September 3 - November 15, 2009
by Michael Bise
“Thanks to Marxism, the term ‘bourgeois culture’ has become a way of lumping together anything and everything intellectuals despise. Calling that lump by that name was a way of linking the intellectual’s romance of self-creation with the oppressed worker’s desire to expropriate the expropriators. Such linkages help us intellectuals to associate ourselves with the ideals of democracy and human solidarity.” – Richard Rorty
The last twenty years has seen the birth of a special breed of curator as infatuated with the Beuysian notion of “social sculpture” as they are with the critical banishment of pictorial formalism and its demon-child, the object. The central problem with this type of politically engaged curatorial activity is one of willful opacity. Common words for socio-political realities such as “greed,” or “racism” are given names like, “post-capitalist economies,” or “Western cultural ethno-centrism.” In Truth and Progress, Richard Rorty claims that using vulgar terms to describe social and political realities robs intellectuals of the specialized knowledge that makes them suitable to function as “the avant-garde [in the] struggle against injustice.” Anyone can attempt counter racism through activism. The intellectual, however, is more capable of battling Western cultural ethno-centrism within the structure of the Gesamtkunstwerk than a housewife or an electrician.
Kurt Mueller’s curatorial thesis for Reduced Visibility operates squarely within this dynamic. Mueller writes, “Reduced Visibility attempts to show how visual abstraction may be a viable, if not also a necessary, means to engage socio-political phenomena today.” He goes on to assert that his exhibition is not about the business of “aestheticiz[ing] the direct and intentional communication of worldly matters,” as abstract art is “traditionally” thought to do. Here the curator reveals both a suspicion of objects as well as a desire to force the work in the exhibition to function as a political avant-garde. But despite Mueller’s assertions to the contrary, every artist in the exhibition is engaged, to varying degrees of success, in aestheticizing politics and politicizing aesthetics.
Several artists in Mueller’s exhibition use expressionist and post-minimal visual abstraction as empty vessels in which to dump social or political meaning. Hellen Mirra’s pine cone and pallet wood sculptures evoke shamanistic totems and a kind of shabby Carl Andre chic. Judging from titles like Bartok and Unirondack, these objects purport to address sociological issues from ethnomusicology to Unitarian Universalism. Ultimately Mirra’s humble objects aren’t formally compelling enough to inspire an effort to decode their well-hidden meaning. Trevor Paglen shamelessly apes Mark Rothko with his photographs of top-secret military sites. Paglen’s lush colors and reference to Rothko endow the images with a Romanticism that paired with the subject of government surveillance manages to seem both calculating and arbitrary. Mirra’s and Paglen’s formal choices both aestheticize and obscure a “direct and intentional communication of wordly matters.” This seems to run counter to Mueller’s curatorial claims.
Mueller fares better in illustrating his curatorial thesis with Rico Gatson and Mark Lombardi. Lombardi’s crisp, graphite diagrams of systems of international fraud are more committed to the task of revealing political and financial realities than they are in functioning as drawings. From the seemingly cheap paper on which they are laid out to the concise communication of information, the diagrams belie their obligatory status as art allowing them to function more effectively as didactic tools. In Gatson’s video History Lessons the artist subjects racist imagery from early Hollywood films to color filters and kinetic editing. Overlaid with a haunting soundtrack and featuring some of the most deplorable imagery ever produced by the film industry, Gatson’s video is at times genuinely disturbing and communicates a sadness that goes beyond the intellectual framing of racial politics and identity construction. Despite the fact that neither Gatson’s nor Lombardi’s work is abstract in any meaningful way, their inclusion carries out Mueller’s thesis more effectively because their formal means are more married to their political content. Gatson’s creation of a kind of music video seems suited to the evocation of emotion necessary to find a way in to the pain of racism while Lombardi makes no bones about his intention to educate and inform.
The critical confusion at the heart of Mueller’s exhibition can be found in his citation of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial as an example of abstract art that conveys political or social meaning. The undeniable power of the wall lies not in its abstraction but in its clear and literal representation. Its simultaneously descending and ascending design is an embodiment of both the hope of life and the reality of death. The names carved into its face represent human beings, not ideas. Its mirrored surface allows us to visualize the inevitability of our own death. This movement from formal presence to metaphorical implication happens effortlessly, silently and beautifully. The people I saw there leaving memorials were the beneficiaries of an artist who was wise enough to get out of the way and let the people do the work of mourning and healing we’ve been doing for millions of years.
Michael Bise is an artist living and working in Houston.