Michael Queenland: Rudy’s Ramp of Remainders Redux
On ViewMaureen Paley
Rudy’s Ramp of Remainders Redux
March 10–April 23, 2023
Hermetic and mysterious, Michael Queenland’s Rudy’s Ramp of Remainders Redux tries to conjure hidden meanings from the stuff of everyday life. Its mostly floor-based components consist of scans of images and text from the New York Times, an array of breakfast cereal boxes, as well as assemblages made of Afghan prayer rugs, resin and cement-filled balloons, and surprising mash-ups of hardware-store supplies. These works offer few easy pleasures but many brain-tickling interpretive challenges.
The show’s title is a translation of “Rudis Resterampe,” a now-defunct German remainder store that Los Angeles-based Queenland discovered in Berlin. He presented the first exhibition using this title at the Santa Monica Museum of Art in 2012. It was, he says, a sculptural interpretation of the unusual surfeits and juxtapositions of consumer goods found in a discount dollar store, with his own found and handmade objects grouped in what he calls “ramps.” Redux, the project’s third iteration, employs the same display tactics, more reminiscent of loading docks than art galleries.
Queenland has created an explanatory framework for his unique form of exhibition-making. In a text for the gallery’s press release, he enumerates the inspirations for and the significances of the works. From the materials at hand, however, reverse-engineering interpretations that land anywhere close to the artist’s own feels like a fool’s errand. Queenland’s notes are not red herrings, but, despite their precision, they seem no better than any other thoughts a creative viewer may concoct. His difficulties affixing convincing meanings to his unruly objects may be the ultimate point, though, because his exhibition is clearly a reflection of the vast, psyche-invading systems in which the artist and many of us are engulfed and puzzling our ways through: America and globalization.
The first ramp, Queenland says, began in 2011, when he began to cut photographs of dead bodies—mostly from wars in Syria and Afghanistan—from the pages of the New York Times. He did this both to make tragic news from far-away places feel less abstract and to acknowledge the “second-hand mental work” of reconciling the extremities of life in the USA and the world reflected in these images and the luxury-good ads and unrelated texts abutting and underlying them on the paper’s translucent newsprint. Adrian Piper famously drew phantasmagorical figures around New York Times stories and ads in her 1980s “Vanilla Nightmares” series to amplify racism’s horrors. Queenland prefers to let a culture’s psychopathology reveal itself in low-grade form by simply presenting scans of the fronts and backs of his clippings.
Rug Ramp 5 (2012) translates this associative thinking into sculpture. It consists of an Afghan prayer rug on which rests a resin-injected latex balloon propped up by a box of Cap’n Crunch Oops! All Berries cereal and its multicolored, plastic-bagged contents. The work’s combination of the sacred and the saccharine, the handmade and the mass-produced is powerfully disquieting. The anti-logic of its pile-on of the foreign and the familiar—synthesized in the uncannily embalmed-from-the-inside black balloon, which seems to have a cereal bowl embedded in its top—jangles uneasily, suggesting that our capacity to sell things on the world’s markets exceeds our ability to heed the needs and desires they reflect.
Eight other black balloons filled with polyurethane resin and occasionally concrete populate the exhibition. After having organized his first museum exhibition with Queenland, I know that he started using black balloons as a stand-in for his own head in photographic self-portraits. I cannot read these balloon works as anything other than an expression of a psychic sensorium, an interpretation the artist indirectly supports when he calls them, “an abstract intermediary between the physical and the metaphysical, the material and the immaterial, between the inside and the outside.” Their forlorn arrangements on the gallery floor recalls Queenland’s earlier apotheoses of cast-away items, including small hip-flask bottles of cheap vodka, which, he said, sparked a connection to Oscar Wilde’s immortal line, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
Balloons also appear in the medium lines of two floor-based sculptures from 2012 and 2022, presumably as vessels used to cast their hemispherical concrete bases. In the flat-topped, concrete surfaces of these works are embedded toilet gaskets and straw broom heads. Brooms, a symbol of marriage and domesticity widespread among African Americans, also figured prominently in Queenland’s early work. But here, like the exhibition’s only wall work, a felt and vinyl form taking its heraldic-crest shape from the outline of a flat, folded plastic garbage bag, they are rendered abstract and unusable: cryptic, playful emblems of an era of dysfunction and alienation.
Cereal Ramp (2018/2023) consists of dozens of different boxes of cereal arranged in an echeloned wedge on the gallery floor. It was, the artist says, a counterpoint to the newspaper clippings, a story of excess rather than loss. The colorful containers, emblazoned with cartoon and photographic images, are grouped to reflect the three most-depicted archetypes in ancient Greek and Roman culture, “the deity, the emperor, or the athlete.” Today, he says, cartoon characters have replaced gods and celebrities have taken the place of leaders. Only athletes retain abiding power. Placing the Lucky Charms leprechaun, Cap’n Crunch and whatever jock appears on a Wheaties box in these eternal categories seems like a stretch. Again, though, Queenland’s account of the inspirations for his works provides, as it were, only one onramp for considering his ramps.
With and without its maker’s interpretive scaffolding, the exhibition feels like, to borrow a term from a famous cereal ad, a cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs take on the invisible hand and the mindless mind of late-stage, algorithm-driven capitalism. If Queenland’s objects seem to have been brought together for ponderation rather than communication, that is understandable. As emblematized in his balloons, consciousness in this age of endless online information vistas and inescapable marketing silos feels at once elastic and ossified. In its effort to remix Pop and Conceptual art’s ingredients and approaches for an age of big data, Rudy’s Ramp of Remainders Redux snaps, crackles, and, occasionally, pops.