April 1, 2011

Defaults Restored at Camel Art Space

“Conceptual art” has been ubiquitous for so long that the term has lost its original and specific meaning. Now it means anything that riffs on themes or ideas, or anything that borrows stylistically from some earlier idiom that was once called conceptual art. Or anything that looks vaguely like something by Vito Acconci. It is broadly speaking any tableaux that illustrates or "sets up" or "stages" an idea of one sort or another. Rarely is it conceptual in the straight and narrow sense.

Wacdesignstudio (Scott Cartwright and Jenny Lynn Weitz-AmareĆ© Cartwright) Obus Lofts in Houston, TX. Their proposal, based on Le Corbusier’s Plan Obus, is to redesign the city in anticipation of future oil and water scarcity, by situating massive apartment complexes under the freeway system.

We have to remind ourselves that for a work to be "conceptual art," it has to consist in a concept of art. That is, it has to address the conditions that establish the work as art. Conceptual art is about what makes something a work of art. It follows then, that conceptual art is a genre very much in the spirit of “art for art's sake.” The “definition of art” is the main consideration. Early in the 20th century, when objects that were not deemed to have the status of art were introduced as art, a development in the concept of art took place. And later, when words and texts that had no physical existence were introduced as “objects” of art, the concept of art was further developed. A young Joseph Kosuth famously defined conceptual art in the 1960s as being art that "is capable of conceptual development."  

The show Restore Defaults at Camel Art Space has grasped this point with clarity. Curators Carl Gunhouse and Tom Marquet have distanced themselves from all manner of mannerisms wrongly associated with conceptualism, and they've given a coherent idea to an eclectic group show. In essence they have taken an abiding motif of conceptual art — the “found object” — and transposed it to what they call the “default condition.” The result is fresh and convincing.

The artists in this show take on the environment of consumer culture in America, and present it basically as found. As with the art of the found object, there is an astringent, hands-off approach to the thing. But strong points are made with simple maneuvers. A high-rise housing project is spliced into a freeway overpass, where it fits perfectly, in a grim union of two monoliths of consumer culture.

The works in this show, write the curators, “treat their starting points as things that are already of interest, and, rather than seeking to disguise or destroy these beginnings, embrace and emphasize their role in the process of creation.”

Nathan Davis’ sound composition Crawlspace, composed digitally on a computer, uses only the sounds generated by the computer as it goes about its tasks, the spinning of a hard drive, the reading of a disc, the whirring fan.

Jenny Drumgoole’s video about her attempt to win some kind of a Philadelphia Cream Cheese cooking contest was a little too far out on the irony belt for me fully to grok. But the art statement consists in, and only in, Drumgoole’s hassled participation in some semi-conscious cooking show, now teased out and rarefied by the artist. She’s cute and you’d like to see her in a TV show, but of course that's not the point. And this piece works fine as found.

Calvin Lee, photo of a group of celebrity shutterbugs in Los Angeles who call themselves “The Money Shot.”

Calvin Lee has taken a photograph of paparazzi in LA waiting to take photographs. When the art critic one-ups him, as I do, by taking a photo of the photo of the photogs, the conceptual circuitry is complete, and I get zapped! Presto, interactive art. And if you, the reader, repost this photo, well, you get the idea. And notice the pentimenti of reflections in the picture-frame glass, which lend to a distortion of the image as it "runs its course" so to speak.

Hilary Baldwin and Matthew Ward’s collaborative installation is the most conventionally “gallery-style” work in the show, and perhaps for this reason it is the work that best captures the sense of what the curators mean by art as a “default” situation. The artists have installed their own paintings in their assemblage, suggesting that a painting by the artist can be uncoupled from the context of a straight showing, and derived into another frame of reference; a second work by the same artist, involving the same object.

Hilary Baldwin and Matthew Ward, installation view
Thus, a conventional painting can double as a found object. Baldwin and Ward make the point that works of art are part of the “default condition” of everyday life. They are quotidian objects, like consumer goods. Certainly this is true in Brooklyn, and in many other cities where being an artist has become the norm, not the exception, and there is a surfeit of painting. “The paintings hang in an ambiguous relationship to the objects that surround them,” write curators Gunhouse and Marquet, “sometimes reflecting the objects in their own compositions, sometimes seeming to wish they could just have some modernist autonomy and be left alone.”

– Ethan Pettit, 11 April 2011

Restore Defaults, at Camel Art Space on 722 Metropolitan Avenue, right near the Grand Street L stop, runs through May 1st. A talk and performance will take place on April 8, from 6-9 pm. www.camelartspace.com