Second only to the art itself, the most tragicomic aspect of art receptions is undoubtedly the audience. As the old joke goes, one often can't see the art for all the patrons. Occasionally, however, viewers get to be just that, and do share the experience of an artwork or two.
During a recent pair of joint exit shows at Lamar Dodd—“The Triumph of American Painting” and “Minimalish” (we'll kindly pass over the preposterousness of the former title)—a curious thing was overheard while taking in the work of the exhibitions' two finest artists. In both instances onlookers commented, more than once, on the framing of these works. It was a particularly striking conjunction considering the very different nature of the pieces. And in both cases this consideration of frames coupled with attempts to, in one way or another, organize or explain the works.
What relation does the frame, whether the standard white of the gallery or an entirely more elaborate structure, whether metaphoric or literal, what relation does it bear on the meaning of an artwork? Let us take this happy opportunity to explore a few possibilities.
It would be shortsighted to take Addison Adams' works for abstractions. They are, in fact, perfectly realistic depictions of events, or more specifically of one event in particular. After all, if Adams' refuses to organize the human body in the manner dictated by Vesalius, whose movement through this organism was the result of a conjunction with the scalpel, why should we regard the one as less real to the eye than the other? In a sense, however, Adams' work is best framed by the “proper” anatomies of Vesalius, by which we in turn see that his images ultimately bear a closer kinship to the carnivalesque of Rabelais or Bosch's grylles than to any sort of abstractionism.
Rabelais uses high metaphor the way Vesalius used his scalpel: it acts as a frame that the image is both internal to and edged up against, but also in a sense transcends. Bakhtin uses the example of how a tale from antiquity recounted by Pantagruel permits Panurge's assertion that the city's “walls should be built of twats, symmetrically and according to the rules of architecture.” According to this construct the great utilitarian project of city planning, along with all its building blocks, becomes indistinct from the vulgarity of the human organism. A similar mode exists in Bosch, where, as Canguilhem notes, “there is no demarcating line between organisms and utensils, no frontier between the monstrous and the absurd.” Art historians all too frequently regard this eccentricity as “fantastical” because they mistakenly believe the many tools of ecstasy and torture are in some way differentiated from the creatures of Bosch's Heaven and Hell—if they saw them instead as a mass of unarticulated organs they would know that Bosch depicts not a world but a monster. Thus Bosch anticipates Le Clezio's quip that, “Maybe one day we will discover that there was no art, but only medicine.”
It is important to here note that the “unarticulated organ” is itself the border of the “monstrous,” the in-between of an event and a void. An organ cannot remain if it does not articulate itself in a distinct direction: either it becomes a functioning object or nothing at all. And if the monstrous appears as so many distortions capable of populating the world, it is only insofar as monstrosities are imaginary and therefore without organs. It is then an effort to avert risk that forces these war machines into the order of things: immunology, bureaucracy, teratology, pedagogy, the fantastical, abstraction. . .
The category of the “fantastic” is here merely our frame by which we permit ourselves to enjoy an image that is, after all, truly ruinous to the order of things. It is the same for “abstraction” in Adams' works. If there appears in one of Adams' drawings an airplane, for example, it is far more accurate to say there appears an organ articulating itself as an airplane. This might hint at Adams' attempt to introduce order into his monstrosity, but he stops short of a fully-formed object and thereby just manages to still show us the inside-outside of the organism. This is a creature whose parts are becoming differentiated, a creature on the verge of filling up with things.
Probably for as long as he anticipates an audience—and perhaps even if this audience is only himself alone—the artist must tend toward the object, to err on the side of the event, of meaning. That Adams' repetition centers, after all, on the head is not by chance but by this internal logic.* Yet, these heads, which always risk becoming acephalous, mark a refusal to fully give way to the object, to toe the edge without wholly going over. This is a veritable calculus of the absurd: we see the double-vision of our ordered world simultaneous with the factor of risk we are ordering. It is an upstanding viewer who takes the frame for a corrective lens, laying the finery of “abstraction” over such works as Adams', while the viewer at the brink laughs at what almost is not in the monster before him.
It is a well-known law that explanation is the ruin of a joke—unless the explanation conspires with the joke by being itself perfectly laughable. The success of this exception naturally exists only for the audience to whom it is utterly useless: the joke must already be understood, and therefore passé, for one to be brought into the fold of the conspiracy. Another way of putting this might be to call forth the image of a frame-within-a-frame, the superfluousness of the one frame elaborating on the other by making it a “necessary-obsolete.” It is an ouroboros of frames.
A way of laughing, probably.
In a previous essay** I discussed the problematic aspects of the art school facility as a site, and here we see Ted Kuhn provide an elegant solution. He has constructed a “room” just outside the school, but lacking a fourth wall he “closes” the room by pushing it flush against the exterior window. His room is no longer properly outside, but neither is it inside. Kuhn has devised communicating vessels, a site “in-between.” In this scenario the facility is no longer of use to Kuhn's art, but remains crucial for the explicit function of viewership. Even should his performance move exterior to the room, and even should his audience likewise exit the school, these remain, referentially, the intertwined frames for Kuhn's work.
Kuhn's room, then, is an explanation of the joke that is the Lamar Dodd School of Art. Those who have no need of this explanation would, of course, not hesitate to laugh. What happens for those others follows logically: they strive to assign meaning to Kuhn's actions and organize them into a cohesive narrative, which is itself an act of imaginary explanation. They aim to frame the frame-within-a-frame—a situation as laughable as any if only for its necessity.
What does it mean to saw, by hand, the tools of a workshop in half? To sweep with a broom one's own leg until it bleeds? To mount the pieces of the tools and hang them like trophies? What meaning ties these actions together? Does the flare lit from atop a ladder outside the room provide this tie? Will our attempts to answer these questions exempt us from that eternal return “from the ridiculous to the sublime?” Will this ever end?
That such questions come coupled with the bodily exertions of Kuhn's performance goes without saying. Laborious repetition, duration and an absurdly simple conceit are his work. Within a different framework, however, these viewers' efforts to organize the event might arise in an entirely different manner, or indeed not at all. And each frame being unique, so too is each bought of laughter. The play of these is the experience of Kuhn's art. Minus one, the work becomes another.
We have said that the artist tends to err on the side of meaning. Kuhn is no exception. But let us instead call it “explanation,” or better yet, “critique.” We know from Derrida that, “It is in the critique that, precisely, the critical suspension is produced, the krinein, the in-between. . .” Indeed, we recognize the objects Kuhn saws in half, and we watch them become unarticulated. We see they are internally necessary, but no longer observe a delineated functionality. We bear witness to an emptying out, but in the recursive movement of laughter, or in the reflexive motion of organization, we as viewers invariably acknowledge that it is in point of fact an ultimately constructive emptying out. While not rid of organs, to carry on the metaphor, it is plain they were taken quite by surprise in their moment at the precipice where two frames touched—their moment of critique.
We would be hard-pressed to ask for much better, of course, but if all this is still not enough, let us rest on Brecht's formula that, “A deep need makes for a superficial grasp.” This ought to reassure us that the truest critiques are neither here nor there, and really amount to little more than laughable explanations. Such is the work Kuhn has given us with this exhibition.
Let us now return for a moment, if we may, to Le Clezio’s idea of medicine where art is not. In one of his many beloved notebooks Walter Benjamin recounts an exchange between his wife and four-year-old son:
Stefan: The sun is ill.
Dora: What is wrong with it?
Stefan: It has lost two rays.
Obviously, the last thing in the world I wish to do—for it could only be grossly facetious—is compare Lamar Dodd to the sun. I do not think, however, it would be too much to say that with their graduation this particular sphere is losing two brilliant rays. Fortunately, we all well know the remedy for this ailment. Has this not been at the very heart of our discussion?
The richness of frames is undoubtedly boundless. As far as I am concerned, I say the viewers ought to keep on talking: it is their observations that have framed our current explorations. By the same token, the artists must continue listening. With these simple efforts some in-between may form, and there will be laughter where we touch. . .
* A revealing, if erroneous, etymology found in the Dictionnaire d'mécanique biologique of 1871 suggests that the word avis literally means “without head,” and this name was given to birds because, flight patterns having been unknown, they were seen to fly without direction!
** “They Were Always Sabotaged: the Problem of Space Camp”