into and reveal the paintings of Jochen Klein, a German painter who joined Group Material in 1994 with his friend Thomas Eggerer and worked on some of the final projects that GM produced. He died in 1997. The essay is both a memorial reflection and an effort to enunciate the mixture of the sentimental and the revelatory that Ashford finds in Klein’s work. The apparent silliness of Klein’s paintings—his “images of men with baby tigers, sad geese, ballerinas, and boys lying around with sleepy rabbits” in gauzy pastel landscapes, as Ashford describes them—makes them particularly difficult to take in within the context of the seriousness of GM’s mission, “But the figure-in-the-landscape images that Jochen produced are subjectively oriented extensions of social inquiry because they reflect the way that all imaginings of different futures are also ideal projections of the self: models of what we could be.” He goes on to reveal what was at that time a distant imagining, his interest in the possibilities of painting for himself: “They reflect on the dilemma of reconciling my work on public issues with my fascination with intimate pictures.” The short-fiction piece “Airport Photos” adds to this strange intimacy, imagining an airport encounter between Ashford’s mother and his former Group Material friend and collaborator Felix González-Torres. The two share photographs, and are thus transported toward empathy.

The mission of Group Material was to find a collective artistic voice for social activism. The method it developed, almost perversely for that time and ideology, was a rigorous use of highly intentional and specific exhibition design: design that was intended to activate the very experience of addressing the questions being considered. Specifically stated was an interest in exhibition as an inquiry into democratic form. This emphasis on the exhibition as an artist-created educational model has deeply influenced contemporary art, and it has recently shown up as an important consideration in painting. Consider the efforts of R.H. Quaytman, Jutta Koether, or Richard Aldrich in creating exhibitions of visual thinking that offer a consideration of questions rather than a dwelling on objects.

The best of writing and art comes when we, the readers and viewers, are brought into the possibility to talk about things that usually can’t be said, things that can’t be said because the subjects are overloaded with cliché and/or history. Things like love and imagining new worlds. In the essay “Abstraction and Empathy,” Ashford closes with this thought:

The magic wand of abstraction joined to empathy provide both a release and an opportunity—a moment for the production of new frames for love. Together they make a frame for a third position, structured I would like to think, by the abstract images we can make from each other, with each other.

What he’s suggesting is that working imaginatively—working with paint, for example—might offer exactly the kind of work that is needed to alter the circumstances of an imperfect world.

Contributor

Craig Stockwell

Craig Stockwell is an artist currently in Brooklyn at the Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation for one year. Otherwise, he lives, works, writes, and teaches in New Hampshire.

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