Unknown Function: Questioning the Art Object through Liquidation and Estuary
by Brooks Turner
I was immediately struck by how different the front room of Hair and Nails felt in entering Gudrun Lock’s show Liquidation. This gallery had been emptied of all but one central object, a pseudo body, abstract but perhaps in the shape of a tadpole dropped on its head, drooping slightly, stitched together from different fabrics and prints, textured along one side with a red, sandy wax, and resting on a plinth much too small. The size and shape of the plinth recalled the white rectangular box that covers the Hair and Nails thermostat. Beyond this aesthetic rhythm, the architecture of the front gallery continues to come into play through a kind of quiet but reverberating emptiness.
In the backroom, sculptures and drawings are pinned to the wall and piled to the ceiling. Fragments of leathery bodies, shelves holding abstractions, flags extending into space, drawings, drawings of sculptures, drawings of drawings, boxes of drawings, rolled up and tagged, papier mâché, fake animal pelts, wood timbers, soft and hard fabric abstractions, are those intestines(?), a single-branch tree, a bog-preserved elephant… Through this amassing, I felt the emptying out of the artist’s studio, a space I have not seen but could begin to imagine through the materiality, aesthetic, and objects themselves. It is strange to find emptiness in a room so full of objects.
A darkly humorous poetics of death began to take shape in my mind. In Function of the Studio, Daniel Burren suggests that an art object risks death when removed from the studio. I couldn’t help but recall a hunter’s trophy room in entering this back space, not only because of the stuffed fragments of human and animal bodies stuck to the wall, but also because the objects felt removed from the context that once gave them life, reduced to artifacts lacking an animating narrative. Are these the artist’s trophies? Past hunts preserved for celebrating her exploits? Or perhaps displayed in an attempt to find life again through narrated memories? I can’t help but laugh at the light muzak playing in the background, as if some kind of spell twinkling above.
I was told upon entering the gallery of a text Lock had written to frame the exhibition. Generally speaking, an artist or curator’s text has the potential to excessively mediate and dictate what I believe should be an open viewing experience. Skeptical of this kind of control, I put the pamphlet in my pocket to read later. The title of the exhibition had already framed the show in the context of exchange, but this writing further elaborated in surprisingly dispassionate terms the releasing of these objects (assets) from the artist to the general public either for free or at a price. Hidden within the economic language, the artist seemed to be searching for places where these works of art can come alive again through appealing to a community of people who might find value in them. By the end of the exhibition, most objects will transfer from the artist’s ownership to that of individuals wishing to claim them.
To me the language of assets and liquidation in this text feels like a MacGuffin for a much deeper and more profound line of questioning: When is a work of art alive? When does it die? How do we distinguish between artifact and artwork? It’s too easy to recall the cliché “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,”— are artists in the business of manufacturing death? What brings art back to life? It strikes me that my skepticism (and anxiety) towards control initially provoked by Lock’s text plays into this question. Do we ever have complete control over that which we create? Can we breathe life into a work of art on our own, or do we need others to do that for us?
Descending the stairs to Isa Gagarin’s exhibition Estuary, I entered a darkened space almost entirely devoid of objects. Two benches, made of two-by-twelves and black-painted cinder blocks placed against opposite walls, offered seating in a room almost entirely painted black. Overhead, thick ribbons of torn tar paper formed a softly gridded silhouette-structure over the ceiling joists. A subtle glow of green, blue, and orange escaped the grid as the gallery lights directed upwards reflected off of colors applied to the joists.
In emphasizing the ceiling, Gagarin drew me into a contemplative silence. Even when I was not alone, other viewers whispered to each other as they stared upwards, mindful of the stillness of this space. The act of looking up is often affiliated with a kind of transcendence, spirituality, or religiosity—the sky is the realm of gods, the universe, immensities which emphasize our cosmic insignificance.
I had the immediate desire to lay on the floor but waited to do so until the gallery was empty. When I finally did lay down, I found myself less engaged. I had hoped to enter into the passively imaginative space of watching clouds transform into different entities, or reading myths in the patterns of stars. So, I did the opposite: I stood up and slowly walked through the gallery space, at times leaning into a corner, or pressing my body into awkward positions. Through movement, that imaginative space I desired was realized. The ceiling became a tree waving in the breeze, filtering colored light through its branches and leaves. Scraps of paper pinned against the ceiling flitted in and out of view like birds fluttering from branch to branch. Each passing square in the tar paper grid was a sun rising and setting over and over again. The frayed edges and subtle texture of the tar paper lines began to feel like shadows on waves and I was underwater. The title came alive, and my body was the movement of water in an estuary; from upstream I had flowed down, moving back and forth, rising and falling with a tide of color.
Estuary deters passivity and demands we enter the flow of the work. It is not complete without us, without motion through space. Estuaryis a feeling rather than a story or myth. Returning to the Function of the Studio, Burren’s solution to the death he senses when an object is removed from the studio is to make art that carries with it the space and place of genesis. We experience Estuaryin the place where it was created; we can imagine the artist reaching up into the joists with a paintbrush or paper and pins. We occupy the same ground as the artist when she took a step back to contemplate her decisions. I still do not know why the work brings such a silence with it, but perhaps it is in this relationship to the place of genesis, to the space of contemplation.
Both Liquidation and Estuary establish a complex dynamic between artist, studio, viewer, and art object. I am not skeptical of the studio in the way Burren is. Nor do I feel the intrinsic loss of meaning when a work of art is carried out its door. And yet, I find myself through these exhibitions having to grapple with the animating character of a work of art, its life force, and that which threatens it. Perhaps these works propose that it is not the studio as place and space of genesis that must be encoded in a work of art, but rather a people, a community, consideration of the other.
Brooks Turner is an artist, writer, and educator, whose recent work engages the history of fascism in Minnesota. He is a 2020 Artist-in-Residence in the Weisman’s Collaboration Incubator and teaches at St. Cloud State University and Ridgewater College. His work has been exhibited nationally, including recently at St. Mary’s University, Steve Turner Contemporary, and College of the Redwoods.