The Hand + the Copy

The themes of “making” and “replication” were central to most of the art and performances I’ve seen over the past couple weeks. Yesterday I took part in a memorial conference at the Cooper Union for architect Lebbeus Woods, who passed away in 2012. I talked about his “politics of small things” (to borrow a phrase from my New School colleague Jeff Goldfarb).

And in preparation for the event, I visited the “Lebbeus Woods, Architect” show at the Drawing Center last weekend. I tried to take some photos I could use in my conference presentation, but was frustrated to discover that, with the gallery’s track lighting, I simply couldn’t get my own shadow out of most of the images. But then it dawned on me: the work of the hand is so palpably present in these drawings and sketches and models, so why should the work of my own hand, in creating a photographic replication of Lebbeus’s work, be erased?

Then on Friday, I took a quick 90-minute trip to Chelsea in-between appointments. I started at Robert Kinmont‘s “trying to return home educated” at Alexander and Bonin. As with the Woods exhibition, this is kind of a retrospective in that it looks back on the artist’s life, even if the exhibition itself doesn’t include work from throughout his career. According to the gallery, Kinmont stopped making art in the 70s in order to raise his children and build his own school (!); this work reflects his return to making stuff. And again paralleling Woods, we see in Kinmont’s work the interaction between the hand and the landscape, although the character and politics of the two artists’ work are quite distinct. With Kinmont, we see ideas in an elemental form — as sketches, notes, personal collections of ephemera — and the landscape rendered in its elemental components: wood, dirt, copper.

After that: Howardena Pindell  at Garth Greenan. Pindell employed a rather elaborate process,

often cutting the canvas in strips and sewing them back together, then building up the surface in elaborate stages: painting or drawing onto a sheet of paper, punching out dots from it, dropping the dots onto her canvas, finally squeegeeing paint through the “stencil” left in the paper from which she had punched the dots. By the late 1970s, sequins, glitter, powder, string, hair, and even perfume had become a part of her labor-intensive, process-oriented approach to painting.

Her work, like Woods’s, resisted photographic replication. While in the Woods’ exhibition I could chalk my troubles up to the track lighting and reflective glass, here the paintings themselves defied focus. There’s so much in the field of vision that my lens simply didn’t know what to home in on. So, at a distance, all the paintings are a blur; up close, you can see their intricacy and texture.

After Pindell, I saw Kristen Morgin’s “The Super Can Man and Other Illustrated Classics,” which featured little tableaux of antique collectibles — mass-produced mass-culture objects that obtain new value through their decay, their patina. We sense there’s an interesting biography to each of these objects, and perhaps an interesting story behind their connections to the other objects they’re assembled with.

Then on to Sikkema Jenkins for Vik Muniz’s “Album,” in which he collaged found photos and postcards — images that undoubtedly held great sentimental value for those who created and collected them — into large-scale “photo tropes”: the stereotypical family photo, the class photo, the travel photo, etc. The hand plays a great role here, too, in transforming these individual mechanically reproduced images into a “mashup” of, a riff on, a composite mechanically reproduced image.

Dominique Gonzales-Foerster’s “euquinimod & costumes” at 303 picks up on themes present in Morgin’s and Muniz’s work — particularly regarding the value accorded to mass-produced objects, and the biographies those objects accumulate. According to the press release, Gonzales-Foerster discovered her own old Michiko Koshino coat in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s “Club to Catwalk” show, which led her to reconsider the worth of clothes — as “autobiographical evidences” and as a reflection of her own “artistic personality through different periods.” Here, supposedly, “Gonzales-Foerster’s clothes appear as costumes, narratives and fictions which mirror a fragmented and multiple inner self.” The overall ambience was charming, but I found the premise rather simplistic. It seemed a little off-puttingly “conspicuous consumption”-ist, too: so much Balenciaga!

After that, I moved on to Robert Longo’s “Gang of Cosmos” at Metro Pictures. Longo made charcoal drawings of twelve well-known Ab-Ex paintings. I overheard one woman in the gallery saying to her partner: “See — they’ve run out of ideas!” I snorted (rather embarrassingly loudly), turned around to catch a glimpse of the critic, and made eye contact with her companion, who rolled his eyes for me in solidarity.

I saw something quite different than what she saw. As with Muniz’s composite photos, Longo’s reworking canonical pieces through novel material processes — and through his reworking, sorta “reverse engineering” those objects and figuring out what makes them work. He manages to capture — in charcoal — the texture and other material aspects of the original paintings. With color abandoned, we can appreciate how much those non-chromatic material dimensions define these paintings and make them iconic.

Then, to round out my hour-and-a-half, I stopped by the Walther Collection to see Christine Meisner’s “Disquieting Nature,” which featured video and works on paper that explored the birth of the blues in the Mississippi Delta. I don’t know that I’ve ever said this out loud, but I’m gonna say it: I think an awful lot of video art is gratuitous, navel-grazing crap. But Meisner’s video was a beautiful and obviously sensitively researched production; she interviewed key figures in blues history, shot stunning footage of the landscape, collaborated with composer William Tatge on the score, and produced a work that situates the blues within its geographical context, and in relation to the African diaspora and the region’s history of slavery. As the gallery puts it, “For Meisner, the Mississippi is a powerful witness to violence, a symbol of American expansion, a site of death and also of shelter, a historic escape route for enslaved people, and the landscape from which music and mythologies arise.”

Also on display are her research notes and heavily annotated maps where she works out the geography of Delta and blues history.

Then yesterday, after the Woods conference, I made a quick trip to Spencer Brownstone to see Jane South’s “Raked,” an installation composed of hand-cut paper sculptures atop a graded stage. It looked like HVAC and lighting equipment — all the crap stuffed up in a theatre’s fly space — dropped down, in a not entirely haphazard fashion, onto a minimalist stage. I know not what to say, other than ‘cool.’

And between Spencer Brownstone and a Saturday night birthday party, I trekked up to the Whitney to see Triple Canopy’s “Media Replication Services,” which featured a performance by William Pope L., a short lecture by the fabulous Lisa Gitelman, and a lecture/reading by the equally fabulous poet Caroline Bergvall. Pope L.’s performance was accompanied by five or six portrait artists, who were positioned on pedestals throughout the room, and who sketched profile- or back-of-the-head portraits of audience members. On Pope L.’s cue — “Grab,” I think, was the secret word — they tore away sheets of paper and sent them falling to the floor. Simultaneously, a “waitress” passed through the aisles, delivering glasses of red wine to select attendees (I was Recipient #2). Her tray, held aloft, also supported a tall stack of cocktail napkins that fluttered to the ground as she glided amidst the audience. I have to admit: I forget much of what Pope L. said; I was too busy watching those floating napkins.

Gitelman then took to the stage to historicize the process of reproduction. She talked of Walter Benjamin’s mechanical reproduction, the history of patents, provenance and conservation, and Blanchard’s turning lathe as a precursor to 3D printing. Then Caroline Bergvall spoke of poetry movements that play on linguistic or material reproduction, and of replication’s inevitable errors. She talked about translation and variation, then read VIA, a poem offering 47 English translations of the first three lines of Dante’s Inferno.


And on my way back to the train, I encountered Urs Fischer’s “Last Supper” in what is apparently a new Gagosian space on 75th & Park. The gallery relays the interesting back-story of this piece, which here is cast in bronze from a hand-molded clay sculpture Fischer created, in quick-and-dirty fashion, with 1500 volunteers at Geffen Contemporary in 2013.

The vagaries of the hand, replicated in bronze, situated in a gallery representing the ever-replicating power of Larry Gagosian, the “Not-So-Invisible Hand” of the contemporary art world: a fitting way to close. So I will.

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