TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT April 1986

WRESTLING THE IMAGE INTO SHAPE

REBECCA HOWLAND IS A graduate of a hard-to-define moment of energy that brought together an amorphous group of New York artists in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The results of that moment may be called Colab, short for Collaborative Projects, an artist-run agency begun in 1978 as a means of obtaining equipment and materials beyond the reach of the isolated individual, of using the power of numbers to maximize the funding of its 40-odd members (in so far as that funding came from grants), and also of taking the management of such grant support away from arts-organization bureaucrats and putting it as far as possible in the hands of its recipients. Or they may be called ABC No Rio, after the artist-run noncommercial gallery begun in part with Colab funds on the Lower East Side, in 1980, before there was any indication that a large part of the neighborhood would become chic and gentrified by an influx of artists and galleries. Howland, a former president of Colab and a founding member of ABC No Rio, shares commitments with most of her peers in the group: a concern with art’s social purpose, and a collective will to preserve the humanistic context of their work and to prevent it from being edited out by the usual commercial or institutional anxieties about critical art.

Right from the beginning, what distinguished the output of Colab artists from the cliches of most “political art” was the group’s acute awareness of the problematic tendency of such work toward unenhanced illustration, and toward finding its own way to be reactionary and dogmatic rather than visionary and free, despite, or because of, all rhetoric to the contrary. Colab and ABC No Rio, in which Howland and others have invested a great deal of time and energy, have not been bureaucratic organizational vehicles unconsciously driven by the traditional concept of success as acceptance into the art-world fold (as certain artist collectives and alternative spaces ultimately have been); in general, these collective activities have represented a sincere attempt to find effective new visions for art as a tool of social change. Colab’s surplus of raw energy was born of a dissatisfaction with the apathy and complacency that had taken over SoHo’s avant-garde pose by the late ’70s. Its critical commentary is not socialized, academic, or didactic, but is laced with a wry, almost adolescent satirical wit, which may be influenced by the punk and postpunk scene that has surrounded the groups members in the East Village. In many ways, this style can be seen as the antagonistic antithesis of the puritanical, acquiescent sterility of Minimalism.

Since the start of this decade, with her contributions to “The Real Estate Show” and “The Times Square Show,” both 1980, and to ABC No Rio, Howland has been constructing an effective iconography to grapple with systems of power, intimidation, and manipulation, and with their ramifying effects on people and the environment. On the front of ABC No Rio’s abandoned city-owned building, at 125 Delancey Street, Howland announced “The Real Estate Show” with a large paper cutout of an octopus. (This show, open only one day before police padlocked the building and confiscated the art, set an example for artist-organized shows for years to come; the action of occupying wasted, unused city property as exhibition and work space has been repeated in many subsequent group shows, in New York and across the country, but few of these have been as confrontational as "The Real Estate Show:’ and fewer still have made such a felt connection between the struggling artist and the oppression of the poor) For Howland, the muscular, grabbing octopus of the cutout is a symbol of greedy private and public landlords. In this work shown grabbing a knife, a diamond, and money—a version on a photostated poster for the show clutched buildings, each not merely held but strangled in its crushing grip—this tentacled terror has since become a mainstay of Howland’s pictorial vocabulary as a sign of any anonymous force of subjugating control. Howland has also retained her diamond and money iconography, extending her depiction of power into the sphere of economics. The cruelty of inadequate housing, after all, is not a chance result of the reluctance of the rich to care about the poor, but is a product of a deliberate system of maintaining advantage through financial inequality The diamond enters Howland’s art as a kind of paradox: nature’s perfect gem symbolizes human nature’s dark underside.

Howland’s poster for “The Real Estate Show” declares, “A building is not a precious gem to be locked—boarded—hoarded . . . . Join us at the Real Estate Show—an art show celebrating insurrectionary urban development.” As is clear from this invitation, Howland’s sloganeering, like her images, is manifestly humorous, direct, and enjoyable. While the overriding purpose of her work is to make a politically disruptive statement, she does not allow the heaviness of that ambition to overrule her esthetic concerns and the characteristically whimsical charm of her work. She balances imperatives with humor, and disarms the difficulty of her message with a funky and clunky craftsiness. The potency of Howland’s vision lies in the interweaving of a variety of contemporary issues into an original art that reveals certain social phenomena as symbiotic networks with their own self-perpetuating dynamic. In her portrayal of power and manipulation, sexual politics emerge as explicit social commentary; molding her icons of oppression in archetypally masculine forms, she intimates a feminist understanding of the fragile, pompous male ego. As much as the intrinsic humor with which she does so coats a bitter pill in sugar, it also exists for itself.

In Oil Rig Fountain, her piece for “The Times Square Show,” Howland picked up on the sexual energy of the Times Square area, on the history of the exhibition’s host building (which had previously been a massage parlor), and on one of the issues of the decade—the gas crisis caused by the Arab oil embargo. A grand Duchampian gesture that was as funny as it was serious, the work, situated near the urinals in the men’s bathroom, was an oil rig–like structure phallically spouting its liquid; an Arabian sword suspended above the rig threatened imminently to cut off this pathetically arrogant gesture. The simple model of the international networks of power has remained a focus in Howland’s art, but the series of objections it poses to destructive societal rhythms has not precluded an art-historical consciousness, a conceptual and material flexibility. Her most ambitious and best-known piece to date is the epic, sprawling sculpture Brainwash, 1981–82, a large, working fountain which she created in the backyard of ABC No Rio. By comparison with her earlier work, this was a dramatic undertaking in scale, elaborateness of construction, and cost, appearing in the rubble like a miracle only attributable to the artist’s energy and stubborn commitment.

The excessiveness of Brainwash, now partially disassembled, was manifest in its overload of symbols, but for all the busyness of this rambling structure, its ultimate message was clear. Rendered in a primitive, clunky graphic style, the sculpture outlined the gluttonous self-destruction of American capitalism by its own military-industrial complex. Near the middle of the long structure lay the abstracted cement-and-steel form of a large human brain, passive, cut from its. body and feelings and perhaps anesthetized by the soft-drink bottle caps that studded its surface. Elsewhere, cast-cement frogs licked each other’s asses in a parody of the relationship between politics and business; cutout tin flames lapped around oil tanks labeled “Shell,” “Exxon”“ ”Gulf,“ ”Occidental,“ and ”Mobil," both reminders of the disastrous accidents already caused by these corporations’ callousness and carelessness, and apocalyptic omens of the future; model machine guns shot ’water into a pentagonal pool mosaicked with a General Electric logo, as a parable of the symbiotic partnership in this country between the military and the corporate world; and a wall was dotted with representations of diamonds and coal, two molecularly close substances that diametrically oppose each other in their symbolisms. A jumble of other images too numerous to detail was also embedded in this stress-ridden horizontal totem of decay The fascination of Brainwash lay precisely in its visual excess. A great deal of the work’s impact came not so much from the ugly horrors it depicted as from the sculptural system they made up.The result was a working fountain with an undeniable beauty. In the wretched back lot of the dilapidated ABC No Rio building, this homemade fountain came across as a marvelous invention , a discovery for the onlooker, like finding a perfect pearl in a slimy oyster shell.

To a large degree, Howland’s subsequent production has been involved in a stripping down of narrative and metaphor in search of a more dire ct visual icon. For all the physical presence of her work (partly, no doubt, a consequence of her art-school training in the macho, heavy-metal school of sculpture), her graphic sophistication possesses a stronger communicative power, whether in her more traditional sculpture or in the large body of multiples she has produced. This natural sense of what makes an image memorable. of what makes it read, probably underlies her decision to reduce the number of references she employs to articulate her message. In The Real Estate Octopus with Manhattan as a Dead Horse, her piece for “The Williamsburg Bridge Show,” 1983, a sculpture invitational which she and Colab artist Ann Messner organized on the bridge’s neglected walkway, the octopus returned, this time in a relatively simple relationship with the city and big business. The sense of untamed, sprawling urban dynamics that one felt in Brainwash, which seemed to move and grow like a metropolitan jungle, is more overt in The Real Estate Octopus, in which the octopus clutches the twin towers of the World Trade Center like King Kong scaling the Empire State Building. The image is imposing and compositionally appealing, like a comic book image, or like the special-effects finale of some Japanese grade-B flick—The Creature from the Deep That Swallowed Manhattan, perhaps.

Easy and cheap to make in comparison to her more-ambitious public sculpture, Howland’s series of multiples are no less effective in reaching her audience. They are like one-liners, quickly understandable visual jokes with an obvious message, a 3-D equivalent of the political cartoon. Cement casts of pentagons and diamonds, done in 1981, are geometrically symmetrical icons of corporate, military, and economic power, and are so simple that the clarity of the message becomes part of the objects’ beauty. Later, Howland’s Jelly Bean Brain plaques, 1982, warning that you are what you eat, her Money Bag Vases, 1983, and her Lung-Cancer Ashtrays, 1984, showed her consistent ability to pick common icons guaranteed to make her urgent points. Howland ’s concern with the frailty of nature is echoed in the aura of personality that all her pieces manifest; no matter what material she uses, they have a certain soft quality, which associates them with Claes Oldenberg’s early Pop works and his Store Days, 1962. Oldenberg could make everyday objects seem animate, or even human, by changing their scale and blurring their hard man-made forms into soft fleshiness. Howland transforms her hard facts into something sensual and vulnerable—a landscape as it might be described by D. H. Lawrence.

Howland’s ability to use art as an informing tool without adopting a holier-than-thou, fire-and-brimstone tone of aggression is a valuable trait. Her powerful condemnation of industrial pollution takes the arts-and-crafts form of pretty household objects made for everyday use. Howland’s cups, candlesticks, plates, and tablecloths on the theme of toxic waste outline different forms of pollution, from the newsworthy—refinery and coal-mine fires–to those so everyday and ubiquitous as to be often disregarded : strip-mining, coal smoke, acid rain, oil slicks. Talking of objects in the industrial landscape, the artist said in a recent interview, “Maybe people don’t see them anymore. [My art]’s making visible what is invisible.”1

This ambition was clear in Howland’s recent installation, Transmission Towers, 1986, at P.S. 1, New York. Here she created an image of the industrial landscape as it can be seen throughout the country, and, by bringing it into the context of art ,made it once again noticeable and open for examination. Seven steel pylons , copies of the kind that carry high voltage lines, stood in perspectival procession ranging from very large—over 11 feet high—to quite small, between 5 and 6 feet. While the towers are clearly facsimiles of their prototypes, they are executed with a certain roughness; a great deal more polished in facture than Howland’s homemade-looking ceramic work, they are still too organic to be high tech. The traditional craft that has gone into their welding, and their handmade appearance, rule out the possibility that they are ready-made found objects, adding an important dynamic of personal responsibility to their impersonal forms. As simple and reduced as these naked , unadorned, basic structures are, Howland has packed as much content into their symbolic iconography as into any of her previous work. Sexual politics reappear in the towers’ figurative references. Their totemic absoluteness impresses on the viewer the situation of eminent domain: the State Power Authority, which owns and maintains the electrical pylons that run in a network over the New York countryside, has a legally unstoppable ability to lay its transmission lines on any land it sees fit. The receding line of Howland’s row of constructions suggests extension along an infinite path of destruction. The work, then, is about authoritarian intimidation, but while at moments the objects are stark silhouettes, figures of death in a desolate landscape, from other views they are works of graceful human fragility Their stoic vigil is hauntingly reminiscent of Alberto Giacometti’s equally lean and lonely figures; they are just further down the line in the anxiety and isolation of Modern life.

Carlo McCormick is the art editor of the East Village Eye, and a freelance writer who lives in New York. He contributes regularly to Artforum.

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NOTES

1. From an unpublished interview between Howland and Claudia Gould conducted in December 1985, in connection with Howland’s show at P.S. 1.