Oct 25, 2008

Reductive art at P.S.1

Minus Space opening at P.S.1

Last weekend I attended the opening of Minus Space, curated by Phong Bui, at the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City (October 19 - January 19). I had conversations there with artists Linda Francis, Billy Gruner and Simon Ingram.

It was my first encounter with Minus Space, a curatorial project based on the premise of reductive art. Minus Space was founded by Matthew Deleget and Rossana Martinez in 2003 (See www.minusspace.com for more). The show at P.S.1 is a collection of works by artists who are members of the Minus Space community.

Minus Space grew partly on the web, with artists submitting their work to the Minus Space website. Today Minus Space has a large number of members and they have now closed their online submission process. Many members run spaces or curate shows, and often work with each other. It is an amazing example of artists coming together and organizing through the web.

The work in the show resonated strongly with me. My own work takes up the themes of minimalism, and I felt a visceral connection to much of the work in the show.

However, I was left wondering about the organizing principles behind the show. What makes a "minus space" artist? If Minus Space were a club, would I want to be a member?

Matthew Deleget, in an interview reproduced in the P.S.1 newsletter (link), says Minus Space is a presentation of reductive art:

"Reductive art is generally characterized by its use of plainspoken materials, monochromatic or limited color, geometry and pattern, repetition and seriality, precise craftsmanship, and intellectual rigor."

I find this a puzzling way to characterize an art movement. Of the listed qualities, only "intellectual rigor" escapes being about what an object looks like or how it is made. I could as well start a collective for Pinkish art, characterized by smooth materials, pink color, circles and paisley, hand-made craftsmanship, and intellectual rigor - all but the last of these describes my shirt. My point being that it is futile to define a mode of art by talking primarily about what it looks like.

What Matthew's characterization leaves out is any mention of intent. Why use plainspoken materials, or limited color? What is important about repetition or seriality? In the interview, Matthew stresses that reductive art is, without question, still relevant and legitimate today. But he leaves it for the reader to guess any of the goals or intentions behind reductive art.

This is surprising, given the clear formal connections between Minus Space's "reductive art" and minimalism. The early minimalists had extremely strong intention claims surrounding their work. Sol LeWitt, for example, talked about being anti-emotionalism, about concept-driven art. In Artforum in 1967 (link) he wrote:

I will refer to the kind of art in which I am involved as conceptual art. In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art. This kind of art is not theoretical or illustrative of theories; it is intuitive, it is involved with all types of mental processes and it is purposeless. It is usually free from the dependence on the skill of the artist as a craftsman. It is the objective of the artist who is concerned with conceptual art to make his work mentally interesting to the spectator, and therefore usually he would want it to become emotionally dry. There is no reason to suppose, however, that the conceptual artist is out to bore the viewer. It is only the expectation of an emotional kick, to which one conditioned to expressionist art is accustomed, that would deter the viewer from perceiving this art.

There is no mention here of the material qualities of the work. LeWitt's intention-based definition is powerful precisely because it defines a method for generating art. It in no way offers a prescription for how to recognize work that is created following this method - there is no visual category for LeWitt's art. What is characterized is process, not output.

The curious omission of intentionality in Minus Space's definition of reductive art could, perhaps, be read as a retreat from the idealism of the sixties, when many believed art could actually do something. After postmodernism we lost this kind of idealistic commitment. Perhaps today, and given the plurality of art practices, there is more of a case to be made for defining art movements in terms of appearance or craft?

I don't accept this. I just started reading Jörg Heiser's "Things that matter in contemporary art". It gets off to a good start when Jörg argues that, "for contemporary art, the emphasis has shifted from biography and medium to method and situation." The focus in the book is on the collision between ideas, attitudes and methods. Like LeWitt, Jörg focuses on the intentions used to generate work, rather than trying to define an ontology based on formal qualities. This makes sense.

In my own work, for example, I sometimes use figurative elements. I recently drew a series of ice cream cones. I view this as blatant figuration: I am less interested in figuration to depict symbolic references than as a way to show that figures, too, are composed of line and shape. At this level, abstract and figurative images are equal. If I draw a squiggle or a chicken, both are products of the hand. Repeating a figure many times emphasizes this common graphism.

Does that mean that, because I use figurative elements, I am not a "reductive artist"? Certainly, none of the artists on the Minus Space website show pictures of chicken or ice creams!

Yet I feel that my own art is very much linked to minimalism. I share an interest in immediacy, in concept and process, and in permutations. Where I move away from minimalism is my sense of the ridiculous. The second chapter in Jörg's book is titled "Pathos versus Ridiculousness: Art with slapstick". I am excited to read this. Last year in an essay I wrote about rubber chicken theory, about the importance of nonsensical elements in art.

Elements of ridiculousness were present at the Minus Space show. The curator Phong Bui had a great sense of humor in the way he juxtaposed certain works. I remember an embroidery pile on the floor and a sculpture of a dustbin by Michael Zahn - both pieces seemed out of place in a funny way, oddly recognizable among the abstract paintings. (The works had no labels, making it hard to determine the artist's names). And several artists picked up on the theme of absurdity. Simon Ingram created a painting machine out of lego. What I liked about this work was the kind of pathos it generated as the lego arm moved chunkily over the canvas. If the machine had emphasized craftsmanship, it would have been too ernest, it would not have captured my attention.

I left the show feeling very grateful that I had been introduced to Minus Space. And afterwards, talking with Linda Francis and Billy Gruner, I realized Minus Space is not a club or a movement to accept or reject. It is a community, a group of artists with diverse backgrounds who have come together to share and discuss and carry forward the dialogue.

1 comment:

Matthew said...

Very well considered, Jon. Thank you for spending time thinking about the exhibition and larger MINUS SPACE project. Yes, you are correct -- we've never considered ourselves a movement. We are a community of practice operating within some broadly defined formal terms.