Wednesday, April 11

Back in (B)LACK

I am interested in Dave McKenzie’s (B)LACK (2006), a work of colored pencil on paper in the collection of Anthony Elms and Jacqueline Terrassa of Chicago. McKenzie draws on an instruction manual for an Ikea shelf, coloring in a warm, medium-brown skin tone onto the man sizing up the shelf on the wall. There are also coffee-cup stains, folds, and other signs of distress on the paper. I think some holes have been cut out too.

In a handout/checklist now available for the exhibition, the author writes, “This collage transforms generic directions … into a document more specific to [the artist’s] needs and identity, underscoring how one’s concept of self in contemporary society is often produced by consumer culture and the media rather than the other way around.” Sure. But I wonder if an artist would need to alter such instructions in order to make such a critique. Or even if such a critique is necessary.

One only has to look at advertising circulars from stores such as Macy’s or Kmart, the kind you find in the Sunday newspaper. Since the 1990s, or maybe even the 1980s, department stores and discount retail chains have increasing included nonwhites as models. Seeing a black man modeling an expensive suit in mainstream advertising might have been rare twenty, thirty, forty years ago. Now it’s commonplace—though of course, like in prime-time television, parity may not yet be reached.

Back to McKenzie’s work. Is the creative, artistic act of drawing or defacing the Ikea shelf instructions an act of rebellion? If, as I posit, representations of nonwhite people have become common in this type of consumer publication, what is the meaning of McKenzie’s gesture? The “lack” that McKenzie points to isn’t as big an issue as the artwork (and the accompanying text from the Kitchen) indicates. The interpretation offered by the exhibition handout doesn’t go far enough—it’s too obvious. And boring. A careful analysis—visual or textual—of this kind of imagery or these type of publications might uncover something else, something more crucial, about representation. Including more blacks and Latinos, for example, in the JC Penney catalogue is a calculated move on that company’s part: it wants to depict a more culturally diverse society while at the same time bring in more African American and Latino consumers by portraying these groups wearing JC Penney clothes and sleeping on JC Penney bedspreads. Progressive politics becomes a capitalist tool. Companies make previously undersought consumers welcome, make them feel good, in order to sell them stuff. Let’s talk about political candidates pandering to the “black vote.” This larger, more important idea relates to the theme of Just Kick It Till It Breaks, but I don’t quite see it addressed in McKenzie’s work.

While on the subject of advertising circulars, I remember that in the mid-1990s, Wal-Mart began using store managers and employees and their children as models in their product photography. It was certainly a populist move, a novelty pleasing both workers and shoppers, but I assume it also saved the company a lot of money. I imagine Wal-Mart didn’t pay these people the same rate as they would for professional models—if they were paid at all. It reminds me of what some art magazines and related publications do for art critics: give them the pleasure of seeing their names in print while not having to actually pay for the writing. Few art critics make money writing about art, and few Wal-Mart employees earn a living wage working for that company.

Back to (B)lack. Or rather those Ikea shelves. Full disclosure: I bought two of them maybe six years ago and installed them in my living room. I’ve stacked several hundred CDs on them, and the sturdy shelves have held up just fine.


Anonymous said...

I had two main thoughts about this piece: first, that the arch-minimalism of the form humorously re-affirms that Judd is the top interior designer of the 20th century; and second, that nothing really needed to be done to the Ikea ad beyond framing it and hanging it. I didn't think the intervention or the racial complaint added anything.

Christopher Howard said...

Maybe six or seven years ago I took a friend to some SoHo galleries, and one show we saw was some wall sculptures by Donald Judd at PaceWildenstein. A week later I went to her apartment, and lo and behold she had nailed three milk crates vertically, at evenly space intervals, to her bedroom wall—and used them as shelves.

Did you see that show Design ≠ Art at the Cooper-Hewitt a couple years ago, the one that had artist-made furniture and other functional objects? It had some top-notch pieces of Judd’s furniture; I’d take that bed he made in a heartbeat. (This tiny image is the only one I could find online.)

Perhaps you hit the nail on the head regarding (B)lack. I kept wanting the work to be something else other than what it was, which fueled my tangential comments. Instead of pursuing some kind of missing or more-developed content, perhaps I should have, like you did, ask for something less.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, it's funny, because to refer to Judd that way seems like a put-down (and from the ivory tower, it is), but a trip to Judd's ranches in Marfa is swoon-inducing: the houses are perfectly appointed. You think to yourself, "Yup, I too could go for some serious solipsistic egomania in these digs."

I don't mean to derail the political "argument" of the McKenzie piece by bringing in Minimalism, but I think there is also a sideways-politics to pointing out that Judd's radical rethinking of form - conceived of as a wholesale critique of the artworld of the time - resulted in an aesthetic that so completely infiltrates our contemporary sensibility. I don't mean the following rhetorically: does this turnabout obviate the historical force of his work? And with the principle established by answering that question, does it apply equally to the present, and the work in "Kick Till Breaks"?

Christopher Howard said...

I do have some beef with artists like Judd or Sol LeWitt (rest in piece) in one way. I like their work, but I feel that Judd's range is limited. He makes boxes and shelves, and he made them for thirty years. What are the major differences between a work from 1970 and 1990? Not much, to my eye. LeWitt's wall drawings look the same too. I identify more with other art and artists from that generation, those who constantly explored new forms and didn't get stuck in a stylistic rut. People such as Dennis Oppenheim and Robert Morris, for example, both of whom eschewed identifiable styles for more "random" explorations (for lack of a better word). I can appreciate the rigor of working with a limited form, but only so much can be squeezed out of it. Oppenheim could only make so many holes in the ground before exhausting that (anti)form. Morris was making two distinct bodies of work in the sixties: the minimal forms and the postminimal works in lead, for example, or even those proto-Conceptual card files and I-Boxes. The Morris retrospective I saw in 1994 at the Guggenheim was a real eye-opener, considering the wide array of strategies he used. Oppenheim's work from the late sixties to the present takes on so many forms. His stuff from the 1990s looks nothing like anything he did in the 1970s, but there's the same kind of rigorous exploration to a concept or idea that can be detected. Morris has been painting in oil for the past several years, but this work flies under the radar. Neither Morris nor Oppenheim are Dia artists, and I wonder if it's because of the stylistic choices they made. I wonder

If I had the chance to go to Marfa, I'm sure it'd be mind blowing.

Anyway, I wonder if the historical force of Judd's work is compromised not only by contemporary design (we can also talk about the influence of the Bauhaus here), but also by that work's canonization? Morris and Oppenheim are canonical, but to me they are also rouge artists who don't fit so neatly into expectations and canonization.

When I first read about Just Kick It Till It Breaks and saw the list of artists being shown, I immediately thought "scene show." I also thought that the Kitchen show was to become a canonization of certain artists as being THE artists of the 2000s. The concept of the show seemed too easy, and to see this group of artists in it seemed even more suspect. There's a large number of artists who conceivably could have been included but weren't. Why?

Christopher Howard said...

Update: the name of this particular Ikea shelf is LACK.