Los Angeles

View of “Michael Decker,” 2016. Photo: Lisa Anne Auerbach.

View of “Michael Decker,” 2016. Photo: Lisa Anne Auerbach.

Michael Decker


View of “Michael Decker,” 2016. Photo: Lisa Anne Auerbach.

In 1968, brothers Wallace and Russ Berrie manufactured and sold a line of kitsch plastic objects known as Sillisculpts. The Sillisculpt served as a kind of 3-D greeting card that reflected the popular sentiments of Vietnam-era America; each featured a small, trophy-like figure, typically cast in off-white resin and fixed to a base stamped with a saccharine or humorously lewd phrase: I LOVE YOU THIS MUCH; WORLD’S BEST MOTHER; UP YOURS!; THERE’S NO PLACE FOR SEX IN THE OFFICE . . . SO LET’S MAKE ONE. As subtitles for the upward gazing dopey, doe-eyed figures, the phrases spoke alternately to normative familial relations and to the antiheroes of society (its cynics, sexists, alcoholics, and loafers). Their mysteriously oscillating sentiments are conterminous with the culture’s contradictions and social strains. As knickknacks, the objects served little purpose beyond their punch lines, and yet today they remain inscribed within a complex network of ethics and ideologies.

Discontinued in the early 1980s, the cast-off but seemingly indestructible Sillisculpts accumulated at thrift stores and flea markets. For his exhibition-cum–small business “Sillishop,” artist Michael Decker offered for purchase 524 of the objects (priced from $10 to $150, based on rarity or strangeness), which comprised a collection that he had amassed over the past decade during weekly trips to secondhand shops throughout Southern California. The third artist-run business to occupy the Meow—a gallery run by artists Lisa Anne Auerbach and Joel Kyack that hosts small businesses as exhibitions in a roughly nine-by-eleven-foot shed—Decker’s Sillishop opened on Black Friday and ran through Boxing Day, during which time shelves were continually restocked as customers purchased the tiny found sculptures. Installed floor to ceiling on three walls, the Sillisculpts created an almost oppressive environment, a frenetic space commemorating the scat of a past society.

As an exercise in abundance and uselessness, the Sillishop was an open-ended, nonhierarchical space wherein each object’s worth was determined by the artist, who valued not only rarity but the odd incongruity between figure and phrase or handpainting by a former owner. The amassed “sillis” (as the artist called them) served as a vehicle for psychological projection not unlike Mike Kelley’s repurposed stuffed animals or afghans. And certainly Decker, like so many other young artists, is indebted to Kelley’s seamless positioning of emotion as commodity and nostalgia as product. Other artists have appropriated the formal “setup” of the Sillisculpt as well, including Miranda July—who created her own Sillisculpt-like slogans on pedestals intended for the public to stand on at the 2009 Venice Biennale—and Jonathan Horowitz, whose 2008 work We the People Are People Too recast the phrases on a collection of original Sillisculpts to represent various political affiliations of today (e.g., PREDATORY LENDERS ARE PEOPLE TOO). But Decker’s installation was significant for its psychic charge, heightened by time, which revealed the sillis’ underlying abjectness; as mass-produced memento mori, the objects were doomed from the outset, expendable in their thingness. And yet elevated en masse as an artwork, the dejected silli became a libidinal extension of the enthusiast/artist, embodying a compulsion whose neurotic vitality rivaled that of the culture capable of generating such odd, off-color little things.

Catherine Taft