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Powers of Subtraction



Arturo Herrera

at the Renaissance Society, through February 22

Gary Cannone: Once Removed, Twice Removed

at Loyola University Chicago Crown Center, through February 27

Wolfgang Laib: You Will Go Somewhere Else

at the Arts Club, through April 4

By Fred Camper

Last month I met a friend at a usually superb contemporary exhibition space in New York, the Dia Center for the Arts. He arrived before I did and looked around, and as we wandered later through a cluttered, highly mannered exhibit on one of Dia's several floors, he kept insisting that I had to see the one really great exhibit in the place. That turned out to be a floor that was between exhibitions--completely empty, with bare white walls and the light streaming in through the windows uninterrupted by art. When art is busy and full of itself, an empty space can come as a big relief.

I don't think my friend would have fled from the art of Arturo Herrera: like many 20th-century artists, Herrera seems to ask, how little can the artist do and still produce a work of art? Some of his eight pieces at the Renaissance Society are so minimal one might almost miss them. Are the hoselike solid strands twisting about on the floor leftovers from some construction, or part of the show? Several of Herrera's pieces are painted as white as the gallery walls, and even the brightly colored works leave lots of empty space: Forty Winks--the only titled piece--is a huge, undulating streak of orange painted directly on the wall, but the orange is intermittent and the wall beneath shows through. On the freestanding wall's other side is another piece, a big blob of particleboard painted white like the wall but with a slightly different texture, a curvy slab that almost seems to drip down the wall. On the floor nearby is a third piece, a smaller wooden construction painted a deep blue; shaped a bit like one of Max Ernst's surrealist forests, it has a broken "dead tree" protruding above the other shapes.

Other critics have pointed out how suggestive Herrera's abstract shapes are, seeing in them breasts and penises and mouths and dogs and feces. In the booklet for this show, curator Hamza Walker argues convincingly for a connection between Herrera's work and the childhood fantasies psychoanalysis has unearthed. Herrera himself--a Chicagoan (now in New York on a fellowship) who was born in Venezuela in 1959 and who has an MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago--prefers to reveal little of his biography and intent. (He did tell me that he began as a painter, creating collagelike mixes of abstraction and representation.) Though this show displays a biomorphic suggestiveness and a touch of humor, what I found most extraordinary about it was the way it kept me constantly off balance.

Herrera's work tests the limits of conceptualism with a special complexity: each piece here pushes a different "degree zero," so that the show overall becomes a labyrinth of defied expectations. You think art is painting? Well, here's a blob of undifferentiated white that seems a simple accretion on the wall. Is art flat? Well, one large work displays on one side of a specially constructed wall two protruding Disney-character figurines, painted white. Does sculpture always protrude? On the wall's other side Herrera has cut deep holes where the figures are so that we can look into their hollow bases. Viewing this piece is akin to going backstage and seeing how the illusions of a performance are created, except that we're given inside and outside simultaneously and can view and review them in any order we like.

Lest this piece be mistaken for an academic exploration of sculpture casting, next to the two holes Herrera has made a huge, cartoonish wall drawing that pairs shapes like paving tiles with large blue and flesh-colored blobs that suggest a woman wearing something blue, giving the figurine-holes a sexual edge. But what I found most compelling was the way Herrera melds diverse forms and representational systems--wall painting, sculpture, sculpture's negative spaces. Beyond the playful suggestiveness of his shapes is an almost frightening malleability: the wall is at once backing for a painting, base for a sculpture, and sculptural block to be cut away.

The kind of surprise that gives Herrera's work its peculiar excitement is manifested most clearly in a wonderful group of five deceptively simple paper cutouts on a shelf. Each piece of originally rectangular colored paper is cut with Herrera's characteristic biomorphic curves and given the occasional cusp. In one, the upper portion of red paper is cut away, leaving only the empty shelf below--but two isolated red paper ovals, remnants of the removed paper, have been placed within the empty area and look almost like stray drops of paint. In another, whitish paper with cutout loops is laid over a solid blue rectangle, giving the series two different whites: the white of the paper and of the shelf beneath.

The perceptual shifts this piece requires reminded me of an insight I gained into the cognitive freedom of children decades ago, when I saw two little girls sitting on opposite ends of a bench in a laundromat. They were laughing as they pretended to move up and down as if on opposite sides of a seesaw, playfully indifferent to the fact that the bench was not moving. Their ability to imaginatively transform their surroundings--an ability that more "realistic" adults have often lost--is echoed in the suggestive shapes of Herrera's art, but even more strongly in the shifting relationships of its elements.

The best recent installation art rarely does its work through the senses alone, though the artist is free to include almost anything. Herrera's work, for example, is at its strongest not when one looks at a particular shape but when one thinks about the relationships between parts of a work or between different works. This conceptual dimension is even stronger in Gary Cannone's seven pieces at Loyola--separate works that are also meant, Cannone told me, to be read together.

Born here in 1964 and a graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Chicago, Cannone frequently uses words like "replacement" and "exchange" when speaking of his art. He says an early inspiration was Hollis Frampton's film Zorns Lemma, in which repeating images of street signs are replaced by images devoid of language. Writing about Cannone in the New Art Examiner, Kathryn Hixson cites as a central theme "what happens when you swap one thing for another...what is tellingly exposed by virtue of translation." For one piece in this exhibit, Cannone asked five art students to produce pencil drawings based on photographs of celebrity impersonators. Thus we see Bill Clinton and Dolly Parton through several veils of replacement or mistranslation: a beginning artist copies a photo of an impersonator.

Cannone carries the self-abnegating, almost monastic side of conceptual art--which stresses thinking rather than looking, the intellectual rather than the retinal--to a peculiar extreme. He relentlessly removes from these pieces--which all refer to art making or viewing--precisely those components that, in an earlier century, would have been considered aesthetic. One principle of this show is to give us visual art without the "art"; each piece offers a different, often witty twist on aesthetic subtraction. Seated and Standing Poses for Art Students, for example, is a bound book of Cannone's rough pencil drawings of famous artists, done from photographs, accompanied by analyses of their body language based on the systems expounded in two different books. We learn that Keith Haring's "aggressive position...communicates competitiveness, dedication to a goal" and that Jenny Holzer's pose "indicates frustration."

This book communicates to art students--and copies have been distributed to some at Loyola--an extreme parody of the artist as poseur: to make art, one must present oneself to the world with the "right" body language. The books' interpretive systems are obviously limited and incomplete: the reasons people stand the way they do are more complex than the often repeated, comically mechanical mistranslations offered here. Thus Cannone simultaneously tells students to concentrate more on their body language than on their art and suggests the impoverished results of that approach, parodying the current near deification of the artist's person. One hopes the Loyola art students get the message.

For one side of Extraction--a "diptych" of two humorously discordant parts--Cannone asked Rebecca Morris to create a piece lacking the traits ascribed to her work by several critics. Yet the resulting painting looks fairly characteristic of her. For the other half Cannone asked sound installation artist M.W. Burns to make a work that had those same traits. He chose to stage an encounter (captured on videotape) between Cannone and a man delivering a singing telegram to him at the show's opening with a text based on the words and phrases describing Morris's art. As Cannone listens with some embarrassment to the singer crooning "You've got style and class and a cute little..." in a voice that goes way beyond the badness of mere kitsch, it's evident that Extraction doesn't merely parody art criticism but any attempt to synopsize the richness of art, or life, in words.

Cannone's most vacant work is the one to come closest to poetry. Throughout the gallery one can see small pieces of blue masking tape on the walls and floor arranged to form the corners of rectangles. These mark the positions of the artworks in the gallery's previous show. And while the suggestion that art is pure display parallels Cannone's book of artists' poses, these implied rectangles also reconfigure Cannone's exhibit as a palimpsest, a tablet on which many more shows will be written as well. Suggesting what's absent, what we can no longer see, they also suggest the transient nature of all art exhibitions. Each taped corner is a marker of a work whose moment is past. And just as the viewer who quickly grows tired of the repeated singing telegram may wonder about the previous show, so Cannone's scrambling of artists' statements for the gallery's next show serves as a garbled reminder of what is to come.

Compared to the formal twists of Herrera's work and the conceptual convolutions of Cannone's, Wolfgang Laib's three large installations, five jars of pollen, and eight drawings at the Arts Club are positively restrained. Born in 1950 in Germany, Laib trained as a doctor but was unhappy with the rationalism of Western medicine and abandoned it for art. In a 1993 interview he spoke of his interest in monasticism, his disgust with European culture since the Renaissance, and his dissatisfaction with the current emphasis on the individual, as opposed to other cultures' view of "the individual as part of everything." Now living in a small German town, Laib spends many months of each year collecting pollen from diverse plants. What ties his work to that of Herrera and Cannone is his insistence that there's more to it than its physical appearance: "I am very disappointed if people see [the pollen] only as a visual, aesthetic experience. The pollen does have an incredible color, but it is not a painting and it is far away from Klein, or Rothko."

In fact the pollen on view, with its fine texture and subtle colors, is compellingly beautiful. But it was only after reading about how Laib collects it--by hand, on foot, following the seasons, repeating the same task day after day--that I began to understand his work. He seeks to establish by example a new kind of relationship between humans and nature, to change the relationship between each individual and the object of his gaze. Amazed by people whose only knowledge of pollen is through hay fever--"They have no connection to the simplest things"--he calls not for the "repair" of society sought by some ecological advocates but for "total change."

While the simple forms of his sculptures do preserve the purity of his materials, they're hardly depictions of wild nature; rather they reveal the inevitably partial, alienating quality of encounters between nature and culture. Five large boatlike shapes sculpted entirely of beeswax--the "building material of bees," as Laib calls it--are arrayed across a wooden platform in You Will Go Somewhere Else. Their apparent motion and elevated position suggest the transformative journey of the title, but these are also roughly geometrical shapes with a cultural history that includes colonialism and war: the raw energy of beeswax has been molded both by human hands and by tradition. Similarly the 27 brass platters of The Rice Meals--26 of which hold mounds of rice, while one contains hazelnut pollen--form a line on the floor that observes the geometric precision of minimalism. Laib implicitly refers to temple offerings of rice in India and to Asians' rice diet, but each mound is also like a tiny human structure, a pyramid or burial mound--a fact that connects this raw foodstuff to the continuities of human history. This intellectual dimension, however, never undercuts the deep connection Laib has forged with nature, or the way his minimal forms lend beauty to the colors and textures of these basic substances.

Seeing Laib's show in conjunction with Herrera's and Cannone's, from which nature is almost entirely absent, reminded me once again of the nihilism at postmodernism's core, a nihilism born of the notion that all forms of representation are equal--or, more absurd, that the world consists only of alternative forms of representation, with no underlying substance. This channel flipper's view of reality is at least implicitly questioned by Herrera's use of empty space and by Cannone's gentle humor. But until someone discovers how we can be nourished by media rather than by rice or other foodstuffs, pollinated or not, I'll continue to believe that the word "truth"--virtually never used in pomo discourses except ironically--can in some very deep sense be applied to Laib's art.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Seated and Standing Poses for Art Students" By Gary Cannone; Arturo Herrera; Wolfgang Laib.

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