It’s Not Rocket Surgery OR Abstract Slang

Sam Korman

On 4 February 2010, I walked into Half/Dozen gallery for the opening of The Quadratic Logogram of Almost Everything: The Democracy of the Contemporary Art Object. Lording over the show was a piece by Alex Felton. Mounted above head height on the right-hand wall, Untitled Paper floated over the ambling crowd. A sheet of awkwardly drawn paper floats in an uncertain space. Dangled between collage, painting and drawing, the piece cannot lay claim to any of these monikers, demanding that it be taken on its own terms. This work requires a different descriptor—screen may be more appropriate, as the piece is simultaneously a window into and a mirror reflection of space condensed onto two-dimensional plane. Felton applies different media based on his unique logic, as if the piece itself exhibits a crude binary, a distorted grammar. This is slang, appropriating the language of abstraction to express a distinct and personal inquiry. Applying paper to paper in order to describe paper, the condition of the piece as a two-dimensional construction remains moot. It is enough that it is recognized within its own context much in the same way small cliques create a slang dialect to describe their position in the larger world. In this way, the piece seems to perform for its audience, giving them an infinitely regressive model of visual language, applying the sense (read logic) of understanding rather than any kind of literal statement—it is a riff on the literal, the ineffably abstract nature of making a statement. But until slang has made it into popular usage, these terms may only be understood by a select few.

All of this information boils down to a guilty unease with which outsiders approach a scene. From without, the work appears crude, unskilled, inscrutable. But for some, the mystery is not so exclusive, spoken in a slang tongue that represents an approach to community akin to a cultural shaking of hips—you can learn the moves, but you have to show up to shake your ass. And Kristan Kennedy’s work does just that. Her ink and pastel paintings are as much about gesture as they are about the formal language she employs. Kennedy says that she “has been making the same movement since she was two”, miming the motion of an infant orchestrating her parents after one of her desires. The work puns on itself, doubling back over its motions in murky brown and grey swaths, disavowing the unique stroke, as if something greater remains to be gained in the composition. The fact that Kennedy comes from a print making background is no accident in her choice of materials or compositional awareness. Her work is simultaneously aware of its roots in the simple and primitive while reaching toward the unique potentials of her materials. Besides, with titles, D.N.L.D.S.L.N.D. (2010) and E.L.I.T.G.L.D. (2010), Kennedy reduces any understanding that we may have of the work to the level of garbled speech, phonemes that represent something beyond our cognition, like trying to understand just what a baby wants, when it knows not the object of its desire. And perhaps, we are those babies.

My friend, Caroline Hayes told me numerous times about her mom’s various neologisms. Her favorite was, “It’s not rocket surgery.” Obviously, it combines “rocket science” and “brain surgery,” two topics that seem as distant from everyday life as abstraction. But what is so interesting about the phrase “rocket surgery” is its immediacy—a combination of two metaphors endowed with the authority of popular usage condensed into one statement that is absurd on its own, yet carries with it the spectral meaning of its predecessors. “Rocket surgery,” then, can serve as an apt metaphor for how abstraction speaks today. By now, the nature of abstraction’s expression and authority has taken many forms, a language rife with figures from which this generation may appropriate. But, for these artists, a democratic understanding exists about their inheritance: all aspects of culture are worthy of scrutiny. No longer do the visionary choices of the modernist auteur apply to the contemporary vision of abstraction. A piece may be just as heavily wrought as a Giocometti, but look like a garbage bag, a sandwich or a set of jacks. Through their contemporary practice in abstraction, the Quadratic Logogram artists cite the history of abstraction while seeking a more personalized politics of vision: a democratic scene that allows for personal experience to people the realm where only gods and universals once tread.



These Lifeless Things: Object and Intimacy

Lisa Radon

Ozymandias of Egypt
Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Here we are again. You and me and the object. Lower case “o,” it doesn’t look like much. If it’s shiny, it’s crumpled. If it’s hard-edged or geometric, it’s haphazardly so. And if it doesn’t quite fit in the palm of your hand, at the very least you could wrap your arms around it. Which is not to say that it’s friendly exactly (it isn’t) or seductive, but it is, in some kind of through-the-mists way, familiar.

We are you and I and artist, individuals coming together at the locus of art. Cornelius Castoriadis argues what we do here is participate in the creation of meaning. “The individuated individual creates a meaning for her life by participating in significations that her society creates, by participating in their creation, either as “author” or as (public) “receiver” of these significations. And I have always insisted on the fact that the genuine “reception” of a new work is just as creative as the creation thereof.”[1]

We are undermined in our co-creation of meaning via shared experience by the shock and awe tactics of both monument and spectacle. They insist on distance—physical distance as well as intellectual/emotional distance—a distance that becomes a chasm between the Ozymandian and the individual, thwarting co-creation of meaning and instead encouraging passivity or programmed behavior, including what Richard Sennett calls, “silence in the face of art.”[2] What’s more, they engender distance between us, the individual viewers. And this is the greatest loss of all: while we’re busy consuming spectacle, a seemingly shared experience, or bearing silent witness, like the sands, to the monument, we are losing a sense of the common “we,” how we think together, converse, reflect.

From the Burj Khalifa to the Winter Olympics opening ceremony, monument and spectacle dominate contemporary cultural terrain. Why examples from the world beyond art? As Boris Groys has pointed out mass media is far more efficient at image production and distribution than art will ever be. By the same token, entertainment and design industries and the state are far better at creating spectacle (and in the case of the Burj or any building by Zaha Hadid or Frank Gehry, the spectacle of the monument) than art will ever be. And yet the art industrial complex still does its utmost to compete in the realm of spectacle and monument via ubiquitous gigantism and the efforts of art fairs, documentas, biennales (the Whitney Biennial is an obvious exception, this year especially).  All of this in spite of decades of adventurous work to the contrary by artists who dematerialized art, who created situations, happenings, events, who engaged direct, individual experience, who made work of ordinary materials, ordinary life; artists who labored to reduce the distance between viewer and art and artist, to create a new intimacy.

Here we are again. We’re the people, the Greek demos that with kratos (power) becomes the democracy to which curator Derek Franklin refers in the subtitle of The Quadratic Logogram of Almost Everything: The Democracy of the Contemporary Art Object. Ozymandian art or spectacle requires spectacular concentration of power and capital to the detriment of the people—it’s no wonder that wonders of the world are built at times when power structures are pyramid shaped. In contrast, the pieces in Quadratic, by refusing scale and embracing humble means are subtly subversive in their stance vis a vis art production. (This is not to say artist and curator take the Lloyd Dobler stance on production.[3] These objects are, after all, for sale and the artists are represented.)  What’s more important is that they have the subversive potential to help us recreate our sense of “we,” who we are and what we can be or what Castoriadis calls the “social imaginary.”

While many of their contemporaries pursue a literal form of intimacy in the interests of recreating “we” by creating situations of direct interaction (in a relational aesthetics/social practice vein), the artists of The Quadratic Logogram are not situation makers but object makers. And yet these works, at human scale and with a sense of the ordinary, of the familiar, open the door for a new intimacy between we who are involved in the primary art transaction: artist and viewer (and as well for viewer and viewer).  Poet, Fluxus artist and delightfully lucid everyman-theorist Dick Higgins borrows from Hans-Georg Gadamer to talk about the viewer merging his or her (Higgins insists on writing “s/her.” It’s maddening.) horizon with that of the artist via the work.[4] While Higgins is talking about the viewer’s experience specifically of the avant-garde, the point is universal: that when the outer reaches of the viewer’s experience and understanding encounter the outer reaches of the artist’s (if he or she is not a traditionalist but is exploring his or her horizons) the viewer cannot help but be altered, challenged, refreshed.  Or as Nicolas Bourriaud puts it, at an exhibition, “there is the possibility of an immediate discussion, in both senses of the term. I see and perceive, I comment, and I evolve in a unique space and time. Art is the place that produces a specific sociability.”[5]

“Thus, any art which offers fusion with new horizons is the only one which can be relied on to offer a new intermesh of our horizons with new ones, and at best our experience of them will always have, be it every so tragical or disturbing, some element of pleasure, which can be called an erotic.”[6]

Substitute a temporary intimacy—a familiarity or closeness—for Higgins’ notion of the erotic, above. After all, intimate, the verb, means to communicate if indirectly, delicately, a quiet, “Let me show you something.” And when the showing is of an abstract nature, the exploration of mutual horizons, the project of the co-creation of meaning that Castoriadis insists we always engage in with any work (as proxy for the artist) is made all the more evident.  Meaning in abstraction is of necessity co-created by maker and viewer. And it’s this merging of horizons that has the potential for, in purest fashion, a most subversive intimacy.

Here we are again.

[1] Cornelius Castoriadis, The Rising Tide of Insignificancy (The Big Sleep). Electronic publication, 2003. p. 81.

[2] Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man. New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1992 p. 230.

[3] “I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don’t want to do that.” Lloyd Dobler in the 1988 film, Say Anything.

[4] Dick Higgins, Horizons: The Poetics and Theory of the Intermedia. Southern Illinois University Press, 1984. p. 1-17.

[5] Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics. Le Presses du Réel, 2002. p. 16

[6] Horizons. p. 9.



Curatorial Essay

by Derek Franklin

In the Illusory babels of language, an artist might advance specifically to get lost, and to intoxicate himself/herself in dizzying syntaxes, seeking odd intersections of meaning, strange corridors of history, unexpected echoes, unknown humors, or voids of knowledge . . . but this quest is risky, full of bottomless fictions and endless architectures and counter-architectures . . . at the end, if there is an end, are perhaps only meaningless reverberations.[1]

Robert Smithson

So often in art the language “covers” rather than “discovers”, “closes” rather than “discloses”. It escapes without utilitarian interpretations or explanations that ground art on terms recognizable by people. Historically, this grew out of American Modernism’s obsession with creating art that ascended into the heavens, outer space, or phenomenological realms, creating a landscape of death. What was otherwise considered a field of objects attempting to transcend life. This is perhaps what Jose Ortega y Gusset meant in the title of his 1925 essay “The Dehumanization of Art”. In this essay, Ortega sets out the characteristics of modernist art then know as the new style[2]:

1) Dehumanize art

2) Avoid living forms

3) See the work of art as nothing more than a work of art

4) Be essentially ironic (skeptical)

Dehumanization of art began in the second and third characteristics of Ortega’s points in the United States during Post War Modernism, which began as a transgressive act against bourgeois idealism. The avant-garde’s resort to transgression here was to spark a moment of eternal life. The frozen images created by these artists lacked a place in the symbolic universe and popular culture, but they created a simulation of living eternity. Works of art became further detached from time by becoming grounded in the philosophical notions of the transcendental, sublime, and extraterrestrial, creating a hyper-realization art effect at the last vestiges of life and time. The elements, already an abstraction, are finally and completely severed from any reference to human reality. This practice bewitched viewers with promises of the transportation of form into content, producing little more than a reduced subjectivity that alienated the viewer.

In criticisms of Post-War American Modernism, it has been depicted as powerful and oppressive, a form of deterrence and a formulation of empirical structures. Objects from these movements are often considered to be monumental spectacles, and elicit submission from the viewer. Like the critical artists’ works of the past, “The Quadratic Logogram of Almost Everything” gazes away from power, high status, and the sacred, which demanded sublime expressions. In this exhibition the aesthetics of history are borrowed, not on terms of cynical critique but used instead as a platform to inject new meaning into abstract works based in a language that places objects in the everyday. The title of the exhibition, based on a logogram developed by Robert Morris, places four letters in a square with arrows depicting their interactions. The letters sybolize (S)Space, (I)Image, (O)Object, and (L)Language; they all interact with one another, but only language can encircle them all. The encompassing effect of language becomes a palisade for viewers, surrounding them like a labrynth and disoreinting them from history, memory, and time[3]. There is an attempt to rehumanize abstraction in contemporary art, making connections that locate the oddness in the everyday where the remarkable and the ordinary coincide. Kristan Kennedy approachs drawing in a gestural fashion that corresponds with traditional methods, but she brings pop culture into the works. She finds a context within the humor of the movie “Little Murders” starring Eliot Gould as depressive photographer who found success documenting the steaming amorphous blobs of canine fectal matter around New York City. In the film Gould’s accomplishments as an artist are questioned by his girlfriend’s father, but today the absurdity seems legitimate. Kennedy brings the uncanny qualities of dog shit into her work in a way that shifts the conversation away from wether or not it should be considered art and into a discourse on how it relates to the history of art. In the untitled work by Sterling Lawrence a large yard debris bag is almost forced to participate with art. It is scrunched into submission and smoothered by the pouring of urathane. Here the artist has forced everyday materials to become a masochist in a production that resembles BDSM . The violence endured is worn as shame on the sculpture’s face that appears like a melted jack-o-latern in a bondage mask that might have been facialed. The uncanny uniqueness of the everyday here is examined as a replacement for the investigation into the banality of objects.

Artists in the exhibition have not only defined terms within third-generation appropriation but have also reclaimed an aesthetic and transformed it into a discourse conducted and interpreted in content, including the Internet, car culture, construction, burgers and refuse. Seeing objects as constants under myriad conditions, and recognizing the identity of these things is something people do without noticing. David Corbett plays with this notion in his small geometric sculptures picking up on Wilhelm Worringer’s ideas that geometric art was created from a psychological need for man to escape nature[4]. His sculptures have a painterly quality that translates in to the materiality of ceramics. This façade builds a unique tension between what is real and what is false and borders along the line of craft and crust. Using aesthetics and visual signifiers connected to art history that do not need to be nostalgic or a continuation of the same critical discourses, Corbett illuminates the paradox where the transgressive and facsmile coincide.

In the works of Alex Felton these ideas are represented best in the “Anatomy of a Sandwich”. Felton develops structures that could define a deep Euclidean space, but allows it to spatially deconstruct itself, falling into a black hole. Out of this black hole appears an omnipresent juicy hamburger slightly pulled apart to expose the construction of the sandwich. This separation of the burger appears to be structured much like the architectural diagrams of Corinthian columns. Felton’s work pulls us up a chair at the history books of architecture plopping a cheeseburger down right in the middle of the pantheon. Allowing the ordinary to triumph over art again in a factual manner that builds content in the work rather than skepticisms and further alienations of the viewer. The works in this exhibition may or may not be more democratic in terms of language, but they have definitely opened a larger dialogue than another Neo or Post.

[1] Smithson, Robert, and Jack Flam. Robert Smithson : The Collected Writings. New York: University of California P, 1996.

[2] Ortega, Jose y Gusset, The Dehumanization of Art. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1968

[3] Morris , Robert, The Labyrinth and the Urinal. Critical Inquiry Volume 36, Number 1, Autumn 2009, University of Chicago Press

[4] Worringer, Wilhelm, Abstraction and Empathy, New York, InternationalUniversities Press, 1963