Modest Proposals: Paul Donald’s Subversion of the Grand Gesture

Jonathan D. Katz

Paul Donald, <em>Certainties</em>, 2008.

A house of cards pits dexterity against chance, betting that precise, carefully controlled gestures will defeat gravity’s ceaseless attempt to reassert its domain. A metaphor for instability, a “house of cards” stands or falls on the masterful touch alone. The hand’s ability to hold chaos at bay, to anticipate and defeat the forces of disorder, to hold the whole world at hand, in hand—that is what mastery entails. Until the early 20th century, art lauded that masterful gesture, even when, as in Expressionism, it courts the appearance of wild abandon. (Expressionism, after all, works precisely to the degree that it is balanced on the knife-edge between control and chaos, wildness and its banishment; it is thus a particularly battle-tested form of mastery.) Moreover, the visual’s elevation of mastery as its defining trope inflects our understanding of artists in general. We not only call them masters, and that which they produce masterpieces, but the masterful control they emanate tends to migrate from the hand to the mind. After seeing Leonardo da Vinci’s “Deluge” drawings in Windsor Castle in 1964, even the hard headed anti-romantic Jasper Johns said he admired them “because here was a man depicting the end of the world and his hands were not trembling.”

So when I call Paul Donald’s most recent sculpture a house of cards, it is towards highlighting its refusal of mastery, for the work is likewise slowly built-up, one careful gesture after another, a deliberate, humble accumulation of painting, cutting, and folding paper with a patience that is as anti-heroic, as forthright about limitation, as a Kafka short story. Unassuming, even self-effacing in scale, it offers no tonic of conquest, no heroic gesture, no grappling with the infinite. Instead, mingling craftiness with craft, Donald has built up out of mere cut and folded paper a paean to delimitation. This is precisely not anti-art, for art’s variously embodied antitheses share with their target a hubristic claim to totalization that nothing in Donald’s work even vaguely suggests. Instead, these small works, blooming in the narrow fissure between the meticulous and the elusive, are a slow accumulation of little gestures, a negotiation with, and not a triumph over, constraint.

That is not to say they aren’t skillful, and it’s their skillfulness that first strikes a viewer. But to master a skill isn’t the same as mastery tout court, and what’s most appealing about these little works, all of which can fit into the palm of a hand, is their play with slippage. Some are even collectively entitled Drift and drift they do, between maquette and sculpture, furniture and cartoon, Rococo and Modernism, the planar and the volumetric, the fluid and the solid. Indeed, like much of Donald’s work, they seem caught in a moment of unfixity and transition—a herd of hybrids—in the process of metamorphoses. But this is no transition from one state to another, but the permanently stateless existence of the truly estranged. Born of an unlikely marriage of furniture and cartoons, they attempt a cognitive leap beyond the materiality of furniture towards the flowing biomorphic fluidity of the cartoon; but unlike cartoons, they are volumetric and stable, real things, not two-dimensional abstractions. As such they are funny-serious collisions of things meant to be mutually exclusive. But, and this is key, not in any huge, transcendent world-making way, but as a little gesture, a demonstration of possibility, towards the achievement of that particular liberty born of constant change.

Donald’s work came to mind as emblematic of a new tendency I’ve been noticing of late. Towards attempting yet another end run around the hypocrisy of the art market’s hunger for an anti- or uncommodifiable art, some mid-career artists like Donald are exploring that polar obverse of the ‘80s art market—modesty—and they are doing so in terms of scale, medium, ambition, even in the scope of the work’s referentiality. As Jeff Koons and Richard Prince scale ever higher auction-room heights, the art world’s self-serving identification with the trappings of a materialist critique has never cost more, hence never been so hypocritical. Once the Damien Hirst/Charles Saatchi nexus made the grand gesture (albeit in scale more often than conception) the yardstick by which ambitious new work was to be judged, artists like Donald began to mine the marginal as a dissident act. But unlike Modernism’s many previous appropriations from its margins—ranging from Duchamp’s embrace of non-art to Picasso’s reanimation of the non-Western or Warhol’s cheerful surrender to Pop culture, this new form of marginality itself equivocates. It’s not invested in mining the margins to find yet another masterful trope with which to lead from the sidelines, as Julian Schnabel did with his black velvet paintings in the ‘80s or Hirst’s taxidermy in the ‘90s. No, the new margin is invested in its marginality as, precisely, marginality, as a refusal of the recent hedge fund acquisition of what is, ostensibly, a critique of the very market forces that generated record profits and auction records.

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