Artists in Conversation
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Artists in Conversation

In every work of art, there is a hidden set of influences that the audience may never see: conversations the artist had with peers, exhibitions he or she saw while creating the work, expectations for the medium that were established by predecessors. Throughout The Living Years: Art After 1989, you can see the different ways artists bring other artists, both contemporary and historical, into their work. The dialog between artists is made explicit – the influences no longer need to be guessed at because, for example, the work might be a blatant recreation of an iconic sculpture or it might state flat-out who was involved. In doing so, the artists explore the types of exchanges that occur in the art community and how these define artistic identity.

Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy’s Fresh Acconci (1995) is fresh in that it is new, with the pair remaking seminal 1970s video pieces by Vito Acconci. But it is also fresh in the way we might refer to a back-talking child. Kelley and McCarthy restage these once intimate videos, placing them in the context of Hollywood and the porn industry. While Acconci’s videos are sparingly staged and naturally lit, this updated version features naked models in a sun-streaked Hollywood hills mansion. The original stand-alone pieces, now sandwiched together into one cyclical 45-minute video work, become a nightmarish playhouse that the performers cannot escape. In choosing to cast glamorous models to play the actors (unlike previous collaborations between the pair where they themselves performed), Kelley and McCarthy are commenting on their own feelings of entrapment by Acconci’s legacy. Yet at the same time, the artists are making an Oedipal attempt to break free of it. In an earlier collaboration, Family Tyranny (1987), recently shown at This Will Have Been: Art, Love, & Politics in the 1980s, the two artists explore the relationship between an abusive father and his son (performed by McCarthy and Kelley, respectively). That video begins with the text, “The father begat the son. The son begat the father.” With Fresh Acconci exploring and criticizing the idea of artistic patrilineage, it could have opened with the very same lines.

Anonymous II
Kris Martin. Anonymous II (2009). buried human skeleton, certificate accompanying burial. overall 16 x 16 inches. Image: Walker Art Center

One might not expect Kris Martin’s Anonymous II (2009) to be in conversation with Fresh Acconci, as they are fourteen years apart and in very different mediums. In Martin’s work, a certificate in the gallery indicates that a skeleton has been gifted to the Walker, and gives GPS coordinates to the burial site on the grounds. With one line the certificate also makes present an interaction between artists: “Skeletal gift to Kiki Smith from David Wojnarowicz.” Originally part of an installation by David Wojnarowicz, the body was given to Kiki Smith a few years before his death. While Fresh Acconci feels like a personal conversation between father and son, or artistic generations, Martin’s work is interested in the transmission of ideas between peers. Martin created a similar work, Anonymous I, in 2005 for a solo exhibition at the Neuer Aachener Kunstverein with a skeleton he purchased. As part of a resurgent interest in the conceptual art of the 1960s and ‘70s, Martin’s Anonymous pieces play on the idea of absence in art. A synopsis of the works from Martin’s gallery Sies + Höke explains, “Buried art was a subset of a broader array of practices that came to be called ‘Conceptual Art,’ in which the work was withheld, replaced with language, hidden, obscured or otherwise removed from view—even as arts insisted upon the presence of ‘art’ among such absences.” Anonymous I and II explore this conceptual absence in the most obvious sense in that Martin has hidden what one might think is the meatiest part of the work, the skeleton, outside of the gallery, leaving only a certificate for the gallery goer to see. In Anonymous II, though, Martin exposes another absence by bringing to light the skeleton’s ownership history. Although the conversations and interactions between artists must have happened for the transfer of the skeleton to occur, they are hidden from us. With the inclusion of the line of text and by taking away the aesthetic object, we are able to consider these communications.

Fountain (After Duchamp A.P.)
Sherrie Levine. Fountain (after Marcel Duchamp: A.P.) (1991). Bronze. overall 14.5 x 14.25 x 25 inches. Image: Walker Art Center

What becomes evident from Fresh Acconci and Anonymous II is that now that the artistic canon has been opened and almost anything can be considered art, artists are trying to determine how they make their own voices heard and exchange their viewpoint. Looking around the gallery, Kelley, McCarthy, and Martin are not alone in their exploration of these questions. Sherrie Levine and David Hammons both explore their artistic personae through appropriations relating to Marcel Duchamp in Fountain (after Marcel Duchamp: A.P.) (1991) and The Holy Bible: Old Testament (2002) respectively. Levine casts Duchamp’s seminal ready-made in bronze. In doing so, she literally flips what was once a debasement of art on its head, returning the art object’s status as a unique, valuable commodity. The work feels reflective of Levine’s career; once an outsider appropriating male artists work in an attempt to rewrite art history in a feminist vein, she is now an integral part of museum collections and shows. Yet, a tension persists. The work has a tongue-in-cheek attitude that reminds us that it’s still a urinal, even if it is cast in bronze. In The Holy Bible, Hammons has bound Arturo Schwartz’ Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp in black leather. One reviewer points out this piece could be a critique of Duchamp’s status in art, or a critique of art historians’ attempts to catalog, or perhaps “the point here is the most bald-faced joke of all: the object Hammons created is, quite literally, a black-skinned Duchamp.” This, however, leaves out the cheekiest interpretation of them all—that Hammons is arguing that he, the artist, is the black-skinned Duchamp.

Holy Bible: New Testament
David Hammons. The Holy Bible: Old Testament (2002). offset lithograph on bound paper. 13 x 10-3/8 x 2 in. Image: Walker Art Center

If in all the pieces discussed here we see manifestations of conversations between artists, whether real or imagined, then Dave McKenzie’s Proposal (2007) ponders their future. His work is a small canvas painted with the words ‘This painting is a proposal. I propose we meet once a year every year until one of us can’t or won’t.’ The work parallels Lawrence Weiner’s statements, such as A Cup of Sea Water Poured Upon the Floor (1969). According to Weiner’s Declaration of Intent these works “need not ever be built” but could remain as text or concepts. Similarly in Proposal, like the many times you’ve suggested meeting an acquaintance for coffee, the implied action feels as though it will quickly taper off or never happen at all. Originally shown as a pair, the work feels even lonelier, as if that partner has already gone away and their reunion is tenuous. But, is Proposal as pessimistic as it seems, with McKenzie believing that we do not converse with anyone in a sustained manner today? Or despite the reference to conceptual art, does McKenzie actually hope to encourage more dialog between contemporaries and the viewer and pull artists from their need to talk backwards to their predecessors as is so prevalent in The Living Years?

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