PRINT Summer 2000


WHY WOULD ANYONE WANT TO MAKE A SCULPTURE? There are certainly more immediate (and less bulky) ways to represent the world these days. Still, at a moment when ambitious creative types might be expected to turn to, say, Web design or software development, and in a place like Los Angeles, whose history, economy, and culture are dependent on and structured by the business of virtuality (Hollywood, Disneyland), there is a surprisingly strong interest among young artists in making, well, objects. These new sculptors—Liz Craft, Evan Holloway, Jason Meadows, Jeff Ono, Paul Sietsema, and Torbjörn Vejvi, to name only the most visible and complex—engage the “real” world of objects in order to plumb alternative dimensions and states. At the same time, they do not forgo confronting the spectator with the cold hard facts of the thing encountered and the flesh encountering, as well as the space where it takes place. The fancy term for this, I guess, is the phenomenology of immanence. I don’t mean to wax Romantic—there’s baggage, of course, in using words like “belief,” “art,” “enchantment,” or “intimacy” to approach the world unironically when the very desire to be unironic might itself seem an ironic posture—but the question these sculptors ask is how, at a time when immanence, even existence is being reconfigured digitally, does one consider the intricate thinginess of things as anything other than an anachronistic longing?

A quick pan of recent art history—think of the movie cliché where the pages of a calendar blow away, first month by month, then years at a time—makes it apparent how much these new sculptors consider their context and predecessors but never merely for the sake of knowingly quoting stylistics or kowtowing to the demotic. Yet for all the intelligence of the work, they wear their learning lightly. In fact, one of the group’s more distinctive qualities, as a friend put it, is the degree to which these efforts are “language-proofed.” While the artists take Minimalist and formal investigations of actual, real space as a given, the work is too strange and weirdly amiable ever to be academic.

Where the output of their West Coast forebears (Charles Ray, Liz Larner, Mike Kelley, some of whom they’ve worked with as students and, later, as studio assistants) was known for its menacing, psychosexual charge, the sources for the new sculpture are in some sense much more quotidian: video-game interiors and the “prizes” that await the successful player, film sets, the warped found geometry of a handyman’s ladder, and so on. The Day-Glo Plexi, bent mirrors, and fucked perspectives in several of Holloway’s pieces as well as Sietsema’s winnowing of a world of made objects to film reinvest the sort of day-to-day confrontations with light and space championed by their SoCal ancestors Robert Irwin and James Turrell. The particular way LA reterritorializes the site/non-site dialectic (e.g., Hollywood “locations” that are nothing but facades; props that stand in for what they’re supposed to be) plays a prominent role in the work. Witness Craft’s Living Edge, 1997–98, a garden tour in miniature of various LA locales, actual or dreamed, from the private luxuries of Bel Air (reflecting pools, terraced hills) to the funky bungalows of Venice; or Vejvi’s Puddle, 2000, in which collapsing the constituent elements of sculpture and drawing into something so barely there, yet paradoxically so sure, leads the absences to effect as much presence as, well, the presences.

Dennis Cooper, who introduced much of this work to the world beyond LA in his 1998 show “Brighten the Corners,” at Marianne Boesky in New York, has suggested that the best and most accurate description of the new sculpture comes from Charles Ray: It’s “reenchanting the world.” Or as Vejvi himself has put it: “There is no confusion about how the sculpture is held together or constructed, how it is done. You can see the metal brackets and the wooden support. Yet the mystery exists, elsewhere.”

Liz Craft’s BULLET PROOF SNAKE, 1998, RISES FROM THE COIL of its scalloped-suede base, not so much a cobra in a basket as a magician’s knotted rope, a thing in place of (but still representing) a snake. In the snakiness of its abstract form, Craft ruminates on how “fake” materials—say, Pleather or vinyl—signify in a way different from leather, and how both fake leather and real suede can metamorphose, by layered scalloping, to refer to snakeskin. Presenting materials as materials and at the same time disrupting that equivalency, her playful craftwork luxuriates in the abstract exuberance and possibility of stuff—the exuberance of its potential to tread between reference and abstraction. At the top of Snake is a finger with a bright red nail; a ring might dangle from it. The finger recalls a nail-salon sign but is also the flickering tongue of the snake suggested and abandoned at the base of the piece. Snake provides musing on how such a change (fingernail-become-snake’s-tongue) takes place.

Is there any city that can match LA when it comes to the making of effects, the creation of ways to represent the world? Art and Hollywood both depend on the possibility of one thing being taken for another—in the same sense that everything “depends” on the technology, the device, of one thing becoming another (language standing in for the world; Astroturf as grass). The trick for the artist is to live up to the wacked-out thinginess of all this stuff. Given the ever-blurring distinctions between entertainment, art, and craft, given her very name, Craft’s work becomes a meditation on how pure, abstracted form might remain just form, even with a referential component. Just above Snake’s bowknot (the work’s most horizontal zone) the pinkish accordion tract “C” embowels the letters r-a-f-t, formed from Sculpey clay. Perhaps a pun on seeing, the C is simply a formal turn, but it also transforms the word “raft” into the artist’s name. Snake glides between that shift—abstract form or personal communiqué. Do inanimate materials have anything to do with the humans interacting with them, or does it just seem that way? In For a New Novel, Alain Robbe-Grillet protested artists’ anthropomorphizing every object in the world; he wanted objects to be objects, to have objectivity. Craft’s craft is to test the limit at which the self is abandoned to the things in the world as only things in the world—and how the distance between the artist/viewer and those things may be the gap that allows subjectivity to take place.

If Craft finds abstraction in the appearance and presentness of things, Evan Holloway probes the way in which different kinds of space interact and how such interactions can be materialized and presented. Much of his work draws on the blunt fact of the body as a physical thing existing in the same space as the sculpture it encounters. In pieces like Left-Handed Guitarist, 1998, and Untitled, 1999, Holloway pits perspectival renderings of corridors and bottomless holes against three-dimensional sculptures—respectively, a figure of a rock-and-roll guitarist and a strange steel obelisk in whose top slot coins could be fed for the payoff of a sonic cymbal crash. That symbolic crash rippling through the space around it: Does it invade the “space,” the virtual pit depicted on the paper next to it? If no one were around to hear it, would it make a noise?

With the ink-on-paper schematics of Reversed Strung Piano, 2000, Holloway ups the ante, as if finding a way to reconceptualize the complexities of his earlier sculptural installation Black Cabinet, 1997, a large boxy structure covered in black vinyl that the viewer enters to find a player piano and Holloway’s own goofy player rolls. By restringing the piano keyboard in Reversed Strung Piano so that the bass and treble registers are flip-flopped, Holloway scores the sonic equivalent (if such a thing is possible) of his various investigations of space. (A CD of Chopin being performed on the depicted restrung instrument, made possible through the aid of a computer-assisted player piano, is in the works.) Unseeable sound is altered and shaped by its environment in a different way, of course, than light; sound waves require space to expand, becoming muffled, absorbed, or refracted by the things they encounter. Holloway’s question is whether something immaterial can have the material presence of a sculpture, just as his perspectival hallway depicts and suggests space without actually manifesting it. Reversed Strung Piano resonates with grand gestures, but Holloway, at his most economically conceptual, is more interested in the spatial effects of his instrumental reconfiguration. Light glissandos and arabesques composed for the treble now rumble, loud, muddy, and transgressive. While schematically planned, Reversed Strung Piano was realized by computer programs that did not necessitate a state-of-the-art player piano or a pianist. And when the forthcoming CD is heard over the airwaves and elsewhere, the piece will allow Holloway to give volume, in real time, to something only virtual. While nodding to John Cage, Holloway is mapping the limits of his media, considering the (natural? cultural?) contours of what is presented as sculpture. Cf. his dendrological Color Theory Stick, 2000: a multibranched tree limb painted in a variegated rainbow that allegorizes the whole nature/culture dyad—although calling it allegory ignores the more interesting aspects (the branching genealogical energy of its form, the weirdness of color) that have nothing to do with “meaning.” Is the tree-limb nature making a map of culture? Or has culture as brightly painted branch gone out on a limb to map nature?

Jason Meadows’s work also plays image off abstraction and abstraction off image. His Terra-Forma, 1999, is a deranged ladder; it springs into space, an ad hoc lightning rod reversing the force of the bolt but still referring to the idea of a standard, household ladder. By messing with the normal orientation of things that any Joe could assemble at home, Meadows’s witty constructions consider just how little needs to be done to a given item to release its sculptural potential. Both geometric and experimental activity, Meadows’s creations establish a sense of continual motion that he seems to momentarily halt—only to send the energy rushing on in the imagination. The force of the seriality suggested by the work is infinite, a sculptural ellipsis, an et cetera engendered by a rigorous rhythm in material form. Carefully negotiating 2-D/3-D geometries, Meadows’s strongest pieces make an illusionary flatness pop forward. Tilting at subtle angles, the four small tires of Super-Cross, 2000, pit momentum against stasis. From one vantage point, the tires seem almost to line up, diagrammatically—the two middle tires collapse, four into three—and then, from a different perspective, they appear to dissemble. Trailer, 2000, lacks wheels but still seems to move. The triangular elements of the hitch become a pointing arrow, with energy gained by the angle of slope to the floor. The cart toys with the idea of something you might find in any backyard, an everyday aid to transporting leaves or mulch. But without tires, Meadows’s cart is wonderfully stuck, outlining what a cart is and yet not a cart at all, rather something to move imagination somewhere, if to no end.

WHERE CRAFT, HOLLOWAY, AND MEADOWS PLAY WITH THE conundrums of presence, Torbjörn Vejvi, Jeff Ono, and Paul Sietsema gauge the paradoxical capacity of absence to support material investigation. Does memory work like a trap, capturing the past as if it were a small animal? How would a representation of the trap of memory look? In the case of Vejvi’s new work, A House Is Not a Home, 2000, the answer is both melancholy and funny: It looks like some sort of tree house raised up on thin wooden legs that transmute into the frame or outline of a house. In the sculpture, panels joining parts of the wood frame, suggesting windows and walls, are made from color photocopies of an old European magazine—pages on which engravings from an illustrated Robinson Crusoe (Crusoe walking with his handmade umbrella, shaping a sea vessel from a log, and hunting with his dog) were juxtaposed with scenic shots (waves crashing in northern climes) and postcard portraits of Scandinavian towns as well as close-up images of fire and an ax chopping a block of wood. The pictures hint at autobiographical disclosure without providing any actual details. The bright Marimekko orange and green on the panels’ verso acknowledge Vejvi’s own heritage and the Scandinavian design tradition while cracking a wry joke at the expense of other LA artists and their recent enthrallment with moderne style.

In the beautifully diagrammatic structure of his house, Vejvi questions how a house acquires meaning as a home, exploring the absence or gap that allows the one thing not to be but to become another thing. The schism, the disconnect between what the thing is made of and what the thing is, is analogous to the schism between house and home. The point is not simply one of semantics; it has just as much to do with the way absence may support the difference. Vejvi’s house allows him to explore how what is immaterial (emotion, belief, intimacy), or even ineffable, structures the meaning of materials—or, for that matter, whether it is only materiality that allows such things to be approached. The “house” is raised to meet the viewer head on, and it could easily contain a head. Even more directly than his earlier miniature theaters, the scale of Vejvi’s house/home situates an actual body encountering it, one whose own media (flesh, bone) could be seen as both only and not only the support for what it is, the intersection of inanimate thing and animate non-thing. The canny placement of Crusoe on the house’s panels points to the shipwrecked figure’s struggle to retain and re-create civilization through remembering how nature is and is not culture, and where the castaway fits between them.

Jeff Ono’s Goodnight Jack, 1999, suggests Crusoe’s umbrella gone through a weird time warp. Launching itself off the ground from three points articulated by sharp angles of white plastic, impossibly ballasted by weblike exo-structures, the entire thing is shielded by a nine-sided canopy of white plastic into which ovoid holes have been cut. Utilizing the most banal, doodad stuff (straws, paper towels, gum, plastic), Ono’s compact sculptures retain the integrity of their materials while somehow obliterating their identity. The work tests the virtuality of presence by deploying shapes connoting the “natural” geometries of crystals and minerals reiterated in the computerized, polygonal forms familiar from a video game’s virtual world. Whatever caves of interiority Ono’s sculptures negotiate, they also abstract the configuration of the white cube in which they, like UFOs, touch down.

Through repeated gesture, the dexterous, mechanical hand manipulation necessitated by the limit of his materials and the way they fit together (straws linked end-to-end, spreading into nets or producing Buckminster Fuller–ish domes; paper towels neatly folded, like origami, then taped and joined), Ono’s modules braid the unconscious into the activity of making. Not unlike the “worrying” of prayer beads, the intricate manipulations exorcise (while at the same time retaining) some originary loss or doubt, which like his structures might seemingly continue accreting, forever. His pieces approximate the geometry of conclusion, like the reprieve found in the idea of finishing the computation of pi, and the impossibility.

Nearing completion after almost three years, Paul Sietsema’s new, as-yet-untitled film meditates on specific objects, the spaces and moments in which they exist, and the beautiful complexity of how they begin to radiate and connect to other things. The film’s point of departure is Sietsema’s sculptural investigation of the architectural space suggested by Clement Greenberg’s New York apartment (swank exemplar of the linked sites of connoisseurship, art history, collecting, and art-world fashion). Based on a period magazine photo of Greenberg’s living room—Noland on the wall, moderne furniture and African statuary vying for presence—Sietsema’s faithful sculptural re-creation of the space for his film pushes verisimilitude over some edge so that it becomes delirious, liberatory. He dreamily explores the various elements of the critic’s home, allowing them to refer to the interior of Boffrand’s rococo crown jewel, the Hôtel de Soubise, the impossible geometries of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic structures, and even the natural intricacies of a grasshopper. He literally remakes these things, not only for the sake of filming them, which offers a way of reflecting on and projecting space that purposefully recalls and analogizes how things in space operate and change in the mind, but also to explore and renew them in the present. What is the contemporaneity of art, architecture, and things—how is the rococo now? Fascinated by the inescapability of the abandonment of things once they have been viewed or considered, Sietsema ponders through film the conceptual dynamics of how sights are seen, how space and the things in it come to be experienced, and how such experiences are theorized and/or constructed (as history, as “fact”).

In Sietsema’s studio/apartment notes are pinned on the wall: “space / historical space / place where objects are shown” and “between space and object”—as if the artist were trying to remind himself that things exist in time and space as much as in the imagination. The reach and daring of Sietsema’s approach come from the painstaking care of his detailed constructions—for example, his redeployment of the baroque mathematics of Boffrand’s room to the scale of film; his reconstruction of the Greenberg apartment. (Paris and New York aren’t the only “locales” for the work. In this luxurious revisiting of light and space—of light as space—Sietsema’s sculpture-as-film also reveals the torquing influence of nearby Hollywood.) His previous film, Untitled (Beautiful Place), 1998, punned on the name of the equipment with which it was shot, a Beaulieu camera, and retained more than a little interest in the verisimilar reconstruction, in common materials (paper, glue), of the various houseplants that served as his subject and that came to suggest his private life as well as specific art-historical movements (paper-whites for high modernism; succulents for earthworks). In the new film Sietsema intensifies the potential of his referents, as well as their self-referentiality, to explore the diagrammatic: the consequence and history of using things to show other things and the loss involved between the one and the other. Two points are joined to make a line; lines are joined to make a plane; and planes are joined to gesture toward the imaginary. In one sequence of the film, a complicated mobile structure rotates vertically, mimicking the turn of the projector’s reels. Perceiving it, the mind recognizes but fails to make sense of its complex geometries in part because of the intricate shadows multiplying and obfuscating its actual geometry. The form, projected in red negative: Where does it exist, really? How is a filmic negative like negative space? The fable Sietsema is unreeling concerns the dimensions of experience, the 2-D film projecting/containing 3-D space, like the shadows of the filmed objects, suggesting other mysterious dimensionalities in between.

By making things and then filming them (my language is too blunt), by making things and filming them (objects only ever seen in film, as projections; every single thing in the film a thing; the film itself a material thing also), Sietsema provides neither an analogy nor a diagram but a projection to question how the world, the things and memories in it, even the world as those memories and things, work—and how this personal investigation, his and others’, metamorphoses into history. As with the color copies and wooden frame housing Vejvi’s memories, Meadows’s intense geometries toying with energetic force, Holloway’s chambers formed by music, Craft’s hallucinatory organisms abstracting the nature of identity and thing, and Ono’s manipulation of virtual forms to approach something like transcendence, what comes to the fore is the question of how it all operates rather than what it all means. Sietsema illuminates the way objects in space and time are more than just the intersection of ornament (rococo filigree/modernist streamlining) and structural support (materials, space, history). What he is filming is the daydream of culture, opening up and proposing so many connections that everything begins to fall apart. In that loose, gorgeous falling apart, when things become both what they are and what they’re not, the beauty part begins.

Bruce Hainley is a contributing editor of Artforum.