Review

Cock-Eyed Romantics

Ryan Taber: A Rhetoric of Ills: The Oekologie of Ornament in the Causatum of Stillness
Mark Moore Gallery
Santa Monica, CA
Kristina Newhouse
Ryan Taber, A Rhetoric of Ills: The Oekologie of Ornament in the Causatum of Stillness, Installation at Mark Moore Gallery, 2006.

Ryan Taber, A Rhetoric of Ills: The Oekologie of Ornament in the Causatum of Stillness, Installation at Mark Moore Gallery, 2006.

Without nostalgia for the past, there can be no dream of an authentic future. In this sense, utopia will be Romantic or it will not be.1

There is a moment in the writing process when first impressions, tangential threads of research, misassumptions, and random thoughts jostle and cling to one another, mingling to form a fragile lattice of epiphany. However insubstantial, everything feels plausible and, what is more, interconnected. Overcome by this heady state of pure joy, a writer is emboldened to commit her first thoughts to paper. All too soon, the delicious feeling passes, brought down by the constraints of framing an argument and by the very words that—once consigned to the page—appear fugitive and imprecise.

The best of Ryan Taber’s recent sculptures and works on paper make similarly incandescent and intoxicating “yes, why not?” propositions. And yet, they do so without triggering the sobering recoil when everything is thrown into doubt. Fragmented relics of art nouveau ornamentation lay scattered amongst Southwest desert plant life with nary an indication of how they got to be there. Marine hydrozoans vandalize highly formal arts-and-craft windowpanes. A jellyfish struggles mightily to ingest the pieces of an Italian warplane. At first glance, these juxtapositions resemble the degenerate offspring of surrealist parlor games. Upon deeper examination, it becomes apparent that Taber is more than just a promiscuous gatherer of the arcane.

There is a distinctive, quasi-19th century prolixity to his titles, which serve to describe all the odd bits of imagery and fabricated objects. This is the first clue that Taber intends for the artwork to carry a hefty symbolic load. Indeed, every detail in the series presented at Mark Moore Gallery functions as a trope standing in for something or someone else, practically necessitating that viewers be provided with a narrative key to the overarching concepts.

Taber stocks his elaborate storyline with major and minor characters. Those who play primary roles include film director Michelangelo Antonioni,2 journalist Gabriele D’Annunzio,3 zoologist Ernst Haeckel,4 and architect Frank Lloyd Wright.5 The supporting characters are Mark Frechette (the mentally unstable star of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point), Hector Guimard (an Art Nouveau architect), and Alexandre Louis Marie Charpentier (an Art Nouveau craftsman). The Sonora Desert outside Phoenix, site of both Wright’s Taliesin West and the final moments of Zabriskie Point, provides the setting for Taber’s vignettes.

Taber’s protagonists share Romantic proclivities, each reacting to the societal conditions of his time in ways that could prove to have catastrophic if unintended consequences. The Romantics, as they have been broadly described, felt an acute sense of loss brought on by the unprecedented paradigm shift during the Age of Reason. The Enlightenment era engendered crises in aesthetics, economics, politics, religion, and the very societal fabric of many European and European-satellite countries. Alienated and incapable of finding solace in the appurtenances of modernity, the Romantics looked backwards to chart their course forward. The defining sentiment of Romanticism was nostalgia, a wistful ache for home and the simplicity of bygone times. Nostalgia would drive the impulse to transform the past into an idealized paradise6 and to reconfigure historical events into heritage.7 Early advocates of Romanticism such as Friedrich von Schiller called for the creation of a utopian “aesthetic state” to counter alienation and fragmentation.8 With beauty as its standard, art would be an agent in the Romantic quest to recapture some part of the lost paradise.

Ryan Taber, Guimard’s Annexation of Antonioni’s Mirage: Landscape excerpt from Zabriskie point with Desert Fox Den, Pygmy Owl Nest, Saguaro Cactus and the right side of the Palais Royal Metro Station, 2006. Wood, Thermoset Plastic, Polyester Resin, Polyurathane foam, 10 x 12 x 5 feet. Courtesy of the artist and Mark Moore Gallery.

Ryan Taber, Guimard’s Annexation of Antonioni’s Mirage: Landscape excerpt from Zabriskie point with Desert Fox Den, Pygmy Owl Nest, Saguaro Cactus and the right side of the Palais Royal Metro Station, 2006. Wood, Thermoset Plastic, Polyester Resin, Polyurathane foam, 10 x 12 x 5 feet. Courtesy of the artist and Mark Moore Gallery.

Ryan Taber, Guimard’s Annexation of Antonioni’s Mirage: Landscape excerpt from Zabriskie point with Desert Fox Den, Pygmy Owl Nest, Saguaro Cactus and the right side of the Palais Royal Metro Station, 2006. Wood, Thermoset Plastic, Polyester Resin, Polyurathane foam, 10 x 12 x 5 feet. Courtesy of the artist and Mark Moore Gallery.

Svetlana Boym, author of The Future of Nostalgia, distinguishes between two very different types: ironic meditations on the passage of time (reflective nostalgia) and a second, more insistent need to reconstruct the emblems of home and homeland (restorative nostalgia).

Two kinds of nostalgia are not absolute types, but rather tendencies, ways of giving shape and meaning to longing. Restorative nostalgia puts emphasis on nostos and proposes to rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps. Reflective nostalgia dwells in algia, in longing and loss, the imperfect process of remembrance. The first category of nostalgics do not think of themselves as nostalgic; they believe that their project is about truth. This kind of nostalgia characterizes national and nationalist revivals all over the world, which engage in the antimodern myth-making of history by means of a return to national symbols and myths…Restorative nostalgia manifests itself in total reconstructions of monuments of the past, while reflective nostalgia lingers on ruins, the patina of time and history, in the dreams of another place and another time.9

Within the normative functioning of restorative nostalgia, any blight on the perceived authenticity of the past becomes increasingly intolerable. Soon thereafter come outcries against deviancy and demands for purification. It is not difficult to comprehend how, at some point in the nostalgic progression, violence is perpetrated in the defense of beauty. Quite likely, Taber is a little enamored with both varieties of Romantic nostalgia. A telltale sign is in his past-oriented artistic references (the most recent being to a film released years before the 28-year old was even a twinkle in his mother’s eye). Another sign can be found in his work ethos—Taber insisted upon crafting all of the complex sculptural elements rather than consigning them to fabricators, even going so far as to learn how to make stained glass. If there is one hitch in his output however, it seems be in the inherently fussy precision that characterizes both the art nouveau and arts-and-craft styles. By opting to work in this masterly vein, Taber risks exposing his own vulnerabilities as an art maker. Counter- intuitively, it is in the least technically challenging works when things go astray. A number of drawings and watercolors lack the requisite crispness associated with graphics at the turn of the last century. These works on paper look more like wishful yet incomplete renderings of unconsummated sculptures rather than fully realized compositions.

Still, there is plenty to appreciate. The showstopper is Guimard’s Annexation of Antonioni’s Mirage: Landscape Excerpt from Zabriskie Point with Desert Fox Den, Pygmy Owl Nest, Saguaro Cactus, and the Right Side of the Palais Royal Metro Station (2006). In this ambitiously large assemblage of sculptural elements, Taber conflates Wright’s Taliesin West compound with the climactic final scene of Zabriskie Point, when the character Daria hears on the radio of her lover’s death and reacts by imagining the explosive annihilation of her employer’s desert home. Taber chooses to present the aftermath of the cataclysm. Further, he stages a second conflation: Hector Guimard’s Métropolitain project stands in for the film’s late-modernist house designed by one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s followers. Accordingly, the scene is littered with remnants of the Palais Royal arch that Guimard fashioned in the style of Gothic revivalist Eugène Viollet- le-Duc. (Interestingly, Viollet-le-Duc also deeply influenced Wright, although Wright would take Viollet-le-Duc’s radical mandates about architectural integrity in a resolutely different direction than would Guimard.) In Taber’s architectural substitution, one can find the inculcating pervasiveness of 18th century Romantic ideals as they extend into the present moment.

Lurking in the subtext of Guimard’s Annexation is also recognition of Romantic permutations in acts perpetrated by terrorists (although in truth, Al Qaeda will probably never go to the trouble to parse Romantic elements from the rest of decadent Western culture, despite the movement’s closely related desire to reclaim simpler times). In presenting the fantastical wreckage of Guimard’s ironwork, Taber alludes to recent assaults against the British and Spanish rail systems. Not only do Islamo-fascist bombings deliver a lot of bang for the buck but they also strike symbolically at mass transportation, the most critical underpinning of early Western- style industrialization.

Ryan Taber, Blast patterns in Aquarelle: Taliesin Quartzite, Teddy Bear Cholla (Opuntia Bigelovii) and Palais Royal right lamp post light housing, 2006. Watercolor on paper, 29 x 20 1/2 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Mark Moore Gallery.

Ryan Taber, Blast patterns in Aquarelle: Taliesin Quartzite, Teddy Bear Cholla (Opuntia Bigelovii) and Palais Royal right lamp post light housing, 2006. Watercolor on paper, 29 x 20 1/2 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Mark Moore Gallery.

A marvel of fin de siècle modernity, the Ansaldo SVA-5 biplane of Gabriele D’Annunzio makes several forays throughout the exhibit. On September 18, 1918, D’Annunzio and his pilot, Natale Palli, led the 87th Italian Air Squadron (the Serenissima) on a death-defying raid over Vienna, Austria, to drop 400 thousand propaganda leaflets. (One can only imagine the massive ego-rush for the tiny, Italian megalomaniac as the Serenissima landed safely in Padua after humiliating the Viennese.) In (Untitled) Charpentier’s Music Stand, 1901, with Haeckel’s Discomedusae, 1904, and D’Annunzio’s SVA 5, 1918 (2006), one of the biplane’s wings is literally stuck in the craw of Haeckel’s jellyfish. The outcome certainly seems dire for the large aquatic invertebrate (perhaps intimating that political ideology is equally indigestible when it enters the field of science). In the watercolor Harley Bradley House, 1910: Sighting of a Newly Identified D’Annunzio’s Emerald-Crest Numb-Neck (2006), the SVA-5 flies through the shattered pane of a Wright-designed window. Its fuselage and wings are covered with the same hippie “free your head” imagery and slogans painted by Antonioni’s protagonists, Daria and Mark, on a Cessna Lilly 7 in Zabriskie Point. In the film’s plot, Mark steals the plane after he fails to live up to his radical impulse to shoot a cop during a student protest (later, he would be gunned down by police while attempting to return the plane). On one end of Taber’s revolutionary continuum is a patriot practically suicidal in his zeal to engage the enemy and on the other, an idealistic activist so devoid of bloodlust that he is destroyed by the enemy without even putting up a fight.

Ryan Taber, (Untitled) Charpentier’s Music Stand, 1901 with Haeckel’s DiscoMeduse, 1904 and D’Annunzio’s SVA 9, 1918, 2006. Thermoset plastic, Wood, Epoxy, 40 x 11 x 11 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Mark Moore Gallery.

Ryan Taber, (Untitled) Charpentier’s Music Stand, 1901 with Haeckel’s DiscoMeduse, 1904 and D’Annunzio’s SVA 9, 1918, 2006. Thermoset plastic, Wood, Epoxy, 40 x 11 x 11 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Mark Moore Gallery.

History tells us there are winners and losers when nostalgia becomes radicalized. Haeckel’s populist writings—filled with elements of völkisch utopianism and bursts of unvarnished anti-Semitism—would be used to justify the ethnic cleansing perpetrated by German National Socialists during their “blood and soil” campaigns. Likewise, D’Annunzio, crowned the “poetic soul” of Fascism, would become a pawn in Mussolini’s aggressive propaganda campaigns. In 1938, Guimard and his Jewish wife were compelled to flee France, going into exile and obscurity in New York. In that same time period, Wright would be outspoken in his support of the isolationist organization, America First, and its frontman Charles Lindbergh, who would invoke a world-wide “Jewish Conspiracy” in his efforts to keep our country out of the impending war. Nearly forty years later, Mark Frechette would die in prison after he and fellow members of the Fort Hill Commune botched an armed bank robbery. The young film star (who carried an unloaded pistol during the attempt) called the crime a political statement, deeming it a “direct attack on everything that is choking this country to death.”

At present, Taber’s protagonists have themselves been folded into the restorative processes of nostalgia. Considered an embarrassment in post-WWII Italy, D’Annunzio is now being redeemed by the Italian political right. Proponents of evolution have been re-valorizing Haeckel’s work to fend off conservative claims that his manipulation of data is proof that evolution is utter fabrication. Of late, DVD releases of Zabriskie Point and other films by Antonioni have become cult favorites amongst younger generations. Art and design lovers have rediscovered Guimard and Charpentier (in fact, there is a multi-venue exhibition of Charpentier’s work now wending its way across the US). And of course, during his lifetime Wright had already become the subject of highly selective deification at the hands of his close associates.

Ryan Taber, The Dwelling of Mark Frechette’s Eidolon; Sumac Bush from outside the Frederick C. Robie House, 1908-1910, with abandoned Trochilidae Kolibris nest, 2006. Glass, zinc, Thermoset plastic, 34 x 45 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Mark Moore Gallery.

Ryan Taber, The Dwelling of Mark Frechette’s Eidolon; Sumac Bush from outside the Frederick C. Robie House, 1908-1910, with abandoned Trochilidae Kolibris nest, 2006. Glass, zinc, Thermoset plastic, 34 x 45 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Mark Moore Gallery.

Ryan Taber obviously derives pleasure from his subjects’ Icarus-like flights of fancy, skill, hubris, and periodic madness. An occasional social activist, Taber has admitted to stepping outside his regular studio practice to make clandestine aesthetic interventions against urban development. With this in mind, clearly the subject matter of A Rhetoric of Ills is close to home. His examination of Romanticism in all its permutations is thoughtful and provoking. It provides a glimpse of good and bad as intertwining elements of idealism.

 

Kristina Newhouse is curator of the Torrance Art Museum.

Footnotes

  1. Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre, Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity, translated by Catherine Porter (Duke University Press: Durham/London, 2001), p. 255.
  2. Zabriskie Point (1970) was to be Michelangelo Antonioni’s epic about revolutionary socio-political upheaval in the late 1960s. He spent nearly two years researching and reaching out to the American counterculture in preparation. The stories of Antonioni’s tribulations with the doomed film are legendary. Critics excoriated the weak dialogue and wooden performances by the two young leads, Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin. Radicals found Antonioni’s message insufferably naïve and clichéd. Various law enforcement agencies and the popular press accused Antonioni of inciting unrest. In any case, the still- fresh violence of the Watts Riot and the Manson Family murder spree had probably already spoiled the collective appetite for revolution. Zabriskie Point proved to be a costly boondoggle for the MGM studio.
  3. Gabriele D’Annunzio was an ardent right-wing Nationalist who worked as a journalist for the Italian newspaper Tribuna. Influenced by the ideas of Nietzsche, he habitually used his writings to deride democracy as a triumph of bourgeois mediocrity. D’Annunzio also published numerous volumes of poetry and fictional works. A self-described “Dionysian,” he was almost as famous for sexual exploits that were luridly detailed in his semi-autobiographical novels. D’Annunzio fought in World War I, receiving special dispensation to enlist in 1915 at the age of 52. He believed the blood of battle would provide Italians with spiritual purification after centuries of ignobility. At the war’s end, he protested international treaties that would result in Italy ceding Fiume to the Kingdom of Serbia and Croatia. In 1919, he seized control of Fiume and demanded its annexation to Italy. When this effort failed, he declared Fiume an independent city-state. As Fiume’s first and only dictator, D’Annunzio had a flair for spectacle. The Italian Fascist Party would later emulate his fiery mass speeches of this period. Ultimately expelled from the Dalmatian city by the Italian military, D’Annunzio returned to Italy, where he went into self-styled exile at his lavish estate, Il Vittoriale. Essentially bought off by Benito Mussolini for 5 million lire, he withdrew from politics to spend the remainder of his life indulging in cocaine-fueled erotomania and other hedonistic pursuits.
  4. Zoologist Ernst Haeckel was an advocate of evolutionary theory who, in his lifetime, identified thousands of species of marine organisms and coined such terms as phylum, phylogeny, and ecology (oekologie). By the late 19th century, he was as famous as his contemporary, Charles Darwin. Haeckel lectured and published extensively about his findings and theories, relying upon his gorgeously rendered drawings and hand-colored etchings of microorganisms to illustrate his contentions. Although deeply inspired by On the Origin of Species (1859), Haeckel dismissed Darwin’s views on natural selection as the primary mechanism for generating biological diversity. In 1866, he proposed a “theory of recapitulation” in which stages of embryonic development of a given species (ontogeny) could be shown to replicate each evolutionary stage of development in the species (phylogeny). He believed evolution provided humanity with the means to achieve biological perfection. Haeckel’s influence crossed over into spiritual and philosophical realms. He was well versed in the tenets of Naturphilosophie as it arose from early 19th century German Idealism. As early as 1866, Haeckel proposed a pantheistic religion based upon scientific principles. By 1892, his spiritual movement was named Monism and by 1904, there were Monistic societies all over central Europe. Highly popular, Monism even inspired Carl Jung to create a “phylogeny of the soul.” Because Haeckel incorporated elements of völkisch mysticism into Monism and did little to hide his own beliefs about the “inferior races,” his views became useful to German nationalists. In the years leading up to World War II, Haeckel’s writings would be used to promulgate such insidious concepts as Social Darwinism, eugenics, and euthanasia. Hotly contested even in his time as over- reaching and possibly manipulative, Haeckel’s theories on the relationship of phylogeny to ontogeny are considered by contemporary evolutionary scientists to bear only historical relevance.
  5. Desperately broke and at the brink of eviction, Frank Lloyd Wright and his third wife, Olgivanna Milanoff, devised the Taliesin Fellowship to save his Wisconsin estate. It would become a residential program in which young architects could pay a yearly tuition of $1100 to study with the famous architect. In the Fellowship, Wright’s interests in arts-and-craft colonies and rural utopian communities dovetailed with Olgivanna’s metaphysical beliefs. (Before she met Wright, she had been an active member of a cult led by the charismatic mystic George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, who taught disciples that strenuous work provided means to self-discovery). Apprentices at Taliesin received no formal architectural instruction from an increasingly autocratic Wright. Instead, life at Taliesin amounted to a kind of indentured servitude. Apprentices were required to labor in the household and communal gardens, excavate building materials, and create their own dwellings (subject to Wright’s approval). Numerous first-hand accounts detail how he even told them what to wear and with whom to have sex. From 1932 until his death in 1959, Wright lived and worked at Taliesin. A second site, Taliesin West, was begun in 1937. Located in the Sonora Desert outside Scottsdale, Arizona, Taliesin West served as a winter home for the Wrights and their acolytes. In contrast to the peculiar goings-on at Taliesin, it was during the early days of the Fellowship when Wright conceived and began to promote Broadacre City, a utopian community that would provide an antidote to the corrupting influence of the American metropolis. All structures in Broadacre City were designed upon the principles of Organicism. For Wright, “organic” was synonymous with “democratic” and signified harmony with nature. In his idealized attempt at social engineering, residents of Broadacre City would formulate a new, egalitarian brotherhood as a natural outgrowth of living in his master-planned community that integrated light industry with rural homesteads.
  6. Löwy and Sayre, p. 22.
  7. Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (Basic Books: New York, 2001), p. 15.
  8. Löwy and Sayre, p. 23.
  9. Boym, p. 41.
Further Reading