Sculptures Without Qualities
In his essay on the work of Michael Krebber titled Stop Painting Painting, originally printed in Artforum (October 2005), John Kelsey writes, “The dandy makes himself static and detached, and his endless de-centering of his own identity is the means by which he makes the world around him start to lose its grip.” Krebber has distinctly positioned himself in the role of the dandy, both in rambling speeches to students at many university-sponsored lectures and explicitly in his physical artworks, which have referenced those speeches. What ties together much of Krebber’s work – which includes this dandy persona, leather pants and all – is the spoil. This mechanism is always present and somewhat off-putting to the uninitiated, who don’t quite get the inside joke but can feel the weight of the punch line – that Krebber is a successful artist, supported by the market, institutions, and other artists, beginning with an anointment by Martin Kippenberger.
The reason the spoil is so important is tied to the nature of contemporary art. Krebber’s spoiler machines are highly sophisticated assassinations of the specific expressions created from the ambitions to quality present in the landscape of the art world. By exhibiting stretched bed sheets flecked with paint and littered with the promotional posters for the show, Krebber derides the obnoxiousness of blockbuster painting awash in pretensions of quality. Krebber’s practice is not so far away in spirit from the work of Thomas Hirschorn, whose more viscerally entertaining installations overwhelm the epistemological systems of quality perception, collapsing into a black hole of crude manifestations of political energy. In contrast to Hirschorn’s layers of packing tape, cardboard, and cheap internet prints, Krebber’s moves are so slight as to almost completely evade detection by the authorities, who might love the chance to pounce on something more substantial. Here is where Krebber’s references to the dandy become useful; the dandy, as epitomized throughout the literature of the Decadence movement, casts aside the elitism of social hierarchies for an elitism of aesthetic experiences available only to those whose pursuit of such experiences is unbounded by social, moral, or religious responsibilities. Every class of experience retains value in respect only to itself – art for art’s sake, through a reduction of gesture. The challenge posed by Krebber’s work to his self-selecting audience is to get over themselves – in effect turning his exhibitions into zones of liberation. A neatly dissected windsurfing board isn’t ever going to be enough for the practitioners of art-as-achievement, but I doubt Krebber suffers from the same jealousy that his economy of easy movement throughout the aisles of power inspires in those for whom a great painting is equivalent to having made the right decisions.
What Krebber’s work also models is the endgame of the gesture in art. Painting isn’t so much dead as it is simply the most commonly used medium through which the gestural virtuosity of the artist is expressed. Sculpture is just less often used in such a way. Elaine Cameron-Weir, in her first solo exhibition in New York at Ramiken, a gallery on the Lower East Side, shows exactly how close sculpture can get to the precipices that contemporary art clings to.
Modelling the way art objects can function as luxury goods, which requires the translation of material features and biographical information about the artist into distinctions of high quality, Cameron-Weir’s sculptures translate distinctions of quality into art, albeit completely emptied of the identifying function that formed the original commodity. A luxury good starts with a functional object, like an automobile or a piece of furniture, of which every component part is engineered into an expression of a fetish quality (the bar stools on Aristotle Onassis’ yacht, allegedly upholstered in whale foreskin seem a perfect example, if only because I love whales and enjoy using the scenario to mention that whaling is illegal and Japan and Norway need to stop the practice immediately). Cameron-Weir takes the fetish quality and reverse engineers the object into a pure expression of that quality, without the responsibilities of function. The Column works are almost brass birdcages – they appear to be a kind of birdcage, albeit unworkable as birdcages, unburdened from functional aspects, like cage doors, a poop tray, birds, or even the concept of enclosure. A birdcage does not need birds if the birdcage is a sculpture, but it may no longer be a birdcage. Like Krebber’s exhibitions at Greene Naftali, Cameron-Weir’s exhibition is a zone of liberation, but not for the role of the artist; Cameron-Weir’s liberation is for the sculptures themselves – a sly anthropomorphism also suggested by the human dimensions of the Column pieces.
Dandyism could be an aspect of Cameron-Weir, but it is more likely only an aspect of her artworks. She does often wear a very futuristic pair of tights, oddly reminiscent of Krebber’s leather trousers. But she herself isn’t so much de-centered, if only because the materials she works with requires the responsibilities of labor, and she lacks assistants. She is more of an engineer, a Svengali of her objects as dandies, position-less beings in and of themselves. Rather than using the objects to point at herself as the artist-as-dandy, her objects role play the critique – the dandy-as-sculpture. Besides, the dandy is an unsympathetic character, more at home in boom-times rather than what feels more and more everyday like end times. There’s too much self-consciousness in the role, rendering the dandy an impotent creature; Cameron-Weir’s sculptures imply a sexualized, futuristic minimalism, a position that suggests something beyond an endgame, some resulting generative force.
Again the specter of the dandy, perfumed; Duchamp’s Belle Haleine was dated ninety years ago and contained nothing – only the promise of a scent. The smell of a sculpture permeates the gallery; the odor is produced by scented molecules of Coumarin, a chemical compound developed by plants to discourage predation and, among other things, the additive that gives Żubrówka (bison grass vodka) its sharp, distinctive grassiness. Coumarin is toxic and banned by the FDA as a food additive; it can produce headaches. It is presumably legal to use in artwork. Coumarin is never used by itself, but its use in a designated artwork was predicted by Joris-Karl Huysmans in his novel A rebours (1884), the ‘bible’ of Decadence. The anti-heroic protaganoist, Des Esseintes, is attempting to cure his impotence.
“For many years now he had been expert in everything relating to olfactory science; he believed that the sense of smell could experience pleasures equal to those of hearing and sight, since every sense was capable, through natural aptitude and expert cultivation, of apprehending new impressions, multiplying them many times over, co-ordinating them, and with them composing that whole which constitutes a work of art; and, in a word, it was no more abnormal that an art of selecting aromatic fluids should exist, than other forms which separate out sound waves, or strike the retina of the eye with variously coloured rays of light; only, just as no one without a special intuitive gift, which has been developed through study, can distinguish a painting by a great master from a daub, a Beethoven melody from a tune of Clapisson’s, so no one can, without some preliminary instruction, avoid confusing, at first, a bouquet created by a true artist with a pot-pourri produced by a manufacturer for sale in grocery shops and bazaars.”
Further along in his experiments, we come across Coumarin itself:
“He cleansed his hands, placed the resin in a hermetically sealed box, and the factories, in their turn, disappeared. He then squirted a few drops of ‘New-mown Hay’ perfume among the now revived fragrances of lime trees and meadows, and in the middle of the magical landscape – temporarily divested of its lilacs – haystacks appeared, ushering in a new season, releasing their exquisite emanations into the scented summer air.”
One piece stands out as somewhat of a spoiler; Untitled - the rug - has been dyed until its content has been completely deleted. It stands as a rug, but without any specifics it is only a work of art, an obliterated item that only completely fits into the categorization of sculpture, a designation only possibly conferred by the artist herself. The production of the artwork in this case is as reduced as possible; like the hero from Robert Musil’s two-part epic of a similar title, the rug is without qualities. This transmutation of the rug as sculpture is so simple as to defy the standard of abstract expressionist quality, as dictated by Jasper Johns in his infamous definition on how to make art: “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.” Johns is suggesting an accrual of gestures is qualification as art – by simply dying a rug, Cameron-Weir defies the equation, and creates something more akin to what Judd referred to as a “specific object.”
The exhibition is treated by Cameron-Weir as a displacement zone, where the functional baggage of an object is unnecessary, and artificiality is abstracted to an extreme. The existence of these artworks forces a backward slide in the translation process, originally from thought to art to art-reference, back to art – undermining the root – the position of the Artist. The production is cyclical, rather than deriving from an absolute.
A poem referred to me by the artist, La Chevelure, by Charles Baudelaire, is of interest as a footnote: one passage appears in separate translations into English as both “Blue-black hair, pavilion hung with shadows,” and as, “Blue tresses, like a shadow stretching tent.” For Cameron-Weir, who like me speaks French only a ‘tiny bit’, these translations are the sole access point. If the best experience of a favorite poem is a slippery approximation, everything that comes after is up for grabs.