[Review] Surfaces of Everyday Life
Its kinda odd to think that a warehouse space in Tanjong Pagar Distripark – a cargo storage and shipment complex next to the Keppel docks – is now playing host to limited edition Warhols and multi-million-dollar pieces by Pollock, Hirst and Jasper Johns.
But, thanks to blue chip art dealer Ikkan Sanada, that’s the delightful reality.
Sanada recently relocated the base of Ikkan Art International from NYC to Singapore (read about it here); he joins a growing number of art spaces sprouting up in the Keppel warehouse neighbourhood, which include Valentine Willie, Fortune Cookie Projects and L2 Space. Are we seeing our own meatpacking district in the making ? – albeit with storage depots instead of disused slaughterhouses, industrial containers and cranes taking the place of transgender prostitutes and cobblestoned streets. In any case, the new kid on the block represents the arrival of an international player on the local visual arts scene, which can only be good news.
Sanada’s inaugural show is titled Surfaces of Everyday Life: Postwar and Contemporary Masters from Ai Weiwei to Andy Warhol. As the name-dropping suggests, the exhibition features work from a range of 20th century luminaries, both Western and Asian: Warhol, Ai, Matisse, Pollock, Hirst, Johns, Richter, Oldenburg, Stella, Tracy Emin, Takashi Murakami, Yayoi Kusama and Yasumasa Morimura, among others. Johns, in particular, is represented here by a series of original prints produced in the last two decades, including a number apparently never before shown. Those prints, however, were the least interesting things I saw – if only because I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking at. Johns made his name back in the ‘50s with his richly textured, vividly coloured encaustic canvases that called into question the iconicity of common images, like the American flag; these recent pieces seem to indicate a 180-degree turn in sensibility, being most black-and-white or thinly tinted intaglio prints of indecipherable patterns, silhouettes and abstractions. Johns’ work seems to have made a detour into the personal, which I think is the only – if overly convenient – way of accounting for some of these pictures, and titles like Shrinky Dink (below).
In other news, the show itself came across as something of a hodgepodge of the greatest postwar hits. It is called Surfaces of Everyday Life, but that thematic framework really encompasses two different theoretical concerns: materiality (surfaces), and the everyday. While those ideas have been brought to bear on each other – in very interesting ways – by certain academics and thinkers*, they are still necessarily separate concepts. And at times it seemed like the pieces in the exhibition either fell into one category or the other, only rarely demonstrating discernable links to both. Admittedly, though, Sanada has been pretty candid about the rationale, or lack of one, behind some of these inclusions – “I am not pretending to be a museum curator. The works you see in this exhibition are a reflection of my personal taste” – so perhaps the connective tissue there, between the notion of materiality and the prosaic, was supplied by his own predilections. Charles Merewhether of Sotheby’s Institute of Art, Singapore, though, provides a different take. In a brief but incisive essay for the exhibition, he explicitly adduces mass production and consumerism as the glue between the everyday and the material: “Critical to the transformation of the “everyday” was the process of modernization, most notably industrialization and mass production. … What emerges from this period is a number of artistic practices that critically engage the ethos of consumerism within the development of industrial modernization—practices seeking not just to understand the logic of consumerism, but to harness and appropriate the energies of consumerism … Materiality was of primary importance ……” (Read excerpts here.)
* See for instance, Bill Brown’s Thing Theory (Critical Inquiry, Vol. 28, No. 1 [Autumn, 2001], pp. 1-22).
All that, however, doesn’t explain the presence of works like Frank Stella’s Cinema de Pepsi (below), which is comprised of two squares divided up into geometrical bands of varying shades and hues. This canvas is quintessential Stella: blandly, calmly non-pictorial, denying even the painterly gestures of abstract expressionists like Pollock, Rauschenberg and Johns, and insisting on the primacy of the flat canvas surface and the materiality of the art object. Speaking of his own praxis, he declared that “Its posture is not romantic. Its method is not improvisational. It’s a more classical, more controlled art, that in a certain sense reacted against the “action” conception of abstract expressionism, and against what by the late 50s had come to be a great deal of very bad painting made in abstract expressionism’s name.” (Quote here.) While the alternating strips of colour in Cinema seem to suggest some kind of movement – a sort of optical illusion of advance and recession – I guess the point here would be that, up close, the appearance of hard-edge painting gives way to fine textural nuance; the seemingly defined lines begin to betray tendrils of paint seepage and other surface irregularities.
Which explains “surface”, but not “everyday life”. (Its hard to imagine anything less evocative of the ordinary than Stella’s abstract, meticulously calculated canvases.) What does, however, are, say, Claes Oldenburg’s oversized food objects, or Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds or block of tea, or Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans – all featured in the show. Oldenburg’s Leaning Fork With Meatball and Spaghetti II, in particular (below), produced in collaboration with wife Coosje van Bruggen, was definitely one of the more eye-catching pieces. In a well-known statement of 1961, the artist remarked: “I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap and still comes out on top … I am for the art of neck-hair and caked teacups, for the art between the tines of restaurant forks, for the odor of boiling dishwater … I am for the art of rust and mold. I am for the art of hearts, funeral hearts or sweetheart hearts, full of nougat. I am for the art of worn meathooks and singing barrels of red, white, blue and yellow meat.”*
In other words, an art of the mundane and the everyday. Duchamp and his Readymades were an acknowledged influence: Oldenburg recalls seeing Duchamp’s work at the latter’s 1963 retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum – and coincidentally, a signed copy of a poster for that now legendary show is on display here (below). As art historian Benjamin Buchloh remarks, Oldenburg was “the first sculptor after Duchamp who uses a kind of iconography that is completely alien to all preceding sculpture, which is the industrially produced, ready-made object.”** The avant-garde Dadaist project, formulated as an overt critique of the separation of art from the praxis of life within bourgeois society, by which the autonomy of the institution of art is understood as a corollary of the rise of the leisured classes and the ensuing social divide,*** finds a re-articulation in Oldenburg’s hands. His oversized foodstuffs, in particular, represent an attempt to recuperate our experience of the familiar, the prosaic, which become embedded in the routine of daily life as so much background noise. These humble things – the things we eat every day – exist for the most part below the threshold of sustained attention and memory because they function as conveniences, their constant repetition and easy availability within the circuits of modern consumer culture serving to mask their ubiquity, to lull and dull us into “social forgetfulness and thereby constitute the sphere of hidden historical otherness.”****
* See Claes Oldenburg: An Anthology (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1995).
** See Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Three Conversations in 1985: Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, Robert Morris”, October 70 (Fall 1994).
*** Peter Bürger discusses this idea at length in his classic Theory of the Avant-Garde (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984). See the section, “On the Problem of the Autonomy of Art in Bourgeois Society.”
**** C. Nadia Serematakis, ed., The Senses Still: Perception and Memory as Material Culture in Modernity (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1994).
A Poster Within A Poster (1963), Marcel Duchamp. “Poster for Duchamp’s Retrospective exhibition held at the Pasadena Art Museum, October 8 to November 3, 1963, signed and dedicated by the artist. Edition of 300, only 10 of them were signed by the artist.” (from the wall label)
As subjects of artistic intentionality, Oldenburg’s food objects imply participation in the long, if historically unremarked, genre of the still-life, a tradition that reaches back into antiquity. The category of painting the Romans referred to as xenia stands at the hoary head of a genealogy that is defined largely by its exclusion of the human form, according to Norman Bryson, a denial of the visual dimension of the animate that at the same time “expels the values which human presence imposes on the world.”* While this statement belies the peculiarity of Oldenburg’s anthropomorphized objects – and, indeed, a feature of his modus operandi – Bryson’s distinction between megalography and rhopography presents one of the chief cruces on which turn Oldenburg’s strategies of interruption, dislocation, defamiliarization. Megalography is the stuff of history painting and portraiture, which deal with the grand themes of mythology, religion, literature and history, allegories of the great and good, as well as the invocation of the lives and likenesses of celebrated men and women. Rhopography, stemming from the Greek rhopos (trifling things, or small, inconsequential goods), portrays that which the prescriptions of the class of momentous events and illustrious personages programmatically omit from their range of subject matter: the undramatic material base of life taken for granted in an age of plenty today, a substratum of habitual, habit-forming objects which define the contours of “hidden historical otherness.”
In his appropriation of the trope of rhopos, Oldenburg displays a preference not just for an iconography of the edible, but also for a particular type of fare. A quick survey of objects from his 60s period discloses the predominance of the sort of foods that have come to symbolize a twentieth-century America of the diner, the deli, the fast-food restaurant: burgers, sandwiches, cakes, pies, ice-cream, baked potatoes, breads, and roasts – as choice of meatball and spaghetti, for one, seems to suggest. Despite the claim that his choice of subject is “only an accident, an accident of my surroundings, my landscape, of the objects which in my daily coming and going my consciousness attaches itself to”, Oldenburg’s art, in its foregrounding of gastronomic (all-)Americana, clearly reflects an exclusion of other types of cuisine, perhaps the kind of food that he may have been accustomed to growing up in a privileged Swedish-American household in the 1930s and 40s (his father first served as Swedish Consul in Chicago and, later, as Consul General). More than simply being determined by considerations of cost, taste and custom, however, what people eat is very much an indication of their values. The introduction of the technologies of food preservation and processing radically altered the American diet in the mid-twentieth century, freeing up a whole generation of women for the workforce and shifting the main site of food preparation and consumption from the domestic kitchen to the cheap eating establishment and food retail outlet – originating, ultimately, in the processing line – with their quick, affordable, labour-saving meals, a medley of the “bleached, dyed, sulphured, refined, synthetic, dehydrated, adulterated, and emulsified”**, a celebration of everyday realities that continue to shape our dietary habits and lives.
* See Bryson’s perceptive, valuable study, Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1990).
** Linda Weintraub, ed., Art What Thou Eat: Images of Food in American Art (Mount Kisco, New York: Moyer Bell Ltd., 1991). Her Foreword contains a brief history of American gastronomic practices.
Donald Judd – a personal favourite – was represented in Surfaces by a stainless steel piece (above), a horizontal bar hung on the wall, and marked along its length by spherical protrusions set apart at gradated intervals. Classic Judd. The piece, like Oldenburg’s Meatball and Spaghetti, sits comfortably at the intersection between concerns with materiality and the everyday – though the artist himself might have begged to differ. Judd was famous, or notorious, for his theoretical pronouncements on his own work, insisting on the abstract, non-associative autonomy of his ‘specific objects’, their essential resistance to any sort of gesture towards a reality external to their particular forms. However, a number of critics, most notably Rosalind Krauss, disagreed. She openly refuted his claim of hermeticism in her well-known essay, “Allusion and Illusion in Donald Judd” (Artforum, vol. 4, no. 9 [May, 1966]). Judd’s sensuously tangible and seductively engaging objects were, for Krauss, the epitome of “the inadequacy of the theoretical line, its failure to measure up (at least in Judd’s case) to the power of the sculptural statement.” His artworks were “insistently meaningful” to her, and that meaning was generated through an embodied experience – meaning denied by a solely optical involvement from a single (frontal) perspective. Krauss saw Judd’s work as “objects of perception, objects that are to be grasped in the experience of looking at them” (italics mine). The impression of tactility, in both a metaphorical and corporeal sense, seemed especially important to her: “the work plays off the illusory quality of the thing itself as it presents itself to vision alone … as against the sensation of being able to grasp it and therefore to know it through touch.”
Don Judd in the 1960s. Image from Mondoblogo.
Other critics have noted that “Claims … that Judd’s art has a discrepancy – or even a falsification – as its heart, have by now long been central …” (David Raskin, “The Shiny Illusionism of Krauss and Judd”, Art Journal, no. 65 [Spring 2006]).The juxtaposition between Judd’s own conceptualization of his work, and the manner in which it has sometimes been received, makes this disjuncture all too clear. Krauss noted the deceptive appearance of his art, of the necessity of an embodied experience with which to grasp it in its actuality, a process that foregrounded the way the materials were “used directly” – in his own words – and, thus, the resultant, insistently tactile quality. Judd’s work appears to deny the possibility of any haptic exchange, by dint of his critical pronouncements as well as their circumscribed status as high art objects, but reception tends to elude those sorts of pre-determined channels. Judd’s objects, as three-dimensional forms in space, as staunchly material presences that incline towards the non-figural and a-referential, can be said to evoke a response beyond the purely visual – i.e. to draw attention not simply to their forms, but to the almost tangible qualities of their surface texture. To return to Krauss’ assessment of Judd’s art as inducing the perception of graspability and a touch-based epistemology, perhaps it should be noted that the haptic entails more than just an appeal to tactility via the mechanism of sight, but implicates the entire sensorium in a synaesthetic act of looking as well. Krauss brings to mind Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s characterization of embodied, multisensory experience: “The senses intercommunicate by opening onto the structure of the thing. One sees the hardness and brittleness of glass … One sees the springiness of steel.” Or, to quote Carolee Schneemann on her own performative practice: “Vision is not a fact but an aggregate of sensations.”
Judd’s objects present a façade of finished, flawless, machine manufacture. In other words, their industrial look, or the appearance of being the products of the factory line rather than the artist’s tool, was – and is – very much the initial impression that they left on viewers. Barbara Rose, for one, remarked that they seemed “machine-made, standardized …. easy to copy and not hand-made”; another reviewer spoke of the “slow, determined beat of a stamping machine” (Jane Gollin). And Robert Smithson, in detailing Judd’s preferred materials and the sources he turned to for them, listed a catalogue of obscure-sounding trademarks and industrial locations:
He may go to Long island City and have the Bernstein Brothers, Tinsmiths put “Pittsburgh” seams into some (Bethcon) iron boxes, or he might go to Allied Plastics in Lower Manhattan and have cut-to-size some Rohm-Haas “glowing” pink plexiglass. Judd is always on the lookout for new finishes, like Lavax Wrinkle Finish … Judd likes that combination, and so he might “self” spray one of his “fabricated” boxes with it. Or maybe he will travel to Hackensack, New Jersey to investigate a lead he got on a new kind of zinc based paint called Galvanox, which is comparable to “hot-dip” galvanizing.
(Robert Smithson, “Donald Judd (1965)” in Robert Smithson, the Collected Writings [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996].)
While the stuff of Judd’s art were, literally, heavy-duty substances and materials, the actual execution of those pieces remained a very hands-on process for the artist. Much of his early 60s work were produced manually at a small, family-run piecework shop called Bernstein Brothers Sheet Metal Specialties Inc., which produced a range of items for industrial purposes, like smoke stacks, general roofing, skylights, ventilation systems etc. The procedure for constructing one of Judd’s pieces at the Bernsteins’ typically involved a high degree of hand operations:
… adapted from the shaping of ventilation ducts and industrial sinks, [the process] involved measuring and cutting the sheet iron, notching it with hand shears, and folding it in a brake die. … the sculpture [was finished] by truing its angles with a rubber mallet and … reaching inside the back to solder its three pieces carefully together.
(Joshua Shannon, The Disappearance of Objects: New York Art and the Rise of the Postmodern City [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009].)
Don Judd (right) at the Bernstein Bros. workshop, 1968. Image from DB Artmag.
The appearance of industrial manufacture, then, belied the manual labour that went into the production of Judd’s pieces; their materials, the “adapted” processes, the high degree of finish, and their geometric, modular shapes all went towards suggesting an origin in the factory rather than the studio. And it is precisely this deceptive indexing of industrial means of fabrication and engineering, the assumption of the look of capitalist, technocratic power – by creating objects resembling mass-produced commodities, objects which then enter our everyday lives as items of utility – that engenders the desire to touch. Or, to put it another way: Judd’s objects, in suppressing most visible traces of the artist’s hand*, and approximating the appearance of those ordinary things that we use in our mundane lives, like floor boxes and stacks and bleachers and architectural columns, breaks down the barrier between the visual and the tactile that is part and parcel of the contemporary experience of art – that is to say, the dictum that one can look, but should not touch, is expressly infringed upon.
* See Josiah Mcelheny, “Invisible Hand”, Artforum International, vol. 42, no. 10 (Summer 2004).
By adopting the aspect of everyday articles, Judd’s objects almost seems to invite the viewer to experience them in those embodied ways with which we come into corporeal contact with those familiar things. One handles a box, sits on a bleacher, perhaps unthinkingly runs a stray hand over a row of colonnades in strolling past. And although it is difficult to conceive of actually picking up one of Judd’s box-like sculptures or parking your behind down on his Bleachers piece, it is not too far a stretch to imagine kissing your reflection in a particularly shiny surface, or using it, mirror-like, to peruse the state of your hairdo – which is exactly what critic, Anna Chave, witnessed two girls doing one day in the MoMA. She relates the following incident involving a “gleaming brass floor box” of Judd’s on display in the museum: “… two teenage girls strode over to this pristine work, kicked it, and laughed. They then discovered its reflective surface and used it for a while to arrange their hair until, finally, they bent over to kiss their images on the top of the box” (Chave, “Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power”, Arts Magazine, vol. 64, no. 1 [Jan, 1990]).
…… Hey, I did say Judd was a favourite.
But enough of the art history and the theoryspeak, I think.
Being at Sanada’s was like New York all over again: the quiet moments of wonderment at MoMA, amidst the throngs of tourists; the endless galleries in Chelsea; the marathon Met walkabouts.
It was nice …
Some of the other stuff in the show:
Surfaces of Everyday Life: Postwar and Contemporary Masters from Ai Weiwei to Andy Warhol runs at Ikkan Art from 18 May to 5 June, 2011.
Ikkan Art Gallery, Artspace@Helutrans,
39 Keppel Road #01-05,
Tanjong Pagar Distripark,
11am – 7pm, Monday – Saturday
1pm – 5pm, Sundays and Public Holidays