Washington D.C.

“Metaphor: New Projects By Contemporary Sculptors”

Various Venues

Wait a minute. . . . Isn’t there a confusion, evident in attempts to theorize Postmodernism, between the aims of Modernism and those of late-Modernist Formalism? Aren’t the two being viewed as synonymous, thus telescoping a century’s achievements into those of decades, and reducing “form” to its most restricted definition? And isn’t there a difference between Formalist “self-reference” and Modernist “abstraction,” as the latter was primed by poetry, influenced by linguistics and apprised by examples from other self-defining fields? In Modernism, research into the components of a medium was to yield art’s “language,” allowing it to refer to the world through its own inherent mechanisms, as a system of interrelated parts. By this logic, form world and real world existed in a parallel relation, the one autonomous yet analogous to the other. And by this logic even a still life might have as its motive a different and larger subject, since its elements, being internally defined, could “point” toward other things. Didn’t Modernism have some of the content we’re led to believe only Postmodernism permits? Shouldn’t things really get sorted out?

These are thoughts stimulated by “Metaphor,” which might have remained a typical show of installations by six prominent artists (Vito Acconci, Siah Armajani, Alice Aycock, Lauren Ewing, Robert Morris, and Dennis Oppenheim). But curator Howard Fox didn’t rest content with presenting new work; he devised a heavy label and still heavier justification (judging from the lapidary catalogue text) to move the show along. The brunt of the exhibition is that these projects are vintage Postmodernism, displaying, beyond their physical and sculptural characteristics, ideas—which supposedly distinguishes them from Modernism. Indeed, it is the use of difficult ideas, elaborate literary conceits, and complex means, along with a corresponding interpretive requirement on the viewer’s part, that apparently defines Postmodernism. Which is fine, if you think of Modernism as Formalism. But it’s not so fine if you acknowledge the broad content that informed it.

Fox’s essay is based on a rigid, bipolar opposition which juxtaposes an all-at-once, unidimensional Modernism to its reflective, generally thought-provoking Other. It takes off on that thing called “the Modern aesthetic,” traced strangely “from Kasimir Malevich to Piet Mondrian to Brice Marden,” which is transcendental, embedded in “an ideal art of purity, autonomy, sublimity; a search for an art that would obey only its own laws and reveal its own ideal forms, eschewing all relation with the non-art world.” This by-now-textbook definition is still quite a statement, considering the whole dialectic it excludes. Not to mention the fact that Mondrian’s enterprise involved finding a form-world that would repeat, in its laws, the structural laws of the universe, conceived metaphysically as a system of opposing forces. . . . But Fox basically traces well-trodden paths, moving from Minimalist thing-ness to theatricality, reciting the Gospel According to Greenberg and the dicta of Michael Fried. He paces through pluralism, sashays through styles, and arrives, early on, at what he presents as the hallmark of Postmodernism—“an oblique approach to the delivery of content, a conceptual organization on linguistic models, particularly metaphor.” This statement is itself problematic, given that much early Modernism took obliquity for a premise (think only of Stéphane Mallarmé; that misused and artistically influential poet, who wrote that the Earth’s structure might be “orphically explained” indirectly, through the suggestive emanations of his formal nets.) And to accept Fox’s revolutionary status for language you have to sidestep the research conducted towards the century’s turn, largely in Paris and Vienna, into the structural foundations of the arts. For these theorists language provided a working metaphor, an operative image for all human systems. It belongs, then, within the province of Modernism.

For this show Fox defined metaphor quite properly as “the presentation of one mode or system of reality in terms of another,” implying an indirect relation to a chosen subject. But in art this means both everything and nothing. For example, one of the show’s most interesting works was, on one level, the least metaphoric: Siah Armajani’s Hirshhorn Employee Lounge is among his most functional installations, a very literal arrangement of tables, benches, walls, and desks, designed for the worker at rest. To sit or move within its compass is to experience an actual architectural ensemble, a usable, “real” space whose atmosphere is palpably present. But saying that it is metaphoric because it also presents ideas (always implicated in Armajani’s constructions, which aim to evoke his egalitarian ideals) means depriving art in general of purpose. For most objects in the esthetic realm function metaphorically; metaphor is a structural component of art. Just as language is basically metaphoric, since words “stand for” absent things and translate one order of reality into its analogue, so art generally uses physical means to suggest or refer to ideas, issues, or sentiments. It presents itself—its concrete, material substance—but something else as well. Even the self-referential objects of Minimalism could be seen to operate in this manner, referring to their motivating theory and materializing, through physical qualities, absent concepts. Conceived operationally, they function through substitutions, pointing to one thing through another. So the premise of Fox’s argument doesn’t get us very far.

Perhaps the show should have been called “Ideas,” so we could better gauge the success with which they were employed. Then we could note that some physical structures are too intricate and involuted to articulately reveal the motivations of mind, since they call excessive attention to themselves. That was the case with Alice Aycock and Dennis Oppenheim, who presented their signature machines, with sprawling configurations of repeated and revolving metal parts intercut with glass and manned by motors, as metaphors of mind and motive force (Aycock’s Hoodo (Laura), more specifically, is intended to evoke the energy that animates the universe and its dynamic systems and that manifests itself in the artist as creative energy.) And it’s interesting that these artists, both in and out of art, increasingly resort to the word to explain their complex intentions. Oppenheim, for example, describes his work as dealing with “the moment of conception,” as an attempt to reconstruct “the mental housing which represents the idea when it was strongest and most pure. The physical structures,” he says in a quotation in the catalogue, “mirror the thought which produced them, allowing the exterior form to function at the same high energy plane as a thought traveling through the mind.” This is highfalutin language to prop up complex plumbing. Moreover, when viewing these works, you’re too busy trying to trace the trajectory of pipes from here to there, trying to find what fuels the fans or to unmire the maze of loops and lathes, to ever leave the “visual” level of form. But we can also note that some structures are excessively reduced. Hence Ewing’s Auto-Plastique: The Prison, a tripartite architectural set austerely worked in black-painted wood, is too simple and, finally, too visually insignificant to support Ewing’s elaborate and extremely interesting ideas about societal and individual shaping forces. So she, too, always makes appeal to the word. And so does the catalogue essay . . .

An intriguing aspect of this exhibition was its indirect emanations—the sense that in certain works suggestions were being made which exceeded the actual metaphors. Robert Morris exhibited Jornado del Muerto (From the Natural History of Los Alamos), an allegory on nuclear destruction so self-conscious in its grotesque and kitschy presentation that it seemed to parody its conception. With black skeletons astride missiles posing as the Four Horsemen of the (Nuclear) Apocalypse, with photographs of atomic explosions, distorting mirrors, and Deco-stylized clouds—not to mention blowups of Leonardo’s Deluge—Morris transformed his space into a sickies’ funhouse. Yet this overkill, which rendered sterile Morris’ ominous message, seemed most pointedly projected against “theater,” “symbol,” “melodrama,” “allegory,” and other contemporary concerns. And amidst this bathos Vito Acconci constructed Fan City, a political machine whose economic format and fairly simple operation yielded a broad connotational range. The malleability of culture and myth of fixed identity, the reality of political power, and the complicity between society and self might be evoked through the viewer’s “fanning” of a wedge-shaped form into a “city” of sign-covered tents. Among the projects this had, perhaps, the deepest semantic resonance—one only wished it always worked. But we also know that Acconci, in the catalogue, had the sense to evade the exhibition’s restrictions, refusing to label it as “metaphor.”

Kate Linker