Amikam Toren

Chisenhale Gallery, Anthony Reynolds Gallery

Performance, process and theatricality are the indices of esthetic production that have come to dominate our thinking about art. The work of Amikam Toren feasts on the ironic complexities of this situation, addressing meaning in art through the transubstantiation of form.

In a series of pictures inaugurated in 1983, entitled “Of the Times” (exhibited at Chisenhale Gallery), as well as in a recent, related series, “Armchair Paintings” 1989–91 (exhibited at Anthony Reynolds Gallery), Toren creates objects out of their own substance. “Of the Times” is comprised of canvases covered with a grayish emulsion made from the pulps of a single day’s edition of the London Times and mixed with acrylic medium applied in the form of rough geometric configurations. The images on several canvases consist of intentionally inchoate letterform details. A radically reduced set of alphabetic signs is thus contrasted to the syntactic and semantic plenitude of the daily newspaper. Small fragments of the newspaper’s masthead, signed by the artist and positioned between the canvases, stand in for this former, abundantly constituted world of meaning.

“Of the Times” is one of several series produced by Toren since 1979 that literally use the residue of objects, sanded down, stripped away, crushed, and pulped, to produce a representation of these objects. On the one hand, Toren’s use of ordinary objects—a teapot, a chair, a cardboard box—partakes of that British tendency, associated with artists such as William Blake and Stanley Spencer, to sacralize the profane. At the same time, the works seem too frail and almost embarrassed to identify with such a tradition. They are bland where they should be maniacal and robust, cool where they should be apocalyptic. The effect is one of equivocation, of incompleteness; indeed, the work initiates the same sort of infinite regress of meaning that animated the Conceptual expressions of the mid to late ’60s.

Toren’s work fails to convince us that it is more than a mild reiteration of issues that have been well-rehearsed in recent art. The legitimation of the metalanguage of representation as the worked material of art emerged as an early and important feature of historical Conceptual art, goaded by the earlier success and dominance of Pop art. Robert Morris’ Box with the Sound of Its Own Making, 1961, and the One and Three Chairs, 1965, of Joseph Kosuth remain paradigmatic and instructive counterexamples.

Toren’s recent “Armchair Paintings” are pictures purchased at flea markets and thrift shops—the type of anonymous, kitsch images that are synonomous with the philistine. The surfaces of these paintings are incised with slogans as homeless and free-floating as the images they puncture and deface. Two random tokens, of two apparently irreconcilable systems of signs, become one. The literal, if not ritual, destruction of form directs our attention toward the surface of pictures as a sign of the integrity of genera. These days we are apt to read text more keenly than we do images, hardly making a distinction between signs of objects and signs of speech. Text deliberately produced through the negation of an image becomes image—the philosophical cousin of landscape, portraiture, and still life—rather than its Other. The allusion, in the title of the series, to Matisse’s pronouncement on the nature of painting—in which he likened a successful work to a “comfortable armchair”—points out Toren’s equivocation rather than supporting his presumed iconoclasm.

The works fail to generate more than the odd shock of delight the viewer feels at finding some connection—any connection—between text and image. The “Armchair Paintings” simply do not venture beyond the gravitational pull of the institutional script whereby neo-Conceptualism is played out against the exhaustion of the Duchampian paradigm of nonretinal art. Andy Warhol meets Ludwig Wittgenstein every day in London, New York, Paris, and Cologne; each time the opportunity for humor is missed, and the wasted allegorical encounter confirms that, for the moment, nothing exists outside the “institutional script.” The products of this script are too late, but they nevertheless pay homage to the social space that makes a virtue of belatedness. Toren’s current work—like that of so many other artists—is a victim of that institutionalization.

Michael Corris