New York

Clegg & Guttman

Jay Gorney Modern Art

The significance of Clegg & Guttmann’s cerebral art lies in the multiple visual and conceptual subtexts concealed beneath the glossy surfaces of their Cibachrome photographs. Earlier seemingly straightforward group portraits of corporate executives portrayed actual businessmen or merely actors dressed for the part. These images exploited pictorial illusionism while revealing its artifices. Ultimately the portraits served as a vehicle for exploring power and its visual representation in contemporary society. Similarly, Clegg & Guttmann’s unconventional still lifes used objects to comment on issues ranging from patterns of consumption to Western imperialism.

For this show the artists created a quasi-architectural installation based on the Union City Free Public Library in northern New Jersey. At first the presentation of this old-fashioned, small-town library seems like straightforward documentation. Life-size photographs of bookshelves line the walls, accompanied by a wooden card catalogue containing the titles on all the book spines that appear in the images. A note at the back of the exhibition catalogue, however, explains that the information compiled there was transcribed from the photographs, rather than from the original catalogue or from the books themselves (publication dates, locations, page numbers, etc., are missing). Emphasis is placed on the surfaces of the books rather than on their contents, and the volumes remain as inaccessible as they are in the photographic reproductions. This visual emphasis is reinforced by the artists’ decision to order the catalogue not just by the usual alphabetical and subject headings but by the colors of the volumes’ covers, a coding that wittily points to the arbitrariness of all ordering principles. Even the seemingly logical Dewey decimal system is composed of curiously dissimilar rubrics ranging from “Generalities” to “Bible” to “Domestic Arts and Family Living.” Other categories awkwardly straddle various unrelated subject areas (computer handbooks segue into books on UFOs), pointing to our hapless attempts to coerce heterogeneous reality into tidy, controllable units. The book titles themselves suggest the crazy range of things worth knowing about. The titles include So You Are Thinking About a Small Business, Principles of Neo-Plastic Art, and Talk to the Patient in Spanish. Implied in these groupings are the ways in which our minds have been channeled by such categorizations of knowledge and hence of experience. The biography section reveals our tendency to turn both statesmen and artists into heroes. The religion section points to the confines of our Christocentric view of theology. The nutrition section, with its taxonomy of dietetic obsessions, from low-calorie, cholesterol, or carbohydrate to no- or low-salt, high-fiber and dairy-free, reflects the same pathologically narcissistic patterns of consumption Clegg & Guttmann addressed in their still lifes.

Clegg & Guttmann have long been obsessed with imaging social and financial power. It is only natural that they should now turn their attention to the symbolic locus of knowledge—the library. Once again the artists present us with surfaces in order to make us question the apparently “natural” orders they perpetuate. In this understated installation, Clegg & Guttmann scrutinize the microcosm of the library as it mirrors and determines what goes on in the outside world.

Lois E. Nesbitt