ChicagoArts Club of Chicago
September 20 – December 21, 2018
Rarely has an exhibition left me feeling equal parts incredulous, awestruck, anxious, melancholic, nauseated, and peaceful. Perhaps never, actually, until this past December, when I saw 60 of Gaylen Gerber’s “Supports” at the Arts Club of Chicago.
For those unfamiliar with the Arts Club, it is an elite, hundred-year-old private society in downtown Chicago that exhibits international art. The sale of a Brancusi funded the building of its current home, designed around an original Mies staircase. Selections from its collection of work by Paul Klee, Francis Picabia, Sigmar Polke, and other modern and contemporary masters hang in the members-only dining room and event spaces. Over the course of its storied history, the Arts Club introduced Chicago to the artistic avant-garde, bringing Marcel Duchamp, Gertrude Stein, and John Cage to the city long before the Art Institute knew what to do with them and before the Museum of Contemporary Art even existed. Roman Ondak and Simon Starling have been given shows in recent years. It is the perfect place for Gerber to conduct what I have come to think of as Holy Shit Art.
As in, holy shit, did he really alter a 1,200-year-old ceramic cup, discovered on the north coast of Peru, depicting the god of the underworld according to late Moche culture? What about those Lucio Fontana multiples from 1968, cast and punctured porcelain, from an edition originally painted in black, white, and gold?
Yes, Gerber did.
You will know what you value the first (and second and third) time you gasp: No, he didn’t! But he did. Gerber, and Gerber alone, meticulously and laboriously overpainted these and dozens of other found objects, in one of two shades of matte oil paint—standard white titanium or a custom-blended gray that he’s been using since 1980—covering every single visible inch and then some, down into the depths of vessels, to the bottom edges of bases and stands. The list of affected objects ranges from the ancient (a Bactrian stone idol) to the contemporary (a postmodern vase by Ettore Sottsass), from the sacred (a 13th-century male Khmer deity) to the profane (an Anheuser-Busch beer can), from the high (a bronze commemorative head, commissioned by a ruler of the Kingdom of Benin) to the low (a Nazi scalp prop, commissioned by the film director Quentin Tarantino), from the symbolic (a Ming dynasty funerary figurine) to the practical (a Roman hairpin). And so on. There are a lot of categories into which objects can be placed, and Gerber seems to have them covered. Did I mention the rubber chicken?
It is unsettling, to say the least, to encounter such a vast range of objects treated as equals, be they precious artifacts or worthless litter. Actually, it’s frigging Zen. Most sit on identical unpainted fiberboard pedestals, though a few stand directly on the floor or hang on a wall. The majority are arranged pell-mell in the second gallery, with a handful of outliers placed in the first gallery and in ancillary spaces. A brochure identifies the original objects, their materials and dates, and offers a few extended descriptions. That both a Pinocchio film canister and a Russian icon of Saint George and the Dragon were extensively captioned, but a Japanese ikebana vase was not, suggests that every object could be. A contemporary liquor bottle tells a story, as does a thousand-year-old Chancay mummy mask, provided the viewer has a capacious enough vision. No doubt Gerber does.
Gerber’s deceptively simple system—acquire, repaint, display—unleashes a torrent of questions about value, ontology, identity, authorship, ethics, and cooperation. This last is Gerber’s stock-in-trade: in 1993 he began inviting artists to paint on top of his gray canvas “Supports” and hang their own artwork in front of his gray, wall-size folded-paper “Backdrops.” A unique example of the former, a canvas onto which the artist Cindy Loehr projected personal images, appears at the Arts Club, as both testament to Gerber’s enduring and multi-directional collegiality and a way to set the tone for this terrifyingly equivocal exhibition. Since Loehr’s tragic death in 2014, the canvas has remained mournfully, elegantly, openly bare. The new “Supports,” indeed, are really just an inversion of the old “Supports,” such that now Gerber paints over the work of others rather than under it. In a small but notable detail, though, he’s no longer asking. Can it still be cooperative if you don’t have the original maker’s permission? Is that a moot point if they’re dead? Do the objects do the cooperating or is it the people?
But really, where to begin? When in doubt, start with the title. Gerber makes this easy, since all of the works in the series are named “Support”—but support of what? The original objects provided support for bodies (an Adolf Loos footstool), for foodstuffs (a Native American water basket), for structures (a concrete fragment found in Grant Park), for ritual (a Guinean snake headdress), for aesthetics (the Loos footstool, again), even for politics (the concrete fragment, again, because it was found the night on November 4, 2008, when President-elect Barack Obama gave his victory speech). Changed by acquisition, by paint, and by placement, they no longer support any of these functions, a transmogrification especially striking in the case of a trio of Tchitcheri, carved wooden figures traditionally used by the Moba people in their household shrines to ensure good health and prosperity. To see an object shed its purpose so easily is staggering—but it shouldn’t be, really. That’s what collecting does—be it stone bodhisattva heads or Baroque Italian church paintings, it’s goodbye religious veneration, hello aesthetic and cultural appreciation! Perhaps only collections of modern and contemporary art can claim to be displayed according to their makers’ intentions. (Or perhaps not: no artist, even the most cynical, is making work as an investment strategy.)
Gerber has not just given these objects a new context, of course, he has also given them a new look. This is less jarring with objects that normally display little color variation, like a ceremonial iron hoe of the Afo peoples, and fairly jaw-dropping with those known for their vividness, like a Marlboro Red Label cigarette pack. Depending on personal taste, this might in some cases seem like an improvement. Depending on personal ethics, it might in many cases seem like vandalism or iconoclasm or even outright cultural destruction, though it’s worth noting there’s nothing extralegal here. None of the materials have protected status, and any that were purchased through secondary markets were done so legitimately. It’s also worth noting art-historical precedents like Robert Rauschenberg’s erased de Kooning drawing and Ai Weiwei’s smashed and rainbow-glazed Han dynasty vessels. Destruction has always been part of creation: Gerber’s in good company.
Aesthetically speaking, richly glazed Ming figurines strike me as far less tacky when toned down by a few coats of dull white paint. And far more modern—all form, no decoration—not unlike how Greek and Roman sculptures look without the polychromatic paint that scholars now know them to have been covered with in ancient times. Indeed, the gallery looks, at very quick glance, not unlike a room full of ancient statuary fragments or Calvin Klein home decor. Some of the changes and juxtapositions are witty, too: white African sculptures? As if! A rubber chicken displayed near taxidermied pheasants? Which one’s the deadest? Ha! Feeling upset about the white paint on that Studio 65 Attica chair, an icon of Italian pop design—don’t worry, it was already white!
As for the money, well, some objects depreciate in value when they become Gaylen Gerbers, others increase. You win some, you lose some. It all comes out pretty even in the end.
Lori Waxman is the Chicago Tribune’s art critic and a senior lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her most recent book is “Keep Walking Intently: the ambulatory art of the Surrealists, the Situationist International, and Fluxus” (Sternberg Press, 2017).