By Ray Mark Rinaldi
Curators love to explore the things that define things, the overlaps and separations between one category of art and another. It’s a way of building a functional language around various types of objects so the discussion of their merits can go deeper.
The questions they pose around terminology can be wildly broad. What, for example, separates art from decoration in the first place? Or can they be highly specific, taking into consideration everything from shape and form to materials, presentation and intent. I’ve seen shows that attempt to distinguish printmaking from poster art from wall coverings; ponder photography vs. digital images on paper; sort textiles from fashion; distinguish video games from animation. You have to know what painting or drawing or ceramics really are, the thinking goes, before you can write their history or challenge their present state.
Object(ed): Shaping Sculpture in Contemporary Art, a group show at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, places the identity question in the realm of sculpture, differentiating it from notions of architecture and sizing up its similarities with installation art, video, painting, and other familiar constructs. Where does one form end, and the next one start, the exhibit asks, or should we reject such categorization as impossible from the get-go? The six artists on display do much to complicate the issue. They all seem to be making two or more of these things simultaneously, contributing objects that are often three-dimensional in fact, but two-dimensional in nature, or vice-versa.
What, for example, is Caitlyn Cherry’s piece, titled “Mute City, Big Blue, Port Town?” The object sits on the floor in the middle of the gallery, and looks a lot like a small, four-foot square swimming pool, just one-foot deep and filled with water. But the floor of the pool is actually an oil painting Cherry made that is protected from the water by a sheet of clear plexiglas.
Is it a painting, framed by the tiled walls of the pool, or it is a sculpture because it is neither flat nor hanging on a wall? There’s no obvious answer but it’s fun to wade through the question. And the artist puts actual beach towels around her piece as an invitation to dive in.
Tove Storch focuses the inquiry on the differences between sculpture and drawing. The process for her Untitled contribution to the exhibit starts with the creation of dozens of drawings on sheets of silk paper, which she then stacks horizontally, separating each with thin, metal rods to create a rectangular pile eight-feet tall and six-feet deep.
The work sits on the floor and it certainly feels like a sculpture; you can walk around it, assess its dimensionality. But the fact that it is made of layered, paper drawings is fundamental. Only the very edges of each drawing are visible, so it’s impossible to see what abstract or representational scenes they may depict. But the fact that your curiosity is aroused, that you wish you could make them out, rests their appeal on our attraction to drawing in the first place and our willingness to organically place the work in that category. Storch doesn’t allow that and instead asks us to redefine the traditional divisions. Does a drawing have to be thin and presented publicly at eye level, do we even have to see it in order to judge it as a drawing? Perhaps not.
The idea that objects have multiple personalities isn’t so new. One man’s trash has always been another’s treasure and Duchamp, of course, helped us understand that it’s all about context, while Warhol entertained us with the idea that the whole consumer culture is one giant sculpture or print just waiting to be recognized as such and sold for millions of dollars.
And there’s some advanced thinking on those concepts in Object(ed). Olga Balema’s array of found feeding troughs grouped together in a corner are remnants of agricultural production and serve as updated readymades rethought as fine art. She alters hers a bit though, painting them in bright shades of green that Warhol would be proud of. The color forces us not to take them for granted, to simultaneously remember their origins as part of the food chain that sustains us as humans and their appropriation as decorative objects in suburban gardens.
Similarly, Gili Tal starts her But The World Keeps Turning with three electric blenders on a shelf that she fills with colored yogurt, slowing their blade rotation to match ticking clocks. That piece, and an adjacent video of shoppers coming and going through the revolving door of a supermarket, remind us of the constant churn of consumer culture and how it shapes our habits and perceptions
She is more on point with the object of Object(ed) — and more subtle and effective — with her series of wall-mounted objects, hung next to one another in a gallery corner, that evoke the verticality of urban landscapes. The five pieces are all about the same size, three-feet by one-foot, but are made of entirely different materials. One is a found metal grate, another seems to recycle rubber strips, and another is simply an oil painting on canvas. They are all long and lean with strict, straight lines stretching from bottom to top and their tallness and thinness show how the forms and arrangements of city buildings themselves are organically attractive. Tal’s pieces feel natural and beautiful — and surprisingly human, considering they are derived from shapes in the hard, cold built environment. They aren’t exactly architecture masquerading as art, but they do blur the impressionistic lines between how we might perceive a skyscraper, and how we take in traditional gallery objects like painting and sculpture.
As a show, Object(ed) is smart and aggressive; and it can be on-point to a fault. The driver here for curator Rebecca Maksym is to destroy artistic definitions and so she has selected work that makes her point, regardless of the point the art itself is making. So, while it is structurally tight, it is thematically messy. Some of the art is political and some purely art theoretical. There are humorous bits set against deadly serious diatribes, set against ironic technical marvels. There’s too much ideological and emotional gear-shifting and the experience of passing through the exhibit never quite feels comfortable.
But it’s a choice and you can see why she made it. Maksym shatters rigid notions about the things we see in galleries. I tried to beat her at this game, to add up the sums of parts and declare one piece a painting, another an installation, another a sculpture, but I rarely did so with confidence. Maksym obliterates the “what” quite successfully.
And by unframing specific dialogues around types of objects, she moves the discussion about art forward in a different way. Object(ed) boldly suggests a whole new language for contemporary art that actually turns nouns into adjectives, and argues that more than one can apply to any given situation. Just as a single painting can be blue, yellow and black, an object can be described as sculpture and painting and architecture all at once. That may be how we’ve always perceived objects, but it’s not how we’ve talked about them.
Object(ed): Shaping Sculpture in Contemporary Art continues through December 17 at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, 20 SW. Temple, Salt Lake City, Utah.