Review

Hot Young Things

Thing: New Sculpture from Los Angeles
UCLA Hammer Museum
February 6 - June 5, 2005
Christopher Bedford

The latter half of the 1960s was a watershed period in the development of American sculpture, during which time work by artists like Donald Judd forced a “re-evaluation of the goals of sculpture and its expressive potential.”1 Witnessing this revelatory era firsthand, Artforum cofounder John Coplans even went so far as to suggest that Minimalism at its best “nullified the past” and compelled in the viewer “an awareness of being faced with a wholly new experience of the sculptural form.”2 As the debate took shape, New York Minimalists were and remain at the forefront. The artworks produced by this informal society of male artists represents the standard against which all other contemporaneous work hailing from across the United States (and particularly California) was and is still judged. Heralded by ‘60s critics as a completely non-referential mode of object production, Frank Stella’s austere black paintings, Carl Andre’s stark, modular floor sculptures and Donald Judd’s “specific objects,” have endured as the severe face of this East coast brand of Minimalist practice.

In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, a dynamic antidote to the uniformity of the East coast pantheon was so-called California Minimalism, a colorful take on minimal art practice represented by the vivid, high-finish sculptures of John McCracken and the translucent Plexiglas wall reliefs of Craig Kauffman. Despite its undeniable energy, California “finish fetishism” was frequently disparaged as a reflection of the sun culture of the West Coast: its surfboards, hot-rods, and the cheerful sun-bunny ethos of the Beach Boys. Even at its most abstract, California Minimalism could not, in the eyes of contemporary critics, shed its referential character. In the intervening decades, a loosely defined sculptural idiom has developed— seen in the work of artists such as Peter Alexander, Ken Price, George Herms, John Outterbridge, Stephen De Staebler, Chris Burden, Robert Arneson, Charles Ray, Jason Rhoades, and Margaret Honda—that has championed this referential tendency and built it into something of a tradition. Unbounded by strict presuppositions concerning the ways and means of sculpture as a discipline, California artists have used lipstick, stoneware, fiberglass, clay, textiles, wool, flowers, and found objects, to name but a few materials, to forge a “tradition” of dogmatic eclecticism.

The Hammer Museum’s current exhibition, Thing: New Sculpture from Los Angeles, organized by curator James Elaine with Aimee Chang and Christopher Miles, benefits greatly from this regional inheritance. The show spotlights the work of twenty Los Angeles-based sculptors whose art, though strikingly varied, displays a common investment in the potential for sculptural objects to connect the viewer with overlooked aspects of the three-dimensional world. Though critic Pepe Karmel recently observed that, “Minimalism continues to provide the basic language of contemporary art,” the fifty-one objects in Thing demonstrate little investment in such formal orthodoxy.3 Rather, each of the artists shares an interest in sculpture’s capacity to productively intervene in our experience of even the most mundane objects. One facet of the work that facilitates this process is, rather paradoxically, the obvious division between the meticulous, obviously hand-wrought character of the sculptures on view, and the quotidian objects they reference. It is through this dual emphasis on the relational properties of sculptural materials and the careful deployment of these materials in formal sculptural practice that constitutes this show’s most valuable contribution to the discourse of object production.

Particularly emblematic of these concerns is Hannah Greely’s Muddle (2004). Taken as a loose statement of the exhibition’s sensibilities, this modest floor sculpture is quite instructive. Made entirely from coconut fiber and silicon glue, this coarse, wiry object depicts in relief the profile of a sleeping dog against what could very well serve as a heavy-duty household doormat. Muddle’s literal resemblance to a doormat and its implied status as an art object creates a quandary for the viewer: Why has Greely expended so much time and effort to create an object that so closely resembles the most mundane of domestic conveniences? Is the languorous, embossed creature part of the doormat? Why would one want to wipe one’s feet on a dog, even on a mere representation of a dog? And why would the artist use the same material to depict a dog as to describe a doormat? These strange, disconcerting questions arise from the mutually constitutive effects of Greely’s curious choice of subject matter and materials.

Calculated confusion is also a central strategy for Kaz Oshiro, whose Kitchen Project (2005) is among the most compelling and complex works in the show. Installed in a corner of the penultimate gallery, this simulacrum of a kitchen is so determinedly mundane and formally familiar that it is easy to overlook. Stripped to the bone, the sculpture plays equally with Bauhaus notions of simplicity and utility and the Minimalist tendency to emphasize the formal appeal of repeated modular forms. To complicate this equation further, one also learns that this simulacrum, with its convincing appearance of durability, functionality and permanence, is in fact achieved through the age-old trope of illusionistic painting on canvas. Oshiro’s three-dimensional trompe l’oeil kitchen, composed entirely of acrylic painted canvas stretched over wood frames, displays a similar investment in rigorous craft seen in Greely’s Muddle. In both works, the objective is not simply to appropriate and re-present a quotidian object in a gallery context in the spirit of Duchamp, but to use the most conventional tools of the artist to add a further layer of interpretive difficulty. In the case of Kitchen Project, Oshiro asks what it means for the most esteemed of the visual art’s disciplines to aspire to the status of the mundane.

While Oshiro’s work complicates the boundary between the aesthetic appeal of art and the unexpected formal attributes of commonplace objects, Kristin Morgin’s ambitious Sweet and Low Down (2005) declares itself a work in the grand tradition of large-scale sculpture. The crusted-over, archaeological character of the artist’s vintage Mercury automobile recalls the assemblage work of Edward and Nancy Reddin Kienholz. Drawing on her training as a ceramicist, Morgin presents the worn architecture of her musty old car with such precision that the work impresses greatly, simply on a formal level. The vacant feel of the interior, dripping with what looks like centuries of accumulated lint, is particularly captivating and endows the car with an uncanny, animate subjectivity. Similar to Oshiro’s work that flirts with the idea of the found object, Morgin’s sculpture derives much of its appeal from its capacity to aestheticize the world around us.

Many works in Thing not only stake their claim as part of a distinctly sculptural tradition, but also comment on their own place in that lineage. One of Joel Morrison’s untitled works from 2005, for example, shows a bulbous cast aluminum mold stretched over an assortment of garbage and waste, which in turn rests precariously atop four pristine yellow Formica columns. A small silver river of paint from the cast drips down and soils the polished yellow surface of the support. These brightly colored, McCracken-like columns serve as a pedestal of sorts for the abject aluminum mold. Here, Morrison commits a host of offenses against his artistic predecessors: the object of Minimalist practice is recast as, of all things, a pedestal, which in turn is made to support a compressed sack of barely contained, leaking garbage, masquerading as a cool Modernist gesture.

Kate Costello’s vaguely biomorphic animal form, Untitled (2002), composed of paper, cement, and wood, also plays with the synthetic categories of sculpture, straddling the line between representational form and pure abstraction. Not quite one or the other, Costello’s sculpture refuses the Judd-ian definition of “specific object” due to its nebulous, organic character, yet, conversely, is too reductive and indistinct to describe the shape of a recognizable creature. Like Costello’s and Morrison’s efforts, other conceptually related works in the show by Nathan Mabry, Jedediah Caesar and Mindy Shapero alternately refuse and embrace a range of sculptural traditions to forge their own identities in the heterogeneous field of contemporary practice.

One of the more subtle interfaces with the sculptural imagination of decades past can be found in Michael O’Malley’s Untitled Object 7.04 from the series the Fantastic Interior (2004). Made of hollow core door, wood, and steel, O’Malley’s sculpture re-imagines the Suprematist paintings of Kasimir Malevich in three dimensions. O’Malley’s work sustains a palpable tension between the related traditions of high Modernist sculpture, painting, and architectural design—of which he is clearly mindful— and a desire to humanize the experience of abstract, three-dimensional space. The informal Modernism of his work is realized through the use of cheap, flimsy materials that achieve an unexpected elegance in his compositions, and by a reduction in scale that allows his models to operate on an intimate level evocative of children’s toys. Like Chris Burden, whose recent work with Erector Sets is both formally impressive and conceptually accessible, O’Malley’s interest in humanizing the Modernist/Minimalist program sheds new light on the aesthetic and social capacity of an art form renowned for its remote, detached character.

Figural sculpture, perhaps the most conventional of plastic enterprises, is treated with considerable knowing in the work of Lauren Bon. Her work, Wise Elders (2004), comprises two glimmering, black monoliths adorned on either side with silver gelatin prints of Chinese devotional figurines, seen from the front and rear. The formal elegance of silver print on black ground evokes the rarefied presentation of sculptural forms in glossy auction catalogs, and this reduction to two dimensions in turn signifies the reduction of an apparently sacred object to a saleable commodity. Yet, the monumental scale of the black slabs suggests that the figures are still deserving of reverence. Thus, the uncertainty of our encounter with Bon’s work seems to relate to the familiar process of a spiritual life conducted through the mediating apparatus of remote devotional objects.

By their own admission, curators Elaine, Chang, and Miles make no effort to define the limits of the designation “sculpture,” a category that has become an extremely elastic term in the contemporary art scene. Interestingly, however, these curators have opted to disentangle the medium from the environmental, site-specific, and performative concerns of sculpture’s close relative, installation art. At the same time, their shared interest in what might be called “objecthood” (to borrow a term from Michael Fried), does not appear to signify the rise of a new movement or the development of a new sculptural “ism” in Los Angeles. Quite to the contrary, the only sense in which the artists in Thing are conceptually or aesthetically bounded is in the fact that they are all similarly unbounded. Art criticism has faced such dogged terrain before. Writing at the end of the ‘70s, Rosalind Krauss identified a crucial need to determine a fresh lexicon and set of categories to describe and understand the new modes of representation that had arisen in sculpture since the dawn of the ‘60s. Of the era, Krauss noted: “Nothing, it would seem, could possibly give to such a motley of effort the right to lay claim to whatever one might mean by the category of sculpture. Unless, that is, the category can be made to become almost infinitely malleable.”4

The objects in Thing do not demand a new glossary of sculptural terms as did the site specific and earthwork sculptures of the ‘60s and ‘70s. What they do demand, however, is a free and rigorous critical practice that parallels the myriad conceptual and aesthetic programs of these twenty artists’ work. In their design and presentation of this exhibition, the curators of Thing developed a show that posits an artistic climate that has rejected “isms” and movements, urges the viewer to submit to the eclecticism of current sculptural practice, and dispense with the desire to impose logic or order when perhaps there is none. In fact, the only way to think about this exhibition is to examine each “thing” one by one. If this condition makes the project of the critic more difficult, such adversity can only urge a closer engagement with the object of analysis, and thus, inevitably, spawn a more valuable and probing critical practice.

Christopher Bedford is a PhD student at the University of Southern California and a Research Assistant at the Getty Research Institute.

Footnotes

  1. John Coplans, “Don Judd,” Provocations: Writings by John Coplans (London: London Projects, 1996), p. 109.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Pepe Karmel, “The Year of Living Minimally,” Art in America, December 2004, p. 90.
  4. Rosalind E. Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” The Originality of the Avant-garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986), p. 277.
Further Reading