Los Angeles

Cameron Shaw

Richard/Bennett Gallery

Since Walter Benjamin’s rehabilitation of allegory from the rhetorical realms of historicism, it has become popular among both artists and theorists as a strategy of resistance. By appropriating and reconstituting historical fragments as incomplete significations, the allegory equates history with the ruin, creating, in Benjamin’s words, “an irreversible process of dissolution and decay, a progressive distancing from origin.” Cameron Shaw’s enigmatic reliefs of weathered boxes, bottles, and found stereoscopic photographs seem on first viewing to be a perfect example of this poetry of loss and decay, producing disjunctive correspondences that evoke the deferred hope and ruptured “spleen” of Baudelaire.

Each piece consists of what appears to be a time-worn and weathered box, which resembles a cross between a soldier’s mess kit and a saddle bag—the sort of World War I artifact one finds hidden away in Grandma’s attic. A found photograph, depicting military encampments or historical documentation—here, notes for a biography of George Washington—is attached to the front of the box, while the open lid reveals a row of bottles containing powdered gesso or ink. The box thus acts as both a literal carrier (of historical objects and images) and an allegorical carrier (of fragmented, and thus deferred meaning). The whole is then, in turn, “carried” by the gallery wall, which is bound by the broader contextual parameters of art world discourse—yet another carrier of potential meaning.

While Shaw encodes his constructions with a sense of age and historical familiarity, he also makes them semantically ambiguous. As a group of signifiers they work paradigmatically as well as syntagmatically, stressing vertical, metaphorical relationships in equal proportion to horizontal, narrative ones. In Untitled Box with Army Nurses and White Bottles, 1989, for example, the photograph depicts what appears to be a wartime scene of army nurses lined up for an inspection. The military context, with its masculine sense of regimentation and order, of anonymous seriality, adds ominous overtones to the scene. While the army nurses are an agency of healing, they are at the same time operating within an institution of modern warfare, a mechanized catalyst of death. This antinomy is reinforced by the row of milk bottles revealed at the top of the box. The bottles trigger notions of mother’s milk, yet, at the same time, the nature of their white-powdered contents is ambiguous. Is it a powdered milk, a pain-killing drug, or a poison? Is the syntagmatic connection between the photograph and the milk bottles a valid one, or simply a case of association by carrier, i.e., the box?

Such contradictions lie at the heart of allegorically reconstructed language. One thinks in particular of Jacques Derrida’s deconstructive reading of the Greek word pharmakon (the root of the English “pharmacy”), which means both “poison” and “cure.” That such antithetical meanings exist simultaneously in the same word indicates that a simple resort to context will not always supply an appropriate concrete interpretation. Similarly, Shaw seems to be suggesting that direct meaning is suspended within a perpetual state of deferral within each of his works.

This hermeneutic seepage and slippage is further complicated by the fact that Shaw’s boxes are not found objects or historical relics at all. They are, in fact, simulations of allegorical fragments, constructed around a steel framework with a combination of board, wax, and old clothing. This self-conscious processing of fake antiquity makes Modernism’s inexorable decay read as just another manipulated fiction. Once a vessel of contingent meaning, allegorical narrative as a whole is both called into question and paradoxically rejuvenated. Just as it is usurped by its own double, the allegory is itself allegorized.

Colin Gardner