PRINT May 1992


TO PRESENT AN EVERYDAY OBJECT in an art space so as to alter its status has been a familiar strategy since Marcel Duchamp. In Joe Scanlan’s hands, however, the everyday object doesn’t so much change its context as grow estranged from it, for an outcome distinctly different from classic Duchampiana. Scanlan’s things stay functional; their usefulness is retained. And this usefulness stops works like “Untitled Candle,” 1988, Extended-wear Underwear, 1989, “Starter Pots,” 1989–92, Nesting Bookcase and Entertainment Center, both 1990, and the recent Bathroom Floor, 1991, from being viewed as isolated, specialized, or “meta-ized” art products. Instead, they mark a place where the world of daily life meets the world mediated by art.

True, some of the applications indicated for these objects might surprise their usual users. Extended-wear Underwear (Improved), 1991, for example, is a set of underwear designed to be turned inside out and upside down four times, greatly reducing the irksome task of changing and laundering them. The practicality of the design may be open to doubt. Still, Scanlan’s orientation here is clearly toward usability. And though the “Starter Pots,” made of cigar ash, saliva, and egg whites, are probably too fragile to be really helpful as containers, the everyday sources of their functions and materials are obvious, as is their role as newly formed objects that allow both an esthetic and a use value, without sacrificing the one for the other.

Scanlan makes all his objects himself. His methods of production, though, are as unpredictable as the behavior his works might demand of their users. Propping up Nesting Bookcase with pennies, he is simply letting us see the less-than-perfectness of his craftsmanship. To Scanlan, the problems of laundering underwear, or of dealing with daily items like coffee grounds and shopping bags, are identical with the problems of mastering the necessary skills to build shelves, or of not having enough studio space. (To catch falling sawdust from his carpentry, for instance, he has made a kind of shaped floor covering, Kitchen Table Dropcloth, 1990). All Scanlan’s daily activities have consequences that affect the way he makes art. The social conditions he inhabits are reflected overtly in everything from his choice of what to make to his criteria of production.

In exhibiting his work, however, Scanlan lets esthetic issues dominate. An installation at the Grazer Kunstverein last year—part of the group show “Körper und Körper” (Body and body)—made a kind of painting out of the windows; though a “painting” here is to be understood as an object, presented on the wall, that develops painterly qualities. (By this definition and in this context, Extended-wear Underwear too was a painting.) In Graz, this function was performed by a set of curtains across the windows, which threw the viewer’s gaze back into the room, rather than letting it scan the town’s architecture. The installation was not flat, however, but three-dimensional, and thus more completely present than a painting, and closer to the viewer’s experiential world. It made clear that Scanlan concentrates not on single art objects but on whole situations. Or, as Robert Morris once wrote, “The object has not become less important. It has merely become less self-important.” Scanlan’s objects have not taken the lonely one-way path from daily life into art, but remain based in the daily. They can be used—or one can imagine using them—in both spaces. They suggest a context extending beyond the ordinary presence of the art object.

The works’ relation to the theme of the body is directly connected with this extended sense of presence. All Scanlan’s objects derive from his own living space, where they serve in the maintenance and organization of his home. Bathroom Floor, for instance, contains information about the size and shape of his bathroom, and thus points beyond the work to the artist himself as a private person. But in contrast to, say, the studio floor that Reinhard Mucha installed as part of his work for the 1990 Venice Biennale—taking possession of a space, the German pavilion, by transferring part of his own private sphere there—Scanlan’s floor also refers to the private space of the viewer. And where Jürgen Drescher built a floor into a construction that acted as both painting and sculpture, Scanlan chooses to deemphasize the pictorial qualities of his objects. He lets them work unobtrusively. Again, neither Mucha’s nor Drescher’s floor evokes the presence or the absence of other objects or bodies. But Scanlan’s objects take their presence from the absence of typical bathroom furniture—washstand, toilet, tub—and in particular of the body cared for in the bathroom: the body that actually uses a space, defining itself by activity (unlike the passive observer of the art object). Physical presence becomes the standard that determines meaning.

And physical presence in these works only increases with their isolation as art, which is the precondition of their estrangement. Perhaps one could characterize the presence of Scanlan’s objects in the art context as a “stage presence,” in Michael Fried’s words, or as a form of changing state. Such change of state encompasses both the newly revealed uses, functional potentials, and material transformations that result from Scanlan’s treatment of the object, on the one hand, and the objects’ role as indicators of a thought process, on the other. All of the works take root in the artist’s daily life. He combines in his own person the dual contexts of art and life—or at least asks himself how they can be combined, what proportions obtain between the artist as launderer, cook, worker, and private person, and the artist as artist, and also as businessman. To what extent, he asks, can a distinction be made between the reality of daily experience and that of mediated artistic experience? To what extent and where do the two overlap?

Although Scanlan’s modes of production by themselves would distinguish his work from the Duchampian readymade and its ’80s variations, it is the change of state, potentially only temporary, that decisively defines the distinction. Instead of focusing on the determinants of artistically mediated, art-producing reality and everyday reality, Scanlan’s objects broaden the inquiry to ask what kind of relationships his objects spawn between users (viewers) and the social and architectural spatial context.

Sabine B. Vogel is a critic who lives in Düsseldorf.

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.

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