New York

“The People’s Choice”

Group Material

Group Material is a loose association of about 12 artists committed to working in the area where esthetics and politics meet. The group has existed in one form or another for about a year, operating from a storefront on East 13th Street since last July, and presenting theme shows in which the idea behind each show is considered more important than any of the pieces in it.

The members of Group Material find the notion of production problematic when they consider the role of art objects. To keep from having that production co-opted (something very few overtly political artists have been able to avoid), they downplay and at times repudiate the object in favor of the context. The group’s real work is their use of the storefront as a catalyst. Their ambition, at least at present, is remarkably free of individual careerism, and is focused instead on the creation of the conditions necessary for making communication possible.

One could quarrel with their anachronistic denial of the potential that the art object holds, but not with their genuine desire to initiate discourse. The problem lies within their well-worn means. But these questions are cavils, evidence merely of factional dispute. What is more important in the case of Group Material is their emphasis on the need for discourse, the break that they are attempting from the self-enclosed systems of recent art.

For “The People’s Choice” the group invited the residents on the block to exhibit things that they liked and were important to them. Most brought personal mementoes, photographs and gifts, and a few brought objects that indicated the idiosyncratic tastes of real collectors. Nearly everything came with a story; as a whole, the show turned into a narrative of everyday life, a folk tale in which intimacies were shared without shame.

The artwork on display was diverse in both intent and degree of sophistication. There was a mural done by the kids on the block as part of a weekly project. There were a few amateurish paintings of family, favorite landscapes and pleasing abstract shapes. There were some small clay pieces by someone’s grandmother, now dead. The value of these artifacts lay precisely in their sentimentality, a quality that is absent from most artwork that strives to mean something to a general audience.

Most of the paintings were family souvenirs or gifts. The photographs were of babies, first communions, weddings, pictures taken in the army and, in one case, a billboard of superimposed snapshots documenting the history of an entire family. Each picture had its own story, and together they added up to a moving, detailed record of a small community within the city.

Another category was that of the collectors, people who had chosen to exercise a quirky, personal taste in furnishing their homes. There was a collection of small toy animals from above a person’s kitchen sink, another of PEZ brand candy dispensers, a three-dimensional picture of a covered bridge and a strange-looking valet chair. The function of all of these is mostly esthetic, yet they still have extra-esthetic narratives that sustain them. The most shocking of these was the Robert Morris poster from 1974, infamous in another context, in which the artist posed in S&M costume. It was presented here with the explanation that it was taken from the apartment of a man who had hanged himself.

Apparently different from the very personal, very local content of the bulk of the show, the sculpture of Jorge Luis Rodriguez seemed at first out of place. But the welded-steel construction, a shiny-surfaced dressing table with a crazed, Cubist-inspired structure, soon began to seem more at home. Not only was the image itself a domestic one, and obviously intended to be seen as such, but it soon became clear that Rodriguez’s role on the block was a special one. He is the community’s artist, working with the community’s own icons and supported by the people he serves.

The artists of Group Material are clearly serious in their commitment to the idea that art can be used as an instrument for social and political change, and to date their interventions have demonstrated a remarkable intelligence. But like all such groups, they will probably suffer from the contradiction that lies at the heart of their existence. No matter what their aspirations are, no matter their abilities, at some point each member of the group will be faced with a terrible, if familiar, choice—between political or esthetic action. Until then, Group Material will probably present some of the most provocative and thoughtful shows to be seen in New York.

Thomas Lawson