It may seem contradictory to start an essay about a sculpture show with the claim that the object is irrelevant. Or, more concisely, it may seem contradictory to start an essay about a sculpture show with the claim that objecthood is irrelevant. Things in-and-of-themselves take no part in this exhibition. Autonomy has no place here. This may sound like some theoretical fast-footing, and for all practical purposes, it is. I’ll Be It stands squarely on the shoulders of its Post-Minimalist relatives, sharing the same concern for relations.
Hang on; let me be clear about this.
Not to completely weigh you down with Post-Modernist theory, just know that in the1960s, art went though a dynamic change of not being just about itself, but about how it was with you. This was the moment when art emptied itself of internal meaning. There was no story, no inner soul of the artist being bared, no compositional clockwork of self-referential color and repeating visual motifs that you needed to comprehend in order to “get” the artwork. This was the moment when art history—in its Hegelian academic sense—started to die, and when the art object lost whatever fallacy of autonomy it ever claimed to have had. Art stopped being narcissistically obsessed with itself and instead started becoming obsessed with you. Although ironically this is where art began to separate itself from the viewer (due to things suddenly not looking like the art we were so used to seeing), it was the viewer art was trying to reach. In short, art became about the relationship.
And, there is more than enough theory to explore that explains this relational shift. For those of you looking to expand your Post-Modern knowledge, take a look at Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s text Phenomenology of Perception that is later picked up by Rosalind Krauss in her essay on Richard Serra, Richard Serra, a Translation. Krauss is busy positioning Minimalism as an extension of Greenbergian Modernism in its rejection of the picture plane as a place of illusion—of being a window into another world, when she brings in Merleau-Ponty’s perceptual data and synthesizes it as the result of a relation between an object, a viewer, and a situation. For her, the work of Serra and other Minimalists relocate the site of the aesthetic relation from the internal space of the artwork to the external space of its context.
Or, if you want a more contemporary example of this relationalism, take a look at the recent summer issue of Artforum. In Those Obscure Objects of Desire, Andrew Cole rebukes object-oriented ontology’s claim that “reality is free from all relation” by demonstrating its underlying reliance on Kantian philosophy. After showing how Graham Harman, who founded object-oriented ontology, dances the same categorical two-step as Kant, Cole quickly reminds us that if we follow Harman’s ideas, we must adopt relation as the most important philosophical category on the planet. Whether or not we are dealing with the unthinkable world of the noumena, or the thinkable world of phenomena, it’s all still a question of relations.
Relationalism is current. It’s active in the art world, and it’s nowhere close to overstaying its welcome. I’ll Be It reminds us of this in its own unique way.
Of the thirteen works in exhibition, the sculptural ones seem to take a page directly out of the playbook of those Minimalists from the 1960s and follow it to the letter. I can’t help but think of Robert Morris’s text Notes on Sculpture, Part 2 that appeared in the 1960s, when I take my time to enjoy Rachael Starbuck’s from the mountain you see the mountain. Five columns of varying height and finish stand vertically with three steps at their bases.
Made of cardboard and tipped with plaster, there is no denying the juxtaposition between their brown stems and their white tops—a discord even further accentuated by the variations in how the plaster tips the individual columns. That irregularity in color expands to the larger sculptural field when a viewer takes the time to explore the columns from different perspectives. The shadows that they cast along the wall change as you move around them, and their heights grow and shrink, as you get closer to them or move further away. And, if you’re inclined, you can step up on the steps and peer down into them.
This type of spatial play is the “expanded situation” Morris calls for in his text. Already arguing for sculptural structures to be absent of internal parts, he is invested in developing the relationship between the viewer to the object, the object to the environment, and the environment to the viewer. But there is more at work here than mere correlational aesthetics. One does not simple “be” in a relationship. He/she/it must actively participate in it.
Active participation calls the body into play. And, it is the body that becomes even more apparent with several other works in the exhibition. Frank Wick’s plaster forms such as The Long Year and Heaven’s Gate read as vague anatomical references, and Starbuck’s Parallel to Something is just that: parallel to some form that is all at once humanly familiar and not. The sculptures in this exhibition walk a fine line that weaves its way through the body and larger concepts of body politics. And, their lack of overtness to these references leaves the viewer to resolve them on his or her own. Thus, not only is that expanded situation brought to life here but also is the expanded field of the body. In short, I’ll Be It reminds us that it is in ourselves to see ourselves in others and to encounter these others with relationships in mind and in play.
-Rachael Starbuck, Parallel to Something
Posted 18th September 2015 by Arnold, H.C.