Turning Reductivism Inside Out: Dannielle Tegeder and the Art of Incompletion
What follows is a section excerpted from Barry Schwabsky’s essay, “Structures of Possibility,” which was in turn a contribution to the monograph on Dannielle Tegeder issued by the Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College earlier this year. The book documents the exhibition, “Dannielle Tegeder: Painting in the Extended Field,” curated by the museum’s director, Tracy L. Adler, Director, that took place in the Summer of 2013. This post belongs to a series at artcritical, called “extract,” which acknowledges significant exhibitions of emerging and mid-career artists taking place around the United States, mostly in collegiate and alternative venues, beyond the purview of our regular critical coverage and dispatches.
Although most of the painters who were grouped under the rubric of conceptual abstraction have continued to work productively in the subsequent decades, it was never recognized as a dominant form of contemporary art-making. Other trends garnered more attention: the in-your-face figurative painting of John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage; the topical art rooted in identity politics, feminism, and queer theory of Glenn Ligon or the early work of Sue Williams; and the relational aesthetics of artists like Félix González-Torres and Rirkrit Tiravanija, to name a few. For all that, the issues raised by conceptual abstraction never went away, and to one degree or another, they continued to be a (not always acknowledged) stimulus to the efforts of younger artists such as Matthew Ritchie, Mark Bradford, Julie Mehretu, Kristin Baker, and others — and such as Dannielle Tegeder, one of the most interesting in this tendency and the subject of this exhibition.
In a sense, Tegeder turns the guiding intuition — what some might call the ideology — of the reductivist tradition inside out: This intuition tells the artist that as more and more of what had formerly been the matter of art could be jettisoned, that is, as the work came closer and closer to arriving at some concentrated essence, the fuller and more powerful it would be; the fewer elements it could have, the more complete it would be. What Tegeder realizes — perhaps more than any of the other artists who have emerged from the semi-secret tradition of so-called conceptual abstraction—is the rather frightening corollary of the reductivist intuition, which is that when the artwork is complexified, stratified, and subjected to what Stephen Westfall called the “ongoing cultural condition of hyper-contextualization,” then the work loses its grip on any sense of completion, of wholeness, and becomes ever more fragmented, contradictory, underdetermined, and irrational (in the way an irrational number, such as pi, turns out to be endless). A certain arbitrariness comes into play.
In a condition that embraces complexity and hyper-referentiality, any particular work seems always to point beyond itself, not only to the real world, but to its systemic relations with other works; the work that does not complete itself within its frame links up with others. Thus, Tegeder’s paintings (including paintings on paper) do not communicate a sense of formal containment; their multiplicity of rectilinear elements rarely re-mark or echo the containing edges of the rectangular panel or paper support, nor do they reiterate its flatness. But, neither do they conjure a self-consistent fictional world. Instead, a plurality of diagrammatic spaces seems to be overlaid in such a way that they hold each other in place, however precariously, without actually cohering. That this represents a distinctly dystopian attitude is clear from some of Tegeder’s titles, such as Monument to the Geo-Chemistry After Structure with Yellow DISTURBANCE Code and Disaster Averter and Atomic Station (2009) or Puriamond: Cascade System of Destruction & Explosions (2007); a different kind of irony can be detected in Instructions for Utopian Gray World Machine & Copper Inner Structure (2007) where the self-evident contradiction in the phrase “utopian gray” seems to comment on how the dynamic élan of an El Lissitzky might have devolved into the quietist stasis of Gerhard Richter’s gray, which, as he has said, “makes no statement whatever; it evokes neither feelings nor associations: it is really neither visible nor invisible. Its inconspicuousness gives it the capacity to mediate, to make visible, in a positively illusionistic way, like a photograph. It has the capacity that no other color has, to make ‘nothing’ visible.” This gray does after all represent a kind of opening, but only insofar as it is anything but utopian.
Tegeder would probably agree with Richter in this, but the saturnine gravity that comes perhaps all too easily to him is not her way. Her art may evoke disturbance and destruction, but in a strangely playful way: There may always be some disaster afoot, but no disaster is ever total. Some fundamentally constructive energy remains to keep things afloat. Richter admitted that his art had to work through to beauty, but it had to be, he specified, “not a carefree beauty, but rather a serious one.” Tegeder, by contrast, finds a carefree beauty in serious ideas. There are still, as another of her titles would have it — this time of a multipart painting from 2011 — Structures of Possibility.
In fact, incompleteness and self-contradiction seem to be the very basis of possibility, as this work suggests. None of the five parts of Structures of Possibility completes any of the others; each one, by introducing new colors, new shapes, new vectors of energy that could not have been anticipated through one’s perception of the other four, affirms that each, on its own, harbors visual possibilities that could only have been manifested in concert with the others and not separately. In a sense, such a work might have been extended indefinitely, incorporating ever more elements, ever more contexts. But a sufficient point of completion has arrived when the work succeeds in intimating its own infinite expandability; to go further would have been redundant. In this sense, Tegeder’s work cultivates the fragment — yet makes a system of it,
an ensemble that is more than a simple juxtaposition of unrelated parts.
What is true of the parts of a painting is true of Tegeder’s oeuvre as a whole, which includes not only painting but so many other kinds of things. It is easy to see that her sculptures might almost be concatenations of forms extracted from the diagrammatic linear webs found in her paintings and expanded three-dimensionally — yet always, I think, holding out the possibility for further expandability still, so that one always tends to see these sculptures both as works in and of themselves and as models for constructions that might exist on some vast cosmic scale as in Suspended Galaxy System (2010) or, yet again, of phenomena that might already exist on a molecular scale. The sculptures thus reveal the paintings to contain possibilities that could never be realized pictorially but this does not mean that the sculptures themselves constitute some ultimate realization. They too suggest possibilities yet unrealized, perhaps unrealizable: They are indeed “forecast machines,” as the title of one (Traveling Forecast Machine with Octave Construction, 2009) would have it. The Library of Abstract Sound (2009) extracts, not three-dimensional forms, but sounds, occurring in the fourth dimension of time, born from the ostensibly two dimensions of paintings on paper. In doing so Tegeder imposes a new kind of incompletion on visual forms: Until we not only see them but hear them, do we really know them?
The titles of Tegeder’s earlier works point to another dimension of the artwork’s incompletion: language — and by supplying the missing element, the incompletion is not remedied but magnified. Few artists have ever used such long titles; take for example a piece from 2004, Alitipia: Community Under Construction with Jumbo Love Dot Boiler; Six Safety Vessel Stations, Containing Habitats and Rainbow Structures; Five Square Two High Rises; Dangling Safety Chrysalis; Abandoned Oz City; Side Room with Circle Storage Nexus; Interconnecting Underground Transportation Network with Abandoned Square Tower Blue Day Time Underground Water City, with Multi-Square Housing Project and Side Village with Hidden Headquarters and White Circle Plan Streamer with Airline Resistant Habitat Structures and Secret Square Gardens. It’s as though every time an element is added, it conjures the necessity of adding still another. Again, the point is not even to follow this through to exhaustion but only far enough to imply inexhaustibility. Even if Tegeder’s titles have grown less profusely elaborate, they remain no less essential to her work. She has used various methods and, as she calls them, “literary games” in their invention. “I keep a large jar in the studio where I collect found text that I later use in titles,” she explains. “I also cut up hundreds of actual city names and recombine them into new fictional city names, then create anagrams from the materials and colors in the works.” Affinities with Burroughs and Cage, Surrealism and Oulipo are hardly accidental. No wonder that she has also used language independently of its functionality in titling, treating it as an artistic substance in itself, in the form of books. But this brings me to the threshold of another dimension of Tegeder’s work, a threshold which this is not the occasion for me to cross: One more reminder that with this artist, the structures of possibility are never finished. Something can still be done with Modernism to the extent that it keeps building itself by taking itself apart.