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PARIS — As an American living in Europe, I often need to rethink and reassess my American values. The history of France has been distinguished by an elementary differentiation in the relationship between the individual and society, with concepts of labor, leisure, and welfare different from the American ones. Of course, pushed by the economy of the global market, France is becoming increasingly assimilated to the American social model, at least in the middle and upper social classes. It is this global market dynamic that propelled me, by curiosity and puzzlement, to re-evaluate Tom Sachs’s work through his exhibition American Handmade Paintings at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in terms of the conceptual values of hand-work and high-technology that it calls to issue.
With American Handmade Paintings, Sachs’s seventh solo-exhibition in the Marais gallery, he again brings to Paris an artistic project that reconstructs technological images and objects (here, for example, a Goodwill logo, a McDonald’s sign in Chinese, a Scotch tape package, and the American flag) in his signature gritty wood-shop fashion. Traces of handicraft are willingly left perceptible, engaging the work with issues of finish and labor.
This style of production of American Handmade Paintings cannot be disentangled from an artisanal stance, posed cynically. Our time of digital fabrication and laser cutting plywood cannot be wished away. (Note that I am sharing this text and digital images of his paintings online, hence far from the land of the uncomplicated hand.)
Sachs’s exhibition features his paintings (well, wall works produced through the techniques of pyrography and marquetry) that often vampire early Jasper Johns, such as his “Three Flags” (1958). Thus the show is a double operation aimed against high-tech authenticity and legendary art; one where pixie-dusted American Pop Art iconography assumes the pose of a metamorphosed Folk Art. This strange strategy seems to deny the possibility of a technological elegance given off by the perfection of engineering, and as so, is merely agreeable craft. There may be a way of re-evaluating the hand and craft in art today, but it is not Sachs’s old-fashioned work-intensive method.
The work’s forced evidence of the hand does not create an estrangement or distancing effect that might draw us into an attitude of elegant escalation or critical judgment. There is no bohemian defamiliarization here. What there is is an obvious interest in brand-marketing contemporary art as hand-crafted, in other words, selling art to Europeans in the form of an American cadaver, one smelling of a particularly disorderly anti-intellectualism. USA! USA! USA!
Globalization and the crisis of the capitalistic economic system have no doubt diminished the once-held certainties of impervious confidences that seemed so unyielding and absolute. Of course we now live with a sense of shaky vagueness about the present and future. Yet I abhor the look back here: the neo-folk, M.F.A., “outsider,” fake DIY aesthetic stance that Sachs ties to an almost jingoistic Americana. It’s a priggish impulse. There is something corny, boring, dull and, work-intensive about it, like a square dance — and it lacks inevitability.
Of course the hand job emphasis is just hype. Sachs does not scorn digital technology, and he himself admits he is hyped. But by playing the unrepentant provocateur, American Handmade Paintings struts out a rudimentary reverse revolution that falsely takes us out of the all-encompassing power of scalable technology. (Sachs is also playing the tired game of the high-low, “high art/popular culture” dichotomy, and that kind of art branding is anathema to me.)
Thus American Handmade Paintings enigmatically suffers from a form of futility at the level of consciousness by suggesting that people might still buy into art as artisan trophy. It supposes that perception is reality in art — as in politics — and Sachs proceeds here as if the Occupy Wall Street movement never happened, as if no one is increasingly uneasy about a system that can no longer keep its promises. As if nobody is holding the system up to its own high (tech) standards.
The idea of Sachs as occult American craftsman warring with technological progress kept me away from his Space Program: Mars (2012) installation at the Park Avenue Armory, because it seemed to me that the return to the hand touch in art is becoming again a form of cultural hegemony plucked from the past. As if Barbara Kruger never existed.
Considering the increasing rise of a migratory, flexible, and underpaid labor force, the ideas in American Handmade Paintings offer little in critical response or alternative proposals. Indeed I see Sachs’s deliberate hipster clunkiness (commensurate with nationalist self-centeredness) performing a form of cultural attack on standards of high-tech perfection-ability, a perfection-ability that is more than ever necessary. Plus, it is an attack on the idea of art as malleable transcendence. His is an attack on Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings, at once adamantine and absorbent and absolutely clean of human touch. It is an attack on the all-white paintings by Robert Rauschenberg and Piero Manzoni, on the classic silver pinstripe paintings by Frank Stella, an attack on the gray floor sculptures of Carl Andre, on Donald Judd’s magnificent stacks, on On Kawara’s one-a-day paintings, on Richard Artschwager, on Chuck Close, on John Baldessari, on Sol LeWitt, on Wade Guyton, on Bill Viola, on all video art, on all photography, on all conceptual and post-conceptual art …
In a search for art that reacts to the inequalities of globalization, must art lose touch with the sort of grace that exceeds the hand, a grace that couldn’t be anything but artificial and technological?
Sachs’s wooden work metaphorically attacks the intellectual connectedness of cool conceptual art and serene high-tech electronics. I contend that these cool doublings are the basis of the very American ability to produce art that imagines and desires enhanced futures.
I think Sachs knows this, for after all, as we know, Sachs is really a company man. In 2008 he employed fourteen full-time assistants, and taught them to pursue a “fucked up” look within the craft-based technique of his brand. Bertolt Brecht, too, employed the techniques of fucked-upness — to remind the spectator that his art was a representation of reality and not reality itself. By highlighting the constructed nature of the event, Brecht hoped to communicate that the audience’s reality was equally constructed and, as such, was changeable. Jon Kessler uses this technique with excellent results, as does Thomas Hirschhorn (sometimes). But the question they must all be asked is: “Whose hands are doing the fucked-up handiwork?”
American Handmade Paintings are conceptually pointless. Sachs’s “real” handmade art, like the “real” America, is an ominous idea, one that trades “artisan” labor for the suggestion that our technological selves aren’t authentic or meaningful. Which is not the case.
Tom Sachs’s American Handmade Paintings continues at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac (7 Rue Debelleyme, 75003 Paris) through May 3.