Conspicuously Absent: When Art Goes Undercover

"Conspicuous Unusable," installation view, from left: Cameron Rowland, "U66" (2013); Jean-Luc Moulène, “Chrome” (1999); Charlotte Posenenske, "Series D Vierkantrohre (Square Tubes)" (1967/2009); Olof Inger, “Do you remember?” (2013)
“Conspicuous Unusable,” installation view at Miguel Abreu, from left: Cameron Rowland, “U66” (2013); Jean-Luc Moulène, “Chrome” (1999); Charlotte Posenenske, “Series D Vierkantrohre (Square Tubes)” (1967/2009); Olof Inger, “Do you remember?” (2013) (all images via

Even in today’s anything-goes environment, it’s not all that common to encounter a work of art that hews so closely to the mundane that it risks not being recognized as art at all. Let alone two or three in a single show.

But that’s the case with Conspicuous Unusable, a group exhibition at Miguel Abreu that’s a refreshing throwback to a time (the 1970s) when the division between art and life was in a constant state of flux and gallery press releases routinely began with a quotation from Martin Heidegger.

Mind you, this isn’t a game of is-it-or-isn’t-it-art, which was prevalent at the time, as in “Should shooting Chris Burden in the arm be considered art?” That territory was won generations ago. This is a matter of stumbling over a work of art, which in this case is an actual, three-dimensional object, and taking it for something else.

Cameron Rowland, "U66" (2013), steel with standard finish, 66 x 2 1/2 x 2 in (click to enlarge)
Cameron Rowland, “U66” (2013), steel with standard finish, 66 x 2 1/2 x 2 in (click to enlarge)

As the press release for Conspicuous Unusable explains (citing Heidegger), the form that an object typically takes is tied to its utilitarian purpose:

Martin Heidegger suggests that all materials refer to the ‘towards-which’ of their usability and the ‘whereof’ of their source.

In other words, a Phillips head screwdriver’s form is molded by its purpose, which is to turn screws with X-shaped slots. The statement goes on to say:

But how might a shift in context alter this relationship, if only provisionally?

The question being asked, as I see it, is: does creating an object that is conspicuously unusuable — one that appears to have, or have had, a purpose but in fact doesn’t — make that object into a de facto work of art? Or does it become simply a useless object?

The artworks on display are described as “comprised of industrial and commercial materials with an ambiguous relationship to authorship.”

Backing up that point are Rey Akdogan’s “Untergerät” (2013), thirty-one floor tiles hugging the bases of the gallery’s walls; Charlotte Posenenske’s “Series D Vierkantrohre (Square Tubes)” (1967/2009), a large, angular sheet metal construction that looks like an exposed section of the building’s HVAC system; and Cameron Rowland’s “U66” (2013), a narrow, vertical steel wall piece that could be taken for a very small heating unit.

The press release also suggests that some of the “exhibited artists seem indifferent as to whether their work is identifiable as art.”

So there you go. But the artists’ supposed indifference to the way their work is perceived doesn’t solve the problem of Conspicuous Unusable, which is the art’s abdication, or at least subversion, of its status (i.e., state of being) as art.

Getting back to Heidegger — whose phrase “the conspicuousness of the unusable” is mined for the show’s title — if the screwdriver is bent, or if your screws aren’t Phillips head, or if your wood is too hard for a manual screwdriver and you don’t have a drill or an awl to make a pilot hole, then “that which is ready-to-hand loses its readiness-to-hand […] It does not vanish simply, but takes its farewell, as it were, in the conspicuousness of the unusable.”

Charlotte Posenenske, "Series D Vierkantrohre (Square Tubes)" (1967/2009), sheet steel, dimensions and configuration variable (click to enlarge)
Charlotte Posenenske, “Series D Vierkantrohre (Square Tubes)” (1967/2009), sheet steel, dimensions and configuration variable (click to enlarge)

However, the objects in this show, most pointedly the ones cited above, are not bent screwdrivers or worn-out shoes; rather, they are intentionally nonfunctioning objects fabricated out of utilitarian materials — floor tiles, sheet metal, chipboard, paper, plastic — which underscore their lack of function while engaging in a conceptual inversion of trompe l’oeil.

Unlike the 19th-century canvases of an artist like John Peto (1854-1907), who meticulously painted images of objects mounted on a surface, such as an old wooden door, that acts as a surrogate for the picture plane, these works don’t prompt us to ask “Is it real or is it art?” but “Is it art or is it something else?”

That is, if we get to the question at all. Walking across the gallery’s unfinished concrete floor, an unwary visitor might not know that Akdogan’s piece is art and not a botched tile-removal job (the artist actually excavated the existing floor to create the work) unless a checklist were at hand. The same is true for Posenenske’s sheet-metal air vent.

Subverting the distinction between art and life isn’t new, but the exhibition presents a fresh take on the idea by mixing more radical pieces with works like Olof Inger’s “Do you remember?” (2013), made of cascading layers of transparent trash bags stapled to the wall, and Dorothea Rockburne’s series of six works in crude oil on chipboard and paper, each titled “Study for Scalar” (1970) but differentiated by a letter from C through H.

Inger and Rockburne look virtually old master-ish in the company of Akdogan, Posenenske and Rowland. Rockburne’s works are especially interesting to see. With their lustrous pools of oil stains and their frayed, up-from-the-streets textures, they are far more edgy and evocative than much of what comes later in her career.

The other two pieces in the show are more classical in comportment. Gabriel Kuri’s abstract sculpture, “Two Nudes Two Points” (2013), which features two aluminum beverage cans crushed between two symmetrical black marble slabs, looks overproduced in this context, while Jean-Luc Moulène’s “Chrome” (1999), a basket-like open cube of interlocking steel bands installed high on the wall, projecting about 16 and a half inches into the room, has an old-time formalist feel to it.

Dorothea Rockburne, "Study for Scalar" series, C through H (1970), nails, crude oil, chipboard, and paper; each: chipboard, 30 x 20 in (76.2 x 50.8 cm), paper, 16 3/4 x 13 in
Dorothea Rockburne, “Study for Scalar” series, C through H (1970), nails, crude oil, chipboard, and paper; each: chipboard, 30 x 20 in (76.2 x 50.8 cm), paper, 16 3/4 x 13 in

Everyone in the show may be using industrial materials, but the individual works are conceived and executed in markedly different ways. Rockburne’s overlapping, variously toned sheets of stained paper and chipboard create hybrid painting/sculpture/collages that are austere, abrasive and sensuous. Her work is the most attention grabbing, even though Posenenske’s faux-HVAC, which towers over it, is almost overbearingly huge.

From the look of things, Rockburne’s purpose was to elevate her cheap, soiled materials in the process of turning them into art. Posenenske, on the other hand, makes a piece of art that is almost indistinguishable from its utilitarian counterpart, thereby making no greater demands on her materials than a commercial fabricator would.

Such a demurral on material significance, or signification, whichever you prefer, has a consequence for the cumulative effect of the piece. Despite the size of Posenenske’s work and its manipulation of space — it starts at floor level, rising to about chest-high, breaks off, restarts and then bends around a corner to climb nearly all the way to the gallery’s double-height ceiling — its doubling as a non-functioning functional object, i.e., its self-effacement as art, diminishes its physical presence.

Rey Akdogan, "Untergerät" (2013), tile flooring [extraction]; 31 tiles x 0.11 m2 / 566 tiles x 0.11 m2 (click to enlarge)
Rey Akdogan, “Untergerät” (2013), tile flooring [extraction]; 31 tiles x 0.11 m2 / 566 tiles x 0.11 m2 (click to enlarge)
The same can’t be said for Akdogan’s floor piece, “Untergerät.” After overcoming some initial disorientation, I began to notice how the floor tiles — the angles at which they were cut and the interaction of their polished ivory color with the sandy gray concrete floor and the white sheetrock walls—subverted the structure of the room with a supple, Caligari-like playfulness.

While remaining covert about its identity as a work of art, “Untergerät” activates the space around it in almost undetectable ways. The opposite tack is taken by Rowland’s vertical steel “U66,” which doubles down on its resistance to the outside world so intently that it attains a kind of monastic integrity.

These two works, one in its openness and the other in its hermeticism, pull themselves up to the line between art and something else, teasing the viewer with doubts about their identity, but never quite managing to forswear art’s role as a vessel of meaning.

Despite the perceptual roadblocks these two works set up, there are too many points of contact — philosophical, historical, contextual — for them to fully abdicate their status as art and resolve into useless, meaningless things.

Art is mutable and porous, often behaving in ways that have nothing to do with what its creator intended, and an attempt to exclude meaning (if that is indeed the intention, which I doubt) is especially tricky. Any encounter with a well-considered artifact will pierce the membrane between object and viewer, and meaning, given half a chance, will seep in.

Conspicuous Unusable continues at Miguel Abreu Gallery (36 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through August 17.

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