The Natural History of the Lawn Chair

by Art Fag City on November 29, 2005 Events

So, I guess good weather and the appeal of losing your Thanksgiving to an art fair has lured everyone and their dog to Miami. As usual, I am holding down the fort in New York until the art world returns, which all things considered is not such a bad job. I may have to brave the cold, but at least I didn’t have to rush my Thursday night dinner.

You’d think there wouldn’t be much to talk about this week since there was enough tryptophan in the citizens of this country over the weekend to inspire a nationwide nap time, but this isn’t the case. Despite the Florida competition, there seemed to be a fair number of gallery goers out in Chelsea this Saturday, which may be because there is a good deal out there worth discussing. Also contributing to the work load is the fact that I saw enough art to send an undergrad into a full month of “inspired” art making activity. In an attempt to mimic this behavior via blogging, I now have a map of coming attractions at AFC worthy of display at the New York Public Library. Today and in the future you can expect to read about the brilliance of Brian Jungen’s work at the New Museum (I should just retitle this post profuse fawning over products with a short shelf life), the Mike Kelley high school county fair show at Gagosian Gallery, Tracy Emin’s latest break up at Lehmann Maupin, and the “I don’t know how to paint I’m so hip” by Andre Ethier at Derek Eller Gallery. Ideally, AFC readers will get to see all of these things this week on the blog, but we’ll have to see how much my superhero writing skills develop in the next couple of days. As it stands now, editing is NOT an overrated activity.

Today AFC covers the fun stuff – Brian Jungen at the New Museum, an unbelievably good show which by some miracle, has not been reviewed by any of the major art publications in New York (with the exception of the Brooklyn Rail). Frankly, I am stumped over how this happened, but then, catching these over sights is what AFC is all about.

For a guy who is only 35 Jungen has an incredibly impressive resume. Among other things, in 2002 he won the Sobey Art Award, the largest prize given to an artist under the age of 40 in Canada. Jungen is best known for Prototypes for New Understanding a series of sculptures constructed out of Nike shoes which reference Northwest Coast Aboriginal masks.

Works such as the one shown above demonstrate the power of commercial and economic display while speaking to the politics of art making. The mask has particular resonance in Canadian culture, as a much larger part of the commercial gallery market in that country are mall galleries that specialize in “authentic” aboriginal art (enter open edition prints and sculptures), and countless soap stone carvings made by the Inuit. If context is everything, it’s hard to imagine anything doing “more” for a gallery than being flanked by a Footlocker and Eatons.

But, my point with the mall art is not that Jungen’s work is inspired by these artists and galleries, but rather that by creating a body of work which references commercial (and institutional) display, he brings to mind specifically Canadian concerns about aboriginals who work within an art market restricted by the demands of the consumer. In other words, aboriginal art has been and continues to be narrowly defined within the Canadian art market, and allows little room for creativity and growth.

Jungen himself articulates as much and more in this statement when he says:

it was interesting to see how by simply manipulating the Air Jordan shoes you could evoke specific cultural traditions whilst simultaneously amplifying the process of cultural corruption and assimilation. The Nike ‘mask’ sculptures seemed to articulate a paradoxical relationship between a consumerist artefact and an ‘authentic’ native artefact.” “Brian Jungen in conversation with Matthew Higgs” in Brian Jungen, Vienna: Secession, 2003, p. 25.

The quote above not only articulates the artist’s interest in how materials can be used to mimic the edification of customs and beliefs, but it illustrates the degree to which his art matches his objectives. I don’t want to keep harping on this kind of stuff, but it is great to read a statement that is actually the counterpart to the visual language of the work. The importance of the ability of an artist to articulate their mission cannot be overstated, since without it there is no way for them to know if they have achieved their goals. So again, collectors listen up: buying work by artists whose statements don’t match what they have made is indeed a risky business.

Of course, we’re talking about a museum show here, so I’ve digressed (although for those who are interested Jungen is represented by Catriona Jeffries Gallery). There are two other bodies of work in the New Museum show on AFC’s agenda for discussion and the first is the lawn chair-dino-whale series, three of which are on display. I would like to begin by saying that as good as this work looks photo below, it is a piece of shit compared to seeing it in person.

Imagine looking at all the plastic lawn chairs you’ve ever seen in your life, and not being sickened by them or strangely compelled because there are so many of them. Thankfully, the multiples game is left out of this work, so the viewer can contemplate more meaningful subject matter than pure formalism. Shapeshifter is suggestive not only of physical transformation and the maliablity of the material, but of the continual evolution of commercial products and branding.

The lawn chair whales, as well as other work by Jungen have their root in photography by artists like Thomas Struth, and Andreas Gursky (specifically the shoe photograph). In fact the words Struth uses to describe his museum series, could very well be applied to the work of Jungen.

I felt a need to make these museum photographs because many works of art, created out of particular historical circumstances, have now become mere fetishes, like athletes or celebrities, and the original inspiration for them is fully obliterated. Thomas Struth quoted from MOMA exhibitions, 1999

Certainly, a shared concern of these artists is the desire to make work that evokes the historical without being nostalgic or sentimental. Both of these artists use history as means to gain understanding of who we were, and who we’ve become.

This can be seen in all the works in Jungen’s show, but in an effort to keep this post readable, I have chosen NOT to discuss everything. But, I do think it is important to at least mention Jungen’s 2005 work “Talking Sticks”, since this is work is some of the newest in the show, and has the potential to lead to really great, or really not great art in the future. Text has led to a number of works that never should have been made in the first place.

The title “Talking Sticks” is the name for a prop used by Aboriginals as a respectful way to give each person an uninterrupted opportunity to speak. As the tradition goes, the talking stick is passed to each person in the circle, indicating that it is that person’s turn to speak. Jungen’s sticks are made of baseball bats and have carved into them “socially charged words” such as First Nation, Second Nature which mimic the patterns on totem poles. The annoying thing about this work, is that the words are not listed on the museum labels and it is impossible to read it without subtitles. This would be a useful addition to the show, since clearly, the word play is important and the suggestion that cultural developement and instinct have a complex relationship cannot be read without it.

Though it has not been mentioned thus far, I would be remiss if I did not say that the virtuosity in conception AND execution of this work is, well, spectacular. And you can apply this to the show as a whole. So my final message to AFC readers on the topic is this: If you don’t see this show, you might actually be a lesser person for it. Yeah, that’s right, I said it. Now go see it before it closes.

Brian Jungen
The New Museum
September 29-December 31, 2005
556 West 22nd
New York, NY
Admission: $6 general, $3 students

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: