November 14 – December 20, 2002
Arcadia University Art Gallery
Björn Hegardt, Rebecca Holland, Dean Hughes, Koo Jeong-a, Nina Katchadourian, Gabriel Orozco, Chemi Rosado Seijo, and Erwin Wurm
“Lifelike art plays somewhere in and between attention to physical detail and attention to interpretation.”
Featuring the work of eight national and international artists that utilize economical gestures to modify and re-imagine familiar, and oftentimes unnoticed, objects and public settings, "A Given Circumstance (gestures in situ)" considers the intersection of sculpture and the everyday. The exhibition identifies a continuum of prescribed circumstances that bracket three types of contexts and interventions: the manipulation of urban and natural settings; adjustments to the Arcadia University Art Gallery; and alterations of ubiquitous, utilitarian items—a stock sheet of white paper, a brown paper bag, and a wash towel. The artists destabilize the instrumentality of these given objects and locations by detecting opportunities for intervention and reconstructing alternate values, experiences, and interpretations accordingly.
The exhibition also proposes a continuum between the direct experience of these transformations, their photographic evidence, and the possibility of their reenactments. Because the sites, once altered, obey an impulse to revert back to their original states, the photographs that record them not only become documents but instructions to create the works anew. And because the minimal, "do-it-yourself" nature of these adjustments is not always immediately apparent, the attentive viewer, challenged to identify the activity of the anonymous hand, comes closer to the experience of making the artworks, thereby narrowing the gap between artist and viewer.
The photographs of Gabriel Orozco propose mutually generative relationships between sculpture, photography, and the commonplace. Pulling trashcan liners inside out (Two Trashcans Up, 1998) and propping a yet-to-be-licked ice cream cone in the tangled branches of a bush (Ice Cream Landscape, 2000), dislodge the functionality and accepted placement of these objects. Like the humor evinced by Meret Oppenheim’s surrealist image of a teacup covered in fur – a bizarre combination that shocks the unconscious into consciousness – Orozco’s prankish juxtapositions startle our expectations of stock scenarios, opening perception to aesthetic play. These two landscapes, while infused with a melancholic and otherworldly ambiance, remain rooted in reality and wit.Two Trashcans Up embodies this paradox. There is not a single piece of litter in this unusually clean and green park populated by only two groupings of three empty bins huddled closely together. In the foreground, the two abstract volumes of the inverted bags stand erect, as if in absurd homage to Rodin’s Balzac (1898). The tableau, however, offers no evidence as to whether the composition is Orozco’s doing or a curious set of circumstances that the artist happened to stumble upon, notice, and photograph.
While the confusion between finder and maker, integral to Orozco’s practice, allows the viewer to imagine their own engagement in the activity, in the two street scenes photographed by Björn Hegardt, the artist’s presence is explicit. To produce these images, Hegardt mischievously manipulates a Berlin façade with a mirror and a Stockholm parking lot with a matchbox car. Thanks to the camera’s monocular viewpoint, these miniature objects, inserted at close range, seamlessly assume an illusory position within each picture. Although the precise placement of these items attempts to blend them into their surroundings, the trick is always transparent. An assessment of socialist ideology, Hegardt’s photo Karl Marx Allé (2001) depicts an avenue in Berlin that is lined on both sides with identical apartment buildings completed circa 1952 by the German Democratic Republic to honor Stalin. In the picture, the artist cunningly positions a small-scaled rectangular mirror to align the reflection of a lamppost and the façade behind it with their equivalents on the opposite side of the street, offering a simultaneous view of both buildings that would be otherwise impossible. His sleight of hand maneuver literally displaces and reiterates the powerful symbols of socialism expressed by the relentless repetition of totalitarian architecture. This low-tech illusion is not unlike the mimicry in Fyrverkarbacken (2001), which shows a matchbox car placed on a ledge of a building hovering a few stories above a nearly empty parking lot. This gesture not only enlarges the toy car and ledge into a four-door sedan and roadway, but also shrinks the actual automobiles into toys. By crossing car culture with child’s play, Hegardt’s photograph becomes an ironic commentary on consumerism.
Intensely mindful of the sounds and objects that color her surroundings, Nina Katchadourian has a tendency to interfere with these circumstances, testing her abilities to exert mastery over different environments. In her Mended Spiderweb series (1998), the artist’s attempts to repair broken spiderwebs with red sewing thread and household glue prove futile as the spider inevitably rejects her insertions. Guised as an altruistic deed, these surreptitious operations co-opt the nearly invisible web as a template to draw patterns in the air, foregrounding the artificial appeal of artistic intervention over the ethereal quality of the web and its engineering. This urge to control and acculturate the spider’s habitat references artists who exploit natural phenomena for their own devices.1 Moving indoors, The Sorted Books Project (1993-ongoing) is a self-conscious exercise in language games and ordering. The identity of the specific collections she works with, as well the limitations of the titles printed on the spines, predetermines the kinds of poems, jokes, and sentences that Katchadourian writes. Documented with 35mm slides cycling in a carousel projector, each example is quickly replaced by another, demonstrating the artist’s doggedness for adding new meanings in a context defined by a surplus of such. This enterprise, like the repaired spiderwebs, is defined by a forgiving impermanence that allows for an infinite number of variations.
Chemi Rosado Seijo
Chemi Rosado Seijo has developed a practice based on the belief in tapando para ver or “covering to see.” By masking information, and making the process of this concealment overt, he draws attention to the ways in which information is transmitted and absorbed. El Cerro (The Hillside) (2001-ongoing) embraces this power of camouflage. In an ongoing collaborative project with the El Cerro community of Naranjito, Puerto Rico, Seijo works closely with the residents of this hillside barrio in an effort to paint their houses the same shades of green as the surrounding mountains. Although Seijo could have chosen any number of barrios with which to work, the particular density of these houses and the organic manner in which they follow the contour of the mountainside suggested an ideal canvas for the project. Responsible for choosing their own shade of green and determining the details of its coverage, each homeowner assists in the production of a unique contribution to the project that reflects his or her individual tastes. Viewed from a distance, the neighborhood is subsequently transformed into a life-scale embodiment of a Cezanne-like landscape that gives the structures a new collective identity. Also involved are a number of volunteers, including other artists, public educators, social workers, and lawyers. This diversity of players, in conjunction with the shifting scales of the operation, adds a generative anonymity to the project that democratizes authorship. The process, documented in dozens of captioned snapshots, expresses Seijo's intentional ambivalence toward the strictly formal attributes inherent to the application of the green paint and the social activism required by the project.
Erwin Wurm is predominantly known for his sculptures exploring the performative figure that offer instructions for the body to strike absurd and precarious poses aided by simple props as diverse as silverware, oranges, and wine bottles. He is represented in the exhibition by lesser-known Dust sculptures made in the early nineties that consist of precise geometric configurations that mark urban sidewalks and concrete floors with fleeting records of squares, rectangles, and circles. Wurm created these minimal shapes by either thinly dispersing detritus taken from a vacuum cleaner bag onto the ground or allowing dust to accumulate over long periods of time and then removing an undisclosed object from the scene to expose the section of the floor beneath it. Rarely noticed and inevitably destroyed by human traffic, the dust sculptures endure as photographs that can be read as traces of traces. The particular photograph in “A Given Circumstance” presents a composition made by the imminent buildup of dust on a concrete floor surrounding a metal column. Careful observation reveals that the seemingly uniform gray surface is interrupted by an almost imperceptible sequence of circles that activates the work. While these shapes might go unobserved, once detected, they express an absolute minimum of three-dimensional form.
Like Wurm’s Dust sculptures, the work of Dean Hughesoccurs at the threshold of attention. Once perceived, his subtle additions elicit speculation about social protocol and the power of minute adjustments. His mysterious photograph from 1996, which depicts an upholstered seat on a public bus, is a record of an activity conducted by the artist while on regular trips to Chelsea College of Art and Design in London. For this work, Hughes developed a routine of embroidering with blue, grey, and orange thread over the existing pattern, matching the colors precisely. The procedure, repeated on many different buses, was abandoned the day the artist detected his invisible handiwork by touch. A form of tactile graffiti, Hughes' act of innocuous vandalism simultaneously effaces the pattern while recreating it, generating an artwork lost in its own making. In comparison, Hole Punch No. 5 is brazen. Using a standard hole-puncher, the artist transforms what might ordinarily be considered three "mis-punches" (half-holes punched at the edge of a sheet of paper instead of within the margin), into a scalloped border. To create this unexpectedly elegant line, Hughes affixes the straight sides of the three half-rounds of paper to make them contiguous with the edge of the sheet between the voids from which they were removed.
Combining the power of the barely visible with the pleasure of eventual detection, Hughes’ treatment of borders is similar to that of Rebecca Holland’s adjustments to the peripheral details of exhibition spaces. Triggering almost alchemical transformations, Holland's application of materials such as floss and gold leaf augments our perception of the eccentricities unique to each architectural structure in which she works. Generated from her involvement with the interior of the Arcadia University Art Gallery, her site-specific work incorporates mirror to register the contour of the gallery. The logic of the white cube argues for an austere environment for the contemplation art. A Reflected Line(2002) questions the purity and precision of this paradigm. By lining the top of the gallery’s baseboards with thin strips of mirror, Holland casts a luminous, horizontal beam that illuminates the footprint of the room.2 Positioned well below eye level, the work is not immediately evident. Once noticed, however, the refraction redirects attention to the floor and accentuates the prominent baseboards and, in what could be interpreted as a gracious critique, discloses information about the imperfections of the gallery. For example, the irregular widths of the beam, at times forming a bow-like curve, reveal that the walls are not the vertical planes they purport themselves to be. From a distance, the edge of the mirror dominates—bright glints of light evoke the mica embedded in the stone bricks of the building’s exterior—while the reflective surface dissembles the baseboard on which it rests. As we peer at the piece from directly above, the ceiling, like the sky reflected in water, drops down to the floor and extends our gaze into its depths.
Espousing a minimal aesthetic determined by a range of mundane materials such as aspirin, sugar cubes, and garbage, Koo Jeong-a's installations are scattered with the refuse of a dreamer. She invests each commonplace object she employs with a lyrical promise while insisting on its identity within the realm of the ordinary. Flying Carpet 1(2002) is an excellent example. This orphaned wash towel, starched and stained, is left abandoned on the floor in an out of the way corner per the artist’s instructions. Given that such a gesture could be regarded as a challenge to both our expectations of what can be found in an exhibition space and standards of housekeeping, the work induces a tenuous situation that we, as viewers, are impelled to reconcile. Independent of its identity as an object taken from the artist’s life, its history is impenetrable, a fact that permits speculation about its origins and value. This cloth, like Orozco’s trashcans, enacts an inversion of function. Ordinarily used for cleaning, the persistence of the rag as an artwork on the floor strikes the viewer as an irritant. Upon closer scrutiny, it becomes clear that the cloth has been ceremoniously handled. Creased by careful folding, it has been colored by two green dots and a dash of purple made with a marker (possibly magic). These inscriptions could imply a flying carpet and the arabesques of a Persian rug. Fundamentally romantic, Flying Carpet 1 is immersed in a magical realism. Like a relic from a Gabriel García Márquez novel, it radiates with evidence of a past life and past travels whose details are concealed, but whose existence nevertheless remain palpable.
The artists in “A Given Circumstance” embrace diverse precedents that could be said to begin with plein-air painting, a pragmatic strategy developed in the late 19th-century by the Impressionists that signaled a move out of the studio into the everyday world. Throughout the 20th century artists have continued to question the boundary between an isolated practice and their daily experiences outdoors, conventional genres, and commonplace materials.3 In contrast to Jackson Pollock’s horizontal canvas, which was interpreted by the art critic Harold Rosenberg as an arena on which to perform actions, daily life is now recognized by many artists as a playing field to inscribe their presence. Supporting this impulse to act, the artists in this exhibition abandon the heroic gesture in place of more humble maneuvers borne from a desire to engage the actual on its own terms and in all its particulars. Influenced by minimalism, conceptualism, and performance art, their presentations of primary forms and privileging of propositions, spontaneous gestures, and impermanence continue an evolution away from the autonomous artwork toward a more integrated relationship with the world.
Sandra Firmin, Curatorial Fellow Richard Torchia, Director
1 The picture perfect photography of Andy Goldsworthy exemplifies this sentimental conception of nature. His clever use of materials such as snow, leaves, twigs, etc. to fashion temporary sculptures that are ultimately destroyed by natural processes assumes a romantic equilibrium exists between man and his environment. In contrast, Katchadourian’s ironic intrusion, while expressing a desire to commune with nature, acknowledges the struggles inherent to our cohabitation with animals.
2 The mirror strips range in width from 5/8” to one inch.
3 In 1959, Robert Rauschenberg wrote, "Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in that gap between the two.)" Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled Statement, in Dorothy C. Miller, ed., Sixteen Americans, with statements by artists and others (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1959), 58.