Review: Cast Away
By Mike Maizels
What is the nature of an abandoned artifact or building? Has it been displaced forever? Can it ever have an authentic context, again? Modern artists have always investigated undervalued or marginalized artifacts or buildings for inspiration. Gordon Matta-Clark’s idea of “anarchitecture” included houses sawed in half, punched-through, or literally deconstructed. The Surrealists before him plumbed the psyche for a new kind of personal art-making. Sculptors fromClaes Oldenburg to Jeff Koons to Andy Warhol reclaimed the debased world of commercial aesthetics. And, since the 1980s, artists have even begun theorizing excretory functions as a site for transgressive art, like Mike Kelly or Andres Serrano.
Charlottesville’s nascent Center for the Study of the End of Things (CSET) addressed impermanence, entropy, and rebirth in its first exhibition, which opened on February 5 and closed a week later on February 12. Appropriately, the venue was the former Under the Roof storefront, whose impending demolition offered a rare opportunity to say something about urgent displacement in the shadow of the wrecking ball. Co-curators Wes Milholen and Ashley Williams employed a range of artists and objects that, together, held out the possibility for the outmoded, outcast, or overshadowed side of life to be a productive realm for art.
As you might expect, cast-off detritus made an appearance from “Tomb of Joseph Beuys” offered a set of abstract tools, hand-carved out of the bones of various animals by University of Virginia professor Dean Dass. “Point of Sales,” documented everything that Cambridge-based artist Carson Poe purchased over the course of a year using receipts.
But, it was not only about found objects; the show clearly took its art history seriously. Ashley Williams’ own painting on mylar, “Beast No. 2217-6A,” resembled a cross between Yves Tanguy’s Surrealist amoeba-like creatures and Francis Bacon’s nightmarishly-toothed monsters. Kristen Smith’s “Stalactites” installation evoked a 1938 exhibition of European Surrealist work that used ceiling-mounted cloth to give viewers the impression that they were underground.
In one of my favorite pieces, Atlanta-based artist Tom Zarrilli turned Duchamp’s famous assault on institutional art back on the Old Master. “Gutenberg’s Garden” featured an art history textbook, open to Duchamp’s iconic “Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2,” with plants growing through holes drilled in the decomposing volume.
CSET’s use of discarded artifacts (art historical or actual) is not exactly new in this register, but co-curators Milholen and Williams were careful to ground the show in ideas about the everyday, rather than everyday objects in-and-of themselves. To investigate abandonment or decay is not to find a new way of making art, but of allowing art to make itself. Milholen notes that “natural processes create artifacts that are often more beautiful than what people are capable of making.” What resulted were hybrids—things created by machines, finished by nature, and then designated as “art.”
In an exhibition dedicated to impermanence, there was of course, live performance. Charlottesville poet Stephen Margulies read an elegy to the Romanian art historian and artist Lydia Gasman by shouting over the inimitable sound of electrified snow (provided by members of Hz Collective, who promptly shredded the P.A. system). The exhibition space, itself, provided another opportunity to talk about reclaiming a cast-off building, if only for a moment. Site-specific works, like Elizabeth Stehl’s wall painting “Nest” was razed along with the rest of the building.
But, before the bulldozers, the opening (and closing) of CSET’s debut coincided with one of Charlottesville’s biggest snowstorms. The city’s own closure due to the weather seemed to be a fittingly “un-authored” context for the show. Nature, it seems, had come back to sign her creations.
Mike Maizels is a graduate student in the History of Art and Architecture Department at the University of Virginia.