New York

Jonathan Monk

A few years ago, Ken Johnson, reviewing a Jonathan Monk exhibition at Casey Kaplan Gallery, stated that “Conceptualism can be overbearing but it can also be sweet, wry and poetic.” Such readings—of Monk as the sensitive offspring of a band of drier forebears—abound. The word playful is often used to characterize the artist, who is generally considered to be enacting a kind of spunky homage. Indeed, Monk is most often understood to be nudging viewers into believing that conceptual tenets remain relevant by acknowledging the tendency’s contemporary potential for a “softer” side.

But Monk’s overarching project is—I hope—more complicated than this, even if unintentionally so, for it acknowledges both the desire to belong to a (it must be said, almost exclusively male) critical artistic genealogy and the ways by which one must announce both proximity and distance from any history claimed. And by so vehemently aligning his own “content” with that harvested from recent art history, it would seem that Monk might admit his own unadulterated, and thus highly problematic, desire to lay claim to a legacy. For the canonical era of Conceptualism hardly marked a clean break from “expression” or questions of the subject. And while undoubtedly interested in epistemology and ideas, first-generation conceptual art was divorced from neither pleasure nor aesthetics, even while (or perhaps because) it so urgently sought to question institutions and objects. So perhaps Monk’s work can be thought of more as a response to and reevaluation of clichés about the period from which he pilfers and less as any real representation of its operations. Ironically, it is this slippage (between historicism and fiction) that makes Monk’s enterprise potentially more than just a cute exercise, but also renders it vulnerable to becoming just that.

For his most recent exhibition at Casey Kaplan, “Some Kind of Game Between This and That,” Monk filled the gallery with works that nod to a variety of ancestral figures from his self-chosen lineage. Chris Burden makes an appearance as a Madame Tussauds wax figure in Deadman, 2006, lying wrapped in a faux blood-soaked blanket and memorializing the artist’s infamous 1971 performance, Shoot. Nearby, in The Reason for the Neutron Bomb, 2007, the hood of a VW Beetle extends the reference to two other seminal Burden works. Photographs of Bruce Nauman’s sculpture From Hand to Mouth, 1967, are re-presented, adorned with turquoise earrings and retitled as Frank Sinatra Piece, 2007. Sol LeWitt (an artist revisited often by Monk) is included, via one of his unmistakable open cubes, in The New Sculpture, 2006–2007. Here the iconic form is cast in shiny aluminum and rendered into a dressing room of sorts, within which Monk leaves a pair of his own designer shoes and red pants. John Baldessari’s famous “Commissioned Paintings” from the late 1960s were here recommissioned by Monk; the names of the artist and sign painter hired by Monk, as well as those of the artists originally hired by Baldessari, have been (almost) seamlessly incorporated into Baldessari’s deadpan demonstrations.

But what ultimately comes of this pile of references, to say nothing of other works in the show: a delightful photograph of Magritte, his cigarette illuminated by the red beam of a laser pointer, the room filled with fog and the scent of apples; a pair of pool cues hung at the artist’s height; an old black-and-white movie of gamblers; a collection of Berlin flea-market books renamed after Monk’s favorite albums; a neon sign announcing (backwards and upside down) Monk’s birthplace (Leicester); an invitation to a meeting in Mexico in the year 2017? Monk’s relentless insistence on his own place in today’s narrative of Conceptual art reveals a desire to hold onto and further the stakes of a kind of serious art production while potentially rendering his references into decontextualized, reified relics. Perhaps the most interesting—and certainly most risky—element of this work, then, is an acknowledgment that in securing such a pedigree, one necessarily undermines one’s elders, for better or worse. That acknowledgment is crucial, unless the only effect garnered is a “playful” one.

Johanna Burton