Tony Tasset

Contesting the progress-and-mastery saga of twentieth-century modernism, Chicago-based artist Tony Tasset spent much of the 1980s and ’90s meticulously crafting insolent, critical objects, and the nine works represented in this ten-year survey (1986–96) unambiguously assert his past affinity for blunt deconstructionist strategies. During that period, the artist through his ironic use of reductive geometry aimed to subvert the unitary, masculine authority of the then more recently canonized tropes of Minimalism—his objectless pedestals, empty shipping pallets, unmarked surfaces, and vacant vitrines sharply called into question the codes of abstraction and their social and political affiliations. Today, despite Tasset’s recent, more crowd-pleasing projects and the dust that may have settled on these older objects over the years, his early sculptural riffs resonate nonetheless.

Take, for example, Maquette, 1992. Made from lacquered Medite, this dollhouse-size open-top white cube originally lampooned modernism’s archetypal exhibition space. But in the work’s installation here, the grime that had accumulated on the inside corners and the faint fading of a once brilliant white finish provided a new layer of irony as they revealed years likely spent in less than premium storage. The only work in this show that comprised all new materials was a remade sixty-inch cardboard cube titled Box, 1993. Occupying a sizable tract of gallery real estate and fabricated from flawless sheets of standard brown corrugated stock, this structure was too pristine to be a container and too insubstantial to be a weight-bearing support, rendering its immaculate platonic form an anomaly among the other, more weathered works. Another rectilinear construction, Pedestal (leveled), 1993, resembled a common gallery support righted by a metal doorstop jammed under its bottom corner. The fact that this meticulously crafted base had been designed to require correction undercut its status as a privileged monolithic prop; yet, paradoxically, the form operated as an abstract sculptural whole.

Such metaphysical conundrums were less pronounced in Pallet, 1990, in which awe-inspiring illusion and craftsmanship upstaged diverging ontological conditions. Employing master woodworking skills, Tasset had perfectly replicated an ordinary shipping pallet in finely finished hardwood. And indeed, the language of verisimilitude—the ability to transform commonplace objects into remarkable surrogates—is a showman’s talent that Tasset has retained to this day. Juxtaposed with Pallet in the gallery’s smaller exhibition space was I-beam, 1996, which, cutting its path across the floor as a safety orange–painted, twelve-foot-long lightweight aluminum cast of the steel standard, radiated considerable formal elegance. Together with Pallet, this replica reinforced the abstract qualities of brute construction materials.

Concurrent with the gallery survey, Tasset installed two newly realized public art commissions in Chicago’s Loop. Transitioning over the years from a sculptural practice with a critical base to fabricating what can unfortunately only be called middlebrow pastiche, Tasset has evinced a desire to embrace a populist position, a mission that has led to a string of ambitious albeit ultimately empty public works. For example, the three-story eyeball sited at Pritzker Park—Eye, 2010—might as well have been borrowed from an ophthalmology exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry and rolled along the lakeshore to serve as a State Street tourist attraction, its sphere of veiny white sclera a platform for the blue iris and black pupil staring down the elevated train. It is lamentable that Tasset no longer invests in a practice that is critical, resistant, and self-reflexive. Exploiting the cultural codes of spectacle is not nearly as challenging as questioning them—a task that Tasset has proved himself capable of pursuing with admirable dexterity.

Michelle Grabner