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"Unmonumental" at the New Museum (Part One ): Alberto Burri at Mitchell-Innes and Nash and Jessie Dunahoo at Andrew Edlin Gallery

In 2006, during a panel discussion at the Wexner Center for the Arts about the exhibition “Part Object/Part Sculpture,” curator Helen Molesworth bemoaned the exhibit’s failure to address the political moment, and in particular the fact that by pursuing what she loved, she had somehow produced what she believed to be in the end yet another formalist exhibit of sculpture. The show aimed to redress the readymade - Duchamp’s Wedge of Chastity (1954) replaced Fountain (1917), a small two part assemblage arranged so that when the wedge is lifted away the cast of a vagina is exposed. Eros and reproduction were further extended in the more contemporary work of
Anthony McCollum, Rachel Whiteread, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Robert Gober and Gabriel Orozco, with the aim of exhibiting the readymade in the sphere of the body and its eroticism. The mourning in Molesworth’s voice was over the breach she felt between the violence and demand of global politics and the more intimate sphere of desire in the art that she loved.

Molesworth wished to show how highly charged by desire the exchange between art and the everyday could be. The surfaces of Alberto Burri, here Rosso Plastico L.A., currently at Mitchell-Innes and Nash, “retain a high degree of traction, such that they can hold on to - and embrace - the double terrain of art and object.”*

One of the claims of the New Museum’s “Unmonumental” is that work such as Burri’s red plastic, bound, stretched, framed and burned, is of a different time than our own, where worries about art and the everyday needed to be properly framed so as not to dissolve back into the world. The sculpture in “Unmonumental” has stepped beyond the need for such traction, declaring itself uninterested in expanding the notion of sculpture or art, while at the same time being insistently medium-specific. The sculpture in this exhibit also retracts from the larger field of relational aesthetics, drawing us back toward it’s surfaces with a high degree of visual interest and broken narrative fantasies.

While on the one hand the work in this exhibit has retracted as sculpture, on the other hand much of it has entered the pictorial sensibility of the anti-utopian landscape narrative, where Lara Schnitger and Alexandra Bircken are side by side in their nomadic shelters. This narrative needs its characters, and what has emerged is
a persona desiring of labor and community prior to the institutionalized worlds of adulthood.

In this retracted field what really counts is attitude. It is a retreat from the spectacle in a do-it-yourself economy where style is everything, and “reality is a collage of whatever grabs our attention.” ** To have an attitude is a primitive form of ego defense, and the sensibility here is that of teenage revolt.

In the nineteenth century the dandy was an expression of what Baudelaire referred to as the “cult of the ego.” A flaneur in the urban streets of Paris the dandy embodied the sensitivity and discernment required for art. Not a vigorous man, the dandy was more like a convalescent or a child in his sensitivity. Dandyism is “the last flicker of heroism in dying ages” at the cusp between a debt-ridden aristocracy and an emerging democracy, and it is all about style.

In our own time the image of the citizen of democracy has been overcome by that of the refugee. In “Unmonumental,” the status of the refugee has been cooked up inside hostile teenage imagination. Rachel Harrison’s “Huffy Howler” is its emblem, a reeling bicycle loaded with brick ammo and Mel Gibson’s head shot as a trophy. This raucous bunch will take no position - it exists in the space of an arrested development, prior to the taking of any position in the world but rebellious nonetheless. History is a problem, and Mel Gibson the proof.

In the show that this exhibit was modeled after, but distances itself from, Seitz’s 1961 “Art of Assemblage,” Burri was included as well as artists listed as “anonymous” - assemblage artists, in other words, who were completely unattached from any notions of art and the avant garde. To be in “Unmonumental,” you have to know the textures of a very specific art historical discourse that fantasizes the sabotage of Richard Serra's heavy-handed formalism and to know the attitide required for this stance.

An example of the kind of work that “Unmonumental” excludes on these terms is that of Jesse Dunahoo at Andrew Edlin. At the age of 74 Dunahoo obsessively sews together plastic Kroger grocery bags and fabric samples. What you are looking at appears to be a series of fragile and semi-transparent quilts, sewn together as though the pages of an open book . But it is in fact a sleeping bag big enough for several, and what at first appeared to be book leaves are the rustly bedding that you and yours can layer and adjust for comfort. This is an artist who, deaf since birth and blind since he was a teenager, does not have attitude or the need to play a role in some concocted narrative, and takes no position, but his obsessiveness arises from inspired and directed compassion. This is not the sort of work that Helen Molesworth was ever looking for, but if one were to have similar worries about "Unmonumental," Dunahoo shows up nicely from the outside.

* Helen Molesworth, Part Object/Part Sculpture, c. 2005, Penn State University and Wexner Center for the Arts, p. 63.
**Richard Flood, "Not About Mel Gibson," in Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century, c. 2007, Phaidon Press, pp. 10-11.

Images: Alberto Burri, Rosso Plastico L.A., 1966, plastic, acrylic, combustione on cellotex, 11 3/8x14 1/2", Courtesy of Mitchell-Innes and Nash; Rachel Harrison, Huffy Howler, 2004, mixed media, 84x84x30", Courtesy of Greene Naftalie Gallery, New York; Jessie Dunahoo, Sleeping Environment, n.d., plastic grocery bags, fabric, thread, Courtesy of Andrew Edlin Gallery.

By Catherine Spaeth

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Reader Comments (11)

Hi Cattherine,

I had the catalogue for unmonumental in front of me for a few hours the other night - your essay is interesting. Could you talk a bit more about the ways the work in the show retracts as sculpture? I'm not sure I understand what you mean.

March 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJ@simpleposie

Thanks, J. There is a link to Jason Rhoades as a point of comparison. What I find interesting about this exhibition is that these are objects you walk around, and that pick up your interest in a fragmented manner but nonetheless as bound to an object that you circulate. Really, the only piece that differed from others in this respect was Gedi Sibony, I like very much the ambiguity between "object" and "installation" that arises in Sibony's work. And as much as Gabriel Kuri's banners invite the larger world to pick them up and use them, it is their fragility as "specific objects" that expresses the transient spontaneous rupture in time that a revolution embodies in its gathering. This may not be Donald Judd, but it's success depends upon really attending to duct tape and spindly wood. I think that this "retraction" of sculpture calls upon us to attend to the stuff of the world, in the midst of all its excess, and so while elsewhere I am critical of visual excess, there is something very interesting in the way it is presented here, as politicized.

In the essays there is a determined effort to stand by the notion of sculpture as a meaningful medium. I like the image Richard Flood provides: "Sculpture is now that thing that jams its foot in a door and scurries around for a comfortable corner from where the new becomes inevitable."(p. 13) I imagine this as the quiet observer in the corner that has crashed the Jason Rhoades punk rock show.

A lot of people didn't like this show and were quickly dismissive of it, so I'm really glad you are spending a few hours over it. I think Unmonumental is a real contribution towards understanding what is happening, and what is at stake in contemporary sculpture, contemporary art. It deserves a serious look, so keep up the dialogue if you wish, I'm very interested.

March 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine Spaeth

Thanks for that.

March 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJ@simpleposie

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