April 1, 2011

Defaults Restored at Camel Art Space

“Conceptual art” has been so 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 might borrow stylistically from some earlier idiom that was called conceptual art. But most of the genre these days is tableaux that simply illustrates or "sets up" an idea or a topic of one sort or another. Like a stage set. Rarely is it conceptual in the straight and narrow sense.

Wacdesignstudio (Scott Cartwright and Jenny Lynn Weitz-Amareé 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, its main proposition has to concern not the work, but the conditions that establish the work as art. It follows then, that conceptual art is a genre that very much rides on the doctrine of “art for art's sake,” and for which the “definition of art” is still the main consideration. 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. When words and texts that had no physical existence were introduced as “objects” of art, a new concept of art was afoot.

The show Restore Defaults at Camel Art Space has seized this point with clarity. Curators Carl Gunhouse and Tom Marquet have distanced themselves from all manner of mannerisms wrongly associated with conceptualism, and put forth an idea that bracingly snaps together an otherwise eclectic group show. In essence they have transposed the doctrine of the “found object” to what they call the “default condition.” And the result is fresh and convincing.

The artists in this show take the environment of consumer culture in America, and present it basically as found. As with the art of the found object, there is mostly a 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 monuments 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 gaga cooking show. She’s cute and you’d like to see her in a TV show, but that would involve an entirely different kind of artistic undertaking. This one 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 takes a photo of the photo of the photogs, as I have done here, the circuitry of the concept is complete, and I get zapped! Presto, interactive art. And if you the reader repost this photo, well, you get the idea. But notice the nuanced appearance of other images in the reflection on the frame glass, and the distortion of the image that obtains as the idea "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 disjointed from the context of “a painting by the artist” and put into another work by the same artist. A conventional painting can double as a found object. Works of art are part of the “default condition” of everyday life. Certainly this is true in Brooklyn, or any other part of the world where being an artist has become the norm, not the exception.

Hilary Baldwin and Matthew Ward, installation view

“The paintings hang in an ambiguous relationship to the objects that surround them,” write the curators, “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.