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zingmagazine10 autumn 1999

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environs americana: white columns; new york, new york

 

 

 

 

Frank Webster, mini-mart, oil on canvas

Peter Gould, famous restaurant #14, RC print on formica

 

Describing the environs of late nineteenth-century Paris, TJ Clark comments on the infelicity of the term “suburban.” Such a designation “makes such places out to be the subordinates of some city,” he argues, “whereas in fact they were areas in which the opposite of the urban was being constructed, a way of living and working which in time would come to dominate the late Capitalist world, providing as it did the appropriate forms of sociability for the new age.” That time has indeed come in the United States, and the recent exhibition “Visitor” at White Columns, curated by Lauren Ross, deftly and systematically foregrounds the shift from the jostling urban center, with its undisputed gravitational draw, to the emergence of quasi-autonomous “environs,” with their unique—if nonetheless ambiguous—aesthetic tenor.
Since we are dealing less with a paradigm change than the playing out of a single (though hardly singular) paradigm, it seems fitting to begin by remarking on some of the homologies between nineteenth- and twentieth-century artistic production. Roe Ethridge’s photographs will more than suffice as a departure point, for as in many paintings by Manet, which focus on the disjunction between industry and leisure, they depict nature vitiated by urban infrastructure. In neutral territory (atlanta), for instance, a lonely young tree is encircled, almost suffocated, by a curved cement bridge behind. The picture simply displaces the railway lines laid down to the west of Paris in 1850, a common motif in Manet’s paintings (and the cause of the improbable admixture of factory smoke and Parisian picnickers intent on “escaping the city”, with modern-day interstate highways. In neither case, though, does culture simply dominate nature. In the Ethridge, the subject matter remains the tree, insistently placed dead center; the image, however, is carefully cropped to include some element of the built environment in the periphery.
The paradoxical centering of the peripheral and peripatetic—captured as if by a myopic who can only focus on one detail at a time—is also a motif in Peter Gould’s photographs, though here, paradox is overlaid with ironical distance and critique. If emphasis remained on verdant spaces in the past, the roads which bring people to them taking a second seat, increasingly, the reverse is the case: the roads are extinguishing the green space, now crimped into what can only be called bewildered desolation. (Surely we have all gazed with nonplus at these strange attempts of the Parks Commission to deal with the dead space left between infrastructure: Who uses them anyway? What are they there for? Who tends to the grass, waters the trees?) Again the connection is to the late nineteenth century, though here, the reference seems more to newspaper caricatures of the “countryside” than to Manet. Consider Gustave Doré’s 1861 les plaisirs champitres du parc du vesinet, for instance, in which a group of picnickers intent on enjoying a day of leisure away from urban grime are rudely intruded upon by a puffy cloud of exhaust from a passing freight train. Likewise, Gould’s black-and-white RC print famous restaurant #14 depicts an Anywhere, USA, Burger King outdoor seating area sandwiched between two roads stretching into the distance. But how famous is a restaurant when it is reproduced over the world in near-perfect similitude? The title hilariously conjoins “famous,” with its connotations of singularity and uniqueness, and “14.” Not that Gould is all play and no work, so to speak; on the contrary, eating has lost all pretenses of being a well-paced social pastime. Just as the food served here is assembly-line prepared under uniform guidelines, so has eating become a workaday and often solitary event, performed alongside rather than with other people. One works as a cog in a larger system of Capitalist production, only to spend the money earned therein doing more of the same—leisure indeed.
The ironic undercurrent of Gould’s photographs extends to his installation, “Community Shrubs”. One way to obviate the encroachment of the city into the countryside, of course, is to create one’s own oasis, a strategy practiced by Monet in his paintings of his enclosed Boulevard Saint-Denis garden, among them le blanc, 1873. Though again, this oasis would be just as artificial if not more so than the struggling remains of the natural landscape—a point not lost to Gould. Consisting of a few disparate free standing pieces, the materials are insistently petit-bourgeois den (particle board, Formica, Astroturf) while the references to nature are pure school playground: a hysterically flat tree struggles forth from the crossing of two sheets of wood laminate cut in biomorphic curves. Like an architect’s model writ large, this installation only signals what it attempts to mimetically represent. No more convincing are Rob de Mar’s fantasmatic models of beach-scapes and snow-capped summits (paradise ii, and mountain, respectively), which are less filled with hopeful promise than they are tired, almost cynical. An admixture of pop and the pastoral, their day-glow colors seem to underscore the falsity of the dreams—of unmediated nature, of peaceful solitude, of urban escape—proffered therein; indeed, the dreams themselves seem vaguely passé, less ours than from a past age which could still dream with sincerity.

Instead of hopeful escape we have, rather, a notion of cynical defense—a reveling in the seemingly inevitable, failure not obviated but at least mitigated by active embrace. If early modern painters such as Manet depicted leisure activities alongside the nineteenth-century culture of industry, Frank Webster depicts leisure activities alongside the twentieth-century culture of consumption. The resultant subject matter: the strip mall and its faithful counterpart, the parking garage. Here, finally, consumption and leisure happily and succinctly coalesce, and sociability is intertwined with buying. Paintings such as mini-mart, and parking garage, impeccably embody a certain brand—brand name?—of Americana. Devoid of distinguishing features, they possess a vacuous and deadened air, the paradoxical hallmark of suburbia. So too do they comment on commodity culture in another way, their pastel colors and flat shapes steering them towards hotel art, the final destination, as we now know, of Modernist abstraction. (Clearly, “Visitor” favors a certain lineage of Modernism, in which modern art is read to symptomatize Modernity’s temporal and spatial complexity, over another, in which Modern art is seen to refuse Modernity entirely and retreat into artistic autonomy. Webster sardonically underscores the second version’s ultimate failure. To be sure, the signs of high art—flatness, geometric abstraction, limited palette—obediently appear, but they remain but that: signs, their original verve attenuated by, as the now-familiar story goes, assimilation into the mainstream. The only paintings included in “Visitor” ironically negate that very practice, functioning not to counterpoint but to assert the prominence of photography and film.)
The increased preoccupation with the plane of representation constitutes the crux of both Lena Gieseke’s photographs and Amanda Alic’s film stills, though here the reference is more to Seurat than to Manet. Gieseke’s untitled (interior), for instance, depicts an empty interior of a hotel room, the only people who make an appearance doing so on a television in a corner. Split down the middle, one half of its screen displays a man speaking on the telephone, presumably to a woman on the other half, also holding a phone. On a similar note, in untitled (interior), a strangely androgynous person shows us the contents of a picture book. Communication is thematized here—or, more specifically, the impossibility of unmediated social contact (without television, telephones, or photography). So too with Seurat’s sunday on the island of la grande jatte, 1884-86, in which figures, despite their shared surroundings, remain physically and emotionally isolated from one another, their rigid postures and physiognomic indistinctness scarcely betraying human presence. As Linda Nochlin remarks about Seurat’s wet nurse, “the signs of her trade—cap, ribbon, cloak—are her reality: it is as though no others exist to represent the individual in mass society.” The angst and frustration of trying to communicate the personal is further the focus of Alic’s C-prints. The danger, of course, is that the personal ultimately becomes cliché, the obsessional the common, when subjected to shared structures (such as language). Here, the fragmented memories of childhood are filtered through the largely public medium of film. And though the film is in fact Alic’s own, stills from it such as untitled (slippers) from The Town of My Dreams is Already Crowded, which presents a child’s view of a pair of slippers, read less as diaristic records from the artist’s past than as evocations of the past in general, including the viewer’s. What is our private is already conditioned by the public, our childhood recoded by movies, made anonymous, subjected to conventional signs of “childhood.” As the title indicates, that ultimate private sphere—the dream—is indeed crowded by the public domain.
Alic’s mediation of her work through film echoes another theme in Seurat’s work: the withdrawal of authorial control. Just as the painter begins to extinguish the subjects represented by the paintings—the Parisian picnickers, the nurse with her discharge, the coupled strollers in the foreground—so does he attenuate his own expressive touch. The repetitive application of small points of discrete colors relates less to the tradition of the spontaneous brushstroke than to the mechanical processes of production sweeping nineteenth-century Paris. Likewise, Evie McKenn’s deadpan C-prints signal the ultimate de-skilling of the artist, the demystification of creative access to the transcendental. A domed house sits unblinkingly at the center of geometry, for instance; taken frontally, all compositional considerations are eradicated in its seeming banality. (In this sense, we might even see a whole tradition of photo-Conceptualism—including such practitioners as Ed Ruscha—as inheritors of Seurat). Even the architectural subject matter presses the point. Insistently vernacular, mostly prefabricated, and unceremoniously dropped onto a carpet of grass, it is at best perfunctory—a dumbed-down version of Buckminster Fuller’s readymade war structures. McKenna’s square-framed works’ deadened air parallels the actual mode of production, architectural as well as photographic, just as their evacuation of subjective expression reflects a similar desolation of subject matter: ghostly structures, abandoned landscapes.
Indeed, post-industrial America finesses nascent-industrial Paris insofar as the subject depicted is obliterated. Aside from those mentioned in Gieseke’s photographs, “Visitor” is devoid of people, utterly depopulated (does this make it post-nuclear?). Yet can this empty space—anticipated by Seurat’s discontinuous figures—endow “Visitor” with a social and political dimension, give it a potentially transformative role? The absence of psychic cohesion between depicted figures, their very isolation into semi-autonomous spaces, as the nineteenth-century art historian Alois Riegl noted, shifts emphasis onto the viewing subject. As a picture’s narratological glue begins to unbind, its unity increasingly comes to depend on the viewer—on his ability to maintain coherence, on his inner subjective will. Might “Visitor” develop the issue of this subject in a polemical direction? In addition to the readings proposed—of the playing out of nineteenth-century artistic paradigms and of the reflection of contemporaneous economic rhythms—I want to argue so, or at least claim that the exhibition’s resuscitation of the viewing subject is itself vaguely political, working against the logic of late Capitalism which Ross so deftly foregrounds.
Jonathan Crary has recently written about attention in relation to nineteenth-century painting, claiming that it is at once complicit with and, at least in its unstable form, potentially resistant to Capitalism’s forces. On the one hand necessary for disciplinary regimes—for regulating and realizing the full productive potential of the rising urban masses—on the other eroded by the increased speed and inundation of stimuli ensuing from those very regimes, attention emerges as volatile, in flux, pushed to its extreme. And though the unstable attentive subject might echo the increased spectacularization of society, it might also, conversely, “embody another path of invention, dissolution, and creative syntheses which exceeds the possibility of rationalization and control.” Not to refute this reading, I want however, to broach the issue from a notion of attention described earlier, by Riegl. Equally interested in “subjective life,” for him, this life was not so much an expression of will resulting in action or even of an emotional response to events, but concerned instead mental alertness, watchfulness, attention. And this attention manifested itself in stillness, secured in place by events the spectator was not privy to, occurring as they did outside the bounded rectilinear frame, and of which the painting only depicted a portion (for instance, Riegl cites Rembrandt’s the nightwatch, in which we see soldiers preparing for a battle rather than the battle action itself). These two aspects—immobility and fragmentation—underlie “Visitor.” There is an emphatic stillness, for instance, in Webster, Ethridge, and McKenna’s works, which the formal procedure of centering the subject matter and depicting it from a frontal vantage emphasize. Viewing them is akin to inspecting troops: their eyes are forward, unflinching, in rapt attention. And like soldiers who stare intently outward at, essentially, nothing, these three artists focus on, precisely, the in-between spaces of Modernity: strip malls, freeway gardens, despondent suburban homes. So too do Gieske’s and Alic’s works likewise miss the mark, literally depicting scenes which seem only recently abandoned, events just happened: a door swings open in a motel room, keys still on the counter; slippers are left pell-mell on a carpeted floor, as if stepped out of before a bath. In these cases, too, immobility remains central; only here, it is transferred onto the viewer, who is riveted to a scene even after its protagonists have moved on elsewhere. We are left (in the Gieske) as if in traumatic shock after an altercation (or a tryst) with a lover in a motel room, or given (in the Alic) a suspended fragment of a filmic narrative which we know should move on but refuses to, remains stilled.
Of course for Riegl attention in art meant to provoke an equivalent attention on the beholder’s part in which his imaginative faculty took flight, supplementing the incomplete but suggestive picture in front of him. But though Gieske and Alic also command the beholder’s attention, they do so differently, or at least on a different valence. In contrast to a balanced and ultimately liberating interchange between artwork and beholder, here, we are unaccountably riveted to the scenes depicted, locked in place as if by an irrational force. And, further, flights of fancy are less unproblematically promising than strangely nostalgic. Not only signaling a psychic regression with their playful colors, Gould and de Mar’s installations hark back to a specific historical moment as well, their materials (Formica, Astroturf) and subject matter (a Jetson-ian dream of a wholly synthetic world) referencing America’s putative high noon, the ‘50s. If there is an utopian current, it is skewered, less a picture of the future than of a future lost. How might we understand this digression from—willful misreading of—Riegl? What is the point of this beholder, who is less affirmed than dispossessed, and this imaginative flight, which is less fulfilling (of an internal narrative) than downbeat (about the world around us)?
The issue might involve the larger crisis of subjectivity that came to the fore during the late nineteenth century. As Crary intimates, the paradox is that vision is subjectivized—seen as contingent on the beholder rather than as an a priori fact—just as the subject loses his status as subject, the boundaries between inside and outside, the viewing body and its objects, effectively dissolved by Capitalism’s undifferentiated terrain. In one sense, then, “Visitor”’s simultaneous enunciation and annihilation of the subject reflects a more general phenomenon. But I want to claim that its adherence, however vestigial or perverted, to Riegl’s “subjective life” might somehow spin it with a more critical dimension too. Michel Foucault provides useful, counsel at this point. In tracing different conceptualizations of space, from the feudal to the cybernetic, he coined the term “heterotopia.” Unlike utopias, those illusionistic dreamscapes, heterotopias are spaces located in—though not concurrent or even continuous with—actuality. And it is precisely their ambiguous existence between the literal and virtual which endows these spaces with a disruptive power and explosive potential, an ability to undermine the patterns of ordering which increasingly govern daily life under Capitalism’s administrative regime. Analogizing heterotopias—which vary in type from nineteenth-century insane asylums to twentieth-century motel rooms—to mirrors of sorts, Foucault points to their effect of skewering and inverting, so that real arrangements in society are “at one and the same time represented, challenged, and overturned.” And though not quite a social conscience, heterotopias in fact have much to do with critical distance: they not only reflect the world but displace the beholder into a suspended space so that he may look back at the world. “Starting from that gaze which to some extent is brought to bear on me,” Foucault describes, “from the depths of that virtual space which is on the other side of the mirror, I turn back on myself, beginning to turn my eyes on myself and reconstitute myself where I am in reality.”
What does this have to do with “Visitor”? Perhaps it is the exhibition’s focus on the in-between spaces of Modernity that instigated this reading, for instance the recurrence of motel rooms in Gieseke’s photographs, or the uncannily imprecise utopian currents of Gould or de Mar’s installations. Or, more likely, it has to do with Foucault’s own comments on museums and gallery spaces, which qualify as heterotopias by their breach of traditional time, their attempt to create an archive set beside but encapsulating the products of real time. Later in the essay, he writes:Finally, the last characteristic of heterotopias is that they have, in relation to the rest of space, a function that takes place between two opposite poles. On the one hand they perform the task of creating a space of illusion that reveals how all of real space is more illusory, all the locations within which life is fragmented. On the other, they have the function of forming another space, another real space, as perfect, meticulous, and well-arranged as ours is disordered, ill-conceived, and in a sketchy state.And though Foucault proceeds to call these latter spaces compensatory, they might be critical too, constituting a space of somber quiet amidst an ever-increasing whirl of commodity exchange. For these characteristics—of performing a radical disillusionment and of forming a perfect space—are ultimately not exclusive: the former needs the latter to be that place of respite from which the beholder can ruminate. Like the mirror, a mere reflection of the world might not be enough; further, it must displace the viewer into a suspended space (that of the mirror) so that he might look back at his reality with clarity. And ultimately “Visitor”’s brilliance is this: the strengthening of White Columns’ historical status as an alternative space from which we might meditate on the space outside.

Christopher Ho

New York, New York

1999