Los Angeles

Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler

Burnett Miller Gallery

The work of Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler is concerned with collapsing the dialectic between public and private, inside and outside, through a strategy of semiotic reconstruction. By remapping and relabeling the established cultural codes of institutions such as the family, home, and museum, Ericson and Ziegler attempt to disclose the concealed alienation and ideological base of all artificially predetermined systems, including their own. Their agent provocateur in this enterprise is language itself. In the process of estranging the domestically familiar within a public, often commercial context, and then returning it, reencoded, to its “home base,” they transform seemingly simple signs into linguistic myths, making these signs ripe, in the Barthesian sense, for further reappropriation.

In their exhibition here, entitled “The Lighting Specialists,” Ericson and Ziegler presented a series of eight identically sized circular glass plaques (all works 1988), each dedicated to a General Electric lighting expert. Sandblasted with the respective specialist‘s name and a specific room of a house—such as Al Meredith-Bedroom, Bill Gregory Closet—the plaques were lit by whatever bulb type the specialist uses in that same room at home. The gallery thus became, through this demarcation and lighting system, a surrogate, semiotically encoded house. Thus the Warren Hutchins “porch” and its 25 watt Flame Tip Auradescent bulb welcomed the viewer at the gallery door, while Wendell Phelp‘s Miser 120-watt Indoor Reflector Flood located the would-be kitchen.

Although Ericson and Ziegler are clearly attempting to recode the gallery space as a domestic interior while simultaneously invading the accustomed privacy of the home with the commerciality of the public exhibition, they are also commenting upon the ideological signification of authorship itself. These lighting specialists are paragons of anonymous producers, behind—the-scenes technicians/designers whose sole function is to domesticate utility efficiently. By making their identity public,the artists raise them to the level of auteurs, underlining not only their hitherto suppressed authorship, but also their dependence for recognition on systems such as the art economy. Ericson and Ziegler are, of course, powerful beneficiaries of this system, using their role as named artist/ producers to recode and ultimately sanction the lighting designers within the mythology of esthetics.

Significantly, Ericson and Ziegler fail to disclose the lighting designers‘ labor through this strategy of “making public.” Although the artists‘ cataloguing of the designers and their wares serves to represent utilitarian industrial production as art and vice versa, it doesn‘t prevent the objects themselves from returning, dispersed and autonomous, to the domestic arena as fetishized object-commodities—in the form of Ericson-and-Ziegler collectibles. The artists may be robbing the myth of authorship and originality by alluding to a hidden productive agenda, but they are also propagating a new myth, that of creative contingency to the art institution itself. Without Ericson and Ziegler as namers/ reifiers, the lighting specialists would be doomed to their previous anonymity.

The artists take this institutional self-critique even further in Leaf Peeping, a wall piece consisting of 31 jars of latex paint, each placed on individual black shelves. The jars are arranged to produce a scale map designating all the trees in the Museum of Modern Art‘s sculpture garden. Each tree‘s leaves are signified by color (the latex pigment) and shape (in the form of a sandblasted image on the side of the jar). By taking a seemingly random and uncontrolled pattern and deliberately labeling it, like a jar of jam, as a domestic consumable, Ericson and Ziegler paradoxically underline not only the museum‘s lack of control over nature (as opposed to art), but their own ability to control both nature and the museum through the act of appropriation and recodification. The sculpture garden, like the lighting specialist, is transformed from a private “subject” to a public sign, then reified as a privately- , or museum-owned artwork. The public and the private thus become inseparable from the codes of economic exchange, with artist, museum, gallery, collector, and critic (the ultimate labeler) becoming willing accomplices.

Colin Gardner