Criticism
Tuesday, August 13th, 2013

The Sovereignty of Strangeness: Conspicuous Unusable at Miguel Abreu


Conspicuous Unusable: Rey Akdogan, Olof Inger, Gabriel Kuri, Jean-Luc Moulène, Charlotte Posenenske, Dorothea Rockburne, Cameron Rowland, a group show at Miguel Abreu Gallery

June 28 to August 17, 2013
36 Orchard Street, between Hester and Canal
New York City, 212-995-1774
(Summer hours: Tues – Sat, 11 AM – 6:30 PM, or by appointment)

Installation view of Conspicuous Unusable at Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York

Installation view of Conspicuous Unusable at Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York

An art object has no clearly defined purpose beyond the recognition of itself as art. The un-nameable complexity of what art is can be reinforced by its material proximity to objects that are industrial, entertaining, or fragmented beyond recognition–all of which are qualities that art can hold as well. The seven artists included in Conspicuous Unusable at Miguel Abreu Gallery make work that highlights this definition of art in relation to utility and refuse-like materials. The show’s title draws on a line from Heidegger in which he states that objects that are no longer used for their assigned role (for example, a broken clock) do not “vanish simply” but instead, take a “farewell in the conspicuousness of the unusable.” This philosophical framework opens up a space for reverent (but thankfully not overly high-minded) contemplation of visual art’s relationship to its other: the purposeful object. The exhibition explores these questions with a tense and interesting collection of works that evoke the intellectual spirit of classic Minimalism but with a more quiet mindfulness of the limitations of the grand gesture.

Dorothea Rockburne’s contribution is Study for Scalar (1970), a wall piece series that skirts the line between painting and installation in which six sheets of crude oil-stained paper, nailed to equally stained chipboards are arranged in three perfectly aligned pairs on a wall. The opulent, aged residue of the oil on the surface of both paper and board, a rugged evidence of action taken, is thrown into a strange relief by the cleanly economic use of nails to adhere paper to board and board to wall. The seriality of Rockburne’s work seems more like a musical variation than a ratio for linear time; there is no limit to the affinities one can keep discovering between paper, board, oil, and wall placement. Another use of layers to evoke transformation is proposed in Olof Inger’s Do You Remember? (2013), a diaphanous wall hanging made from a delicate design of pale yellow, rectangle-cut plastic trash bags. In their new incarnation as art, the plastic sheets suggest an almost-too-polite academic study of what happens when industrial materials are formally repurposed with an eye for harmonious design.

Dorothea Rockburne, Study for Scalar E, 1970, Nails, crude oil, chipboard and paper. Chipboard: 30 x 20 inches. Paper: 16 3/4 x 13 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Miguel Abreu Gallery.

Dorothea Rockburne, Study for Scalar E, 1970, nails, crude oil, chipboard and paper. Chipboard: 30 x 20 inches. Paper: 16 3/4 x 13 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Miguel Abreu Gallery.

Several works in the show have the more distinct appearance of discarded industrial fragments from the streets of the Lower East Side. Jean-Luc Moulène’s Chrome (1999), a small, steel cage-like sculpture and Cameron Rowland’s U66 (2013), a thin strip of lacquered steel, are modestly understated. These are objects that do not seem to need people, and there is an almost unnerving resistance to visual excess and flamboyance. The two crushed soda cans caught between the marble slabs of Gabriel Kuri’s Two nudes two points (2013) are the most explicit evidence of the messiness of human life.

A palpable sense of elegy is most apparent in the work that literally points to what is missing from the room. In Untergerät (2013), Rey Akdogan discretely activates each of her fellow-exhibitors’ art objects with her removal of the gallery’s white floor tiles to reveal concrete underneath, leaving a thin framed tile edge on two sides of the room’s surface and along the inside of the front door. This is an intervention along similar lines to the artist’s 2012 exhibition at Miguel Abreu, night curtain, in which Akdogan kept the gallery open into the nighttime hours, turning the darkened room, lit by ambient neon light outside, into a three-dimensional magic lantern theater with an overhead fan and a slide carousel. There is something intriguingly old fashioned about both of these minimalist defacements that hide a loving respect for the formalities and barriers of a white cube gallery space. Likewise, much of the work in Conspicuous Unusable is infused with a similar, traditional restraint, an absorbed knowledge of the historical precedent for such art.

The artist who perhaps most thoroughly embodies the dialectic between use value and material fact is Charlotte Posenenske (1930-1985), a German minimalist sculptor and staunch conceptualist who abandoned art-making for the field of sociology in 1968. Her work in the show, Series D Vierkantrohre (Square Tubes) (1967/2009), are modular, fabricated steel structures (resembling ventilation pipes) that can be installed in an infinite variety of ways. In their current incarnation they climb up the wall of the gallery, hugging the ceiling in a slightly organic manner. Posenenske’s removal of authorial intention places even greater emphasis on the theatrical effect of installation. The Square Tubes have a life of their own, whether installed in front of a bus stop, in a collector’s home, or as part of a gallery exhibition. In line with Akdogan and Rockburne, here is a work that benefits immensely from its unclear limits. It returns the sovereignty of strangeness back to the material object at hand, which is all that any artwork can hope to achieve.

Gabriel Kuri, Two nudes two points, 2013, marble slabs, crushed aluminum drink cans, 39 1/8 x 4 71/3 x 33 1/4 inches. Courtesy of Miguel Abreu Gallery.

click to enlarge

Charlotte Posenenske, Series D Vierkantrohre (SquareTubes), 1967/2009, sheet steel, dimensions and configuration variable. Courtesy of Miguel Abreu Gallery.

click to enlarge


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5 Responses to The Sovereignty of Strangeness: Conspicuous Unusable at Miguel Abreu

  1. Miriam Atkin says:

    Francis Cape’s show at Murray Guy raised some similar questions to the ones you articulate here: why is contemporary art so interested in pointing to or even becoming non-art? The Cape show was 100% utilitarian, his series of benches altogether avoiding the “sovereignty of strangeness” that you mention above. Other artists are making boats and escape pods in preparation for environmental disaster, or opening up temporary schools in impoverished neighborhoods.

  2. NG says:

    The ghost of Marcel Duchamp is being channelled, but i’m not entirely sure he’s happy about it.

    Art can’t save human lives or make you a better person; it doesn’t even care if you’re there or not. That’s its power. I guess in our day and age we forget that so easily. We want all things to work for us.

  3. In Response to NG :

    Is it really true, that “we” want all things to work for us? Or is it “we” want “Art” to: displease, disappoint, and frustrate, the un-trained and “un-cultured” expectations “Art”?

    Yet, could it be that the critical negativity / institutional critique initiated by the historical avant-garde and neo avant-garde(s) has been metabolized by Capitalism. Capital in the 21st century, parodies power, trivializes value and obfuscates reality. Unfortunately, “Art” continues to parody itself, blindly, following a paradigm made obsolete by a system whose politics, news outlets and economy (purposely) fail “us” every day.

  4. In Response to NG :

    Is it really true, that “we” want all things to work for us? Or is it “we” want “Art” to: displease, disappoint, and frustrate, the un-trained and “un-cultured” expectations of “Art”?

    Yet, could it be that the critical negativity / institutional critique initiated by the historical avant-garde and neo avant-garde(s) has been metabolized by Capitalism. Capital in the 21st century, parodies power, trivializes value and obfuscates reality. Unfortunately, “Art” continues to parody itself, blindly, following a paradigm made obsolete by a system whose politics, news outlets and economy (purposely) fail “us” every day.

    • Noah Dillon says:

      Deshawn:

      I don’t understand your critique. Capital now is no different than it has been for, like, 500 years: it is power and minimizes differences between people and objects. It doesn’t obfuscate reality; it invades reality and reshapes relations. That is reality. Capital is a material fact. When Marx talks about “a materialist conception of history” he’s talking in part about the construction of social relations as a material fact in the world. It’s not by mere illusion that Capitalism can subsume everything it comes into contact with.

      NG is right, though I suppose you might agree with him, if only in part: the idea of something called art, separated from the human domain and elevated to be something for people, is an effect of the current constitution of social relations. It can’t save people and doesn’t really have any use in the world. Art will never, under any conditions, do as much good as a vaccine, as food and shelter, as clean water, as the invention of written language and mathematics, as a technology like the wheel or the hydraulic cylinder, and so on and so on.

      And art takes on the symptoms of whatever state of relations humans live in. In an autocracy it is autocratic, theocratic in a theocracy, totalitarian under totalitarianism, etc. For us, right now, it is a commodity among many, meaning that its purpose is to be consumed by collectors and gallery goers and the public at large. The expectation for a Coke is that its image will be enjoyed and its flavor will be savored. We are expected to respond to art by identifying it, categorizing it, seeing it and being seen before it, studying and understanding it, talking about it, isolating its context and the merits for its existence. You aren’t expected to consume it in the same way you would consume a soda, but that doesn’t mean that you’re expected not to consume it. That’s not a 21st century problem or even a recent one. It goes back a long, long time. Ask the pharaohs what people were supposed to do with their art.

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