Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Liz Miller at REDUX: Picturesque Evacuation Ploy

You walk into REDUX to see Liz Miller's installation and you're hit with a shocking orange wall at the same time that a friendly front desk person greets you with brochures. Then you notice the title off to the side of the orange wall: "Picturesque Evacuation Ploy."

You walk timidly around the wall through the opening to the gallery and are hit with this:

The rhythmic part of the installation that greets the viewer when they walk in the door. This is the part that reminds me of the gym. Other people were reminded of dragons. [Image: A wall about ten feet long painted shocking tangerine orange. Seven or eight identical 3-D structures made of thin flat felt emerge from the wall, each about six or eight feet tall and reaching six or eight feet from the wall toward the viewer's walkway. The felt is black, robin's egg pale blue, tangerine orange and blood red. Each piece is cut into intricate decorative shapes made from silhouettes of pistols, rifles and other shapes I cannot make out assembled in a kaleidoscopic manner. The felt pieces are attached using brads with tiny orange heads. Together the structures give the effect of a giant 3-d crepe paper banner than has been made of folded cut paper. On the perpendicular wall the white under-paint is left visible in some spots. At the orange-white border little black shapes march like ants. They could be mice, birds or something else entirely.]

And you say, "Woooooowwwww!"

 You can see the scale of the sculpture in relation to this viewer and her stylin' blue-lined boots: probably fifteen feet tall, like the branches of a giant fir tree.
Then you wonder aloud how she did it, then you gingerly step in between some shapes and briefly fantasize about living in them.

My friend noticed the pistol and rifle shapes first, then I could see them everywhere. At that point I decided to read the Artist's Statement. Miller writes that her installations, "...recontextualize shapes, signs and symbols from disparate historical and contemporary imagery to create abstract fictions. Existing forms from a multitude of sources are co-opted, altered and spliced to create hybrid identities...." 

A small portion of one of Miller's felt shapes where you can see the revolver motif that is otherwise obscured through kaleidoscopic repetition (the revolver points to the left in the image). [Image: flat black revolver shape viewed from the side on a flat white wall]

Dear Readers, at this time I should also explain, as I see it, an art historical/theoretical concept involving deconstruction and post-structuralism generally called, "Death of the Author." The term comes from a 1967 essay of that title by Roland Barthes.

Let's say that Wile E. Coyote is about to fall off a cliff. He holds up a sign that reads, "HELP," drops the sign, and vanishes over the cliff. But a few minute later, along comes a hiker who sees the sign. What does it mean? Well, that depends on what the hiker and their culture brings to the table. "Help Wanted?" The Beatles' "Help?" An offer of help? A meaningless sign in a foreign language? A reminder of their job as a 911 dispatcher? Wile E. Coyote's intentions and psyche become irrelevant and the mesh of meanings and contexts to any given sign, symbol or word, along with the viewer's experience, provide legitimate sources of meaning and interpretation for the sign.

Culturally, for example, this is significant because this essay (and the work of Jacques Derrida, postmodern linguists and others) became popular in the academic world at a time when Western culture, previously seen generally though the lens of middle- and upper-class white male society, was experiencing movements for decolonization, civil rights, women's rights, and GL (later BTQ) rights, as well as foreign involvement in Vietnam, Cuba and Latin America, and massive immigration from Southeast Asia, all of which persistently revealed myriad points of view. I can think of many times when someone has made an offensive cultural joke or comment and tried, unsuccessfully, to follow up with, "...but that's not what I meant!" Death of the Author, in action.

Artistically, this idea was central to the transition from Modernism to Post-Modernism. Whereas objects of art had been viewed as distinct objects unaffected by a viewer, both physically and contextually, created by an artist whose psyche and intent is up for artistic interpretation, PoMo subverted this. Some artists, like the pristine minimalist sculptor Donald Judd, erased the expressive brushstrokes and fingerprints of the artist, so prized in Modernism, so that the object stood on its own in meditative coexistence with the viewer. Other artists took an interactive approach, such as Felix González-Torres, who made piles of candy in galleries that the viewers could take. Artists sought to make viewers aware of the act of interpretation. Other artists emphasized the power of the viewer in relation to the artistic intent by making themselves pawns in their own art: putting themselves through documented ordeals, for example, or using their own body as sculpture or artistic tool. Still others emphasized the shared physical space of a work of art and the viewer by making intrusive or interactive art or working with installation, which envelops rather than confronts a viewer, as a way of undermining the fixed fortress-like connotations of Modernist paintings and sculptures.


So now you can see why, when reading Miller's Artist's Statement, I immediately thought of Death of the Author.   Miller has chosen to literally deconstruct symbols by physically obscuring them and actually bending them. She has stripped the gun symbol down to its physical components and used those components to create a pretty, softly tactile modern fairy-tale environment which suspends disbelieve through sheer craftsmanship and scale. She has also made flat shapes emerge from the wall into the third dimension. Merging painting/2-D with sculpture has been a hallmark of Post-Modernism but is particularly relevant to Miller's physical manipulation of symbols. The lacework of shadows on the walls from the felt recalls Dan Flavin's neon sculptures and their emphasis on the immaterial interaction of artwork and environment. Because the installation is so large and you can step between some of the shapes it is also somewhat interactive. The viewer's space is sufficiently invaded. At this point I interpreted the title, Picturesque Evacuation Ploy, as yet another symbol that had been stripped of its meaning and context, and recontextualised in an abstract fictive manner by putting disparate words together in a nonsensical way. What, now, does "picturesque evacuation ploy" even mean besides the title of this specific show?

But I think there are other conflicting messages in this show that make it much more than an homage to the Death of the Author. For instance I mentioned that my friends and I immediately wondered how she created the installation. Hand-cut or laser-cut? How was it assembled, etc. Because of the level of in-your-face craftsmanship the viewer's attention is immediately diverted to the artist creating the piece. What was her process, what were her intentions? Moreover, even as I appreciate how Miller has stripped the symbols of their meanings, I still wonder, why those symbols? I revert back to the generally acknowledged meaning of "gun" as a weapon while I wonder why she chose that symbol to deconstruct. The repetition also poses a problem for me: making a marking into a symbol is supposed to add meaning rather than remove it. And repeating an image ad nauseam a la Warhol's "Marilyn" can make an image into a symbol. But repetition can also, like Warhol's repeated $ sign, strip a symbol of its meaning. The title is beginning to recover some, if not much, of the words' former meanings and becomes, like the show, attention-grabbing and complicated, evocative of a beautiful emergency.

The gun is in some ways an apt metaphor for the show: it's a visual assault in bright colors that creates a "Bam!" effect when you walk in. The shapes seem machine-like and, along one wall, rhythmically echo a military drumbeat. Walking through the gallery feels a little like walking through the interior world of any given addled person with a gun who makes tragic headlines: sort of crazy, poundingly rhythmic in some places, culminating in a frenzied upward spiral of jumbled shapes.

The irony is clear: fuzzy soft pretty gun shapes in felt. Pretty guns dominating an environment created by someone who, because of her gender, is more likely to be a victim of gun violence, and because of her nationality (I assume she is American) willingly or unwillingly, benefits from massive military violence perpetrated by the US.

A portion of the less structured side of the installation, showing how the shapes continue fluidly from 2-D wall images to a 3-D structure. Also shows the full height (fifteen feet?).
Miller's Artist's Statement goes on to read, "...Forged relationships between benign and malignant forms confuse the original implications of each while revealing the precariousness of perception and how easily it can be tampered with. Recent projects pit Baroque and Gothic pattern and ornament against forms derived from armor and weaponry. Seemingly oppositional pairings create duplicitous environments where conflicting messages are conveyed." 

My mind was already heading down the rabbit hole of military actions and public perception: the Iran-Contra Affair, the CIA, proxy wars, police actions, the military-industrial complex, war-time bans on free press, censorship of images of dead soldiers, the complicit media. At this time the meaningfulness and meaninglessness of repetition began to sink in. How Miller, like the media, has numbed the symbol of the gun and created something vibrant and attractive in its place. The small symbols that march ant-like around the orange/white borders suddenly leap off the wall-- or out of the distant space of our television sets-- and clash in three dimensions, in a way that invades our physical space. How it all takes place in an installation that looks fun and contemporary, like an anime future-world or Tord Boontje for Target. I reconsidered the title: "picturesque," attractive, staged; "evacuation," escapism, vacuousness; "ploy," conspiracy, coy persuasion. A misleading invitation to escape into attractive fictions. 

A portion of the less structured side of the exhibit showing the orange paint on the floor and the play of light and shadow cast by the felt.

I stupidly missed the Artist Lecture, so this whole post could be way off base, but the show will remain up at REDUX through November 26, 2011. Go see it!!

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