A Guide to the Unmonuments of New York
By Henri Ennui
In a century defined by the twin horrors of (a.) terrorism and (b.) the memoir Eat, Pray, Love, our continued existence as a species is tenuous at best. Into these precarious times dances a sprightly new breed of artist. Clad only in American Apparel leggings and a deep V, this new anti-hero functions as a Duchampian dumpster-diver, sifting through the wretched refuse of our teeming shores for something suitably shabby. In the wake of the new New Museum's monumental exhibition Unmonumental, I set out to find the hottest, youngest, and most emerging artists working in this new mode.
It was on a warm summer afternoon in Soho that I stumbled upon artist Joe Rizzo working on one of his pieces. Rizzo is best known for his renegade site-specific installations on crowded street corners and his numerous violations of the New York City Building Code. In what is an increasingly prevalent tendency among this new generation of artists, Rizzo resists defining his practice in established aesthetic terms. When pressed to comment on his work Rizzo only shrugs and states enigmatically that he works in "construction."
Rizzo's new piece (Unmonumental 56) would eventually consist of an unspecified number of glass shards arranged in a paint bucket. However I was struck by the fearless honesty with which he initially set about, first trying to jam a large sheet of intact glass into what was obviously an unsuitably small container, and only later, after an agonizingly slow process of almost stupefied deliberation, smashing everything with a hammer. It was a "performance" both ritualized and unscripted that posited the Artist as Naïve Fool. And while the final piece bore traces of violence and nihilism, Rizzo's decision to install the piece curbside on garbage collection day highlighted its precarious status as objét.
Next it was off to the Lower East Side where what may well have been a young emerging artist had recently installed a witty rejoinder to Sarah Lucas' 1994 Au Naturel. The artwork (Unmonumental 20) consisted of a faded foam mattress on which two pieces of particleboard and a flannel blanket acted as crude stand-ins for female and male genitalia, respectively. Themes of presence/absence seemed to literally waft downwind from this piece while the mattress itself bespoke a (his/hers)tory all its own.
Later, while playing the flâneur in the meatpacking district, I was suddenly confronted by a disheveled character pushing a shopping cart and muttering obscenities. Widely recognized as an unrecognized genius, this was none other than acclaimed outsider artist "Marge" transporting her latest piece (Unmonumental 1), a subversive assemblage of high-brow, low-brow and uni-brow references. Using the shopping cart as a vessel, Marge had deftly repackaged Richard Serra's Torqued Ellipse as a cheap commodity. Folds of felt, á la Robert Morris, rested on the handle coupled with a black hooded sweatshirt evoking the work of Nayland Blake. A wry text element told me to "SHOP ONLINE." In Marge's hairy hands, the spiritual efficacy of Minimalist sculpture had been transformed into fodder for an ever-voracious shopping container -- a searing critique of the commodity fetishism of canonical art history.
The 'other' has long been a subject of serious artistic inquiry. Situated on the outskirts of normativity, the marginality of the 'other' challenges dominant tropes of 'oughtness,' while acting as a foil to alpha-narrativity. In Unmonumental 6, 14 year-old emerging artist Timmie (in this field you must discover emerging artists before anyone else does) captures not only the profound alienation of today's globalized world, in which hierarchies are blurred and collective identities challenged, but does so with a material -- sports balls -- that simultaneously evokes a Derridean sense of play and critiques notions of American masculinity. While one football is left alone to explore the limitless horizon, the others are collected in a veritable homoerotic congeries. Freighting the installation with even more significance is the fact that the term "balls" is American slang for the testes. This work is a deft nod both to Matthew Barney's Cremaster cycle, and Nicolás Guagnini's 77 Testicular Imprints, as well as to these artists' testicles themselves -- which are at all times both unified with their bodies, yet separate, dangling in a liminal space.
Piggybacking on the current MoMA exhibition Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling, art collective ALLSTATE INTERIOR DEMOLITION (AID) presented its own deskilled version of the prefab home (Unmonumental 89) on a side street in Soho. In this ambitiously abject project, AID deliberately used such cast-off elements as clunky plywood scraps and rusty cast-iron rollers to poke fun at a rhizome of outmoded architectural notions, from environmental sustainability to responsible design. Erected just south of Houston Street, the resulting modular structure sits at the point where Little House on the Prairie intersects post-Koolhaasian "Junkspace."
Only time can tell how history will judge us. But if these pieces attest to anything, it is that America not only produces the most garbage of any nation; it also produces the most provocative and conceptually rigorous garbage of any nation. And that's something we can all celebrate.
Henri Ennui, © 2008
The title refers to 'A Guide to the Monuments of Passaic New Jersey,' Smithson Papers; first published as 'Monuments of Passaic,' Artforum, December 1967.See also: 'A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey,' in Jack Flam, Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, Univ. of Calif. Press,1996, and Monuments of Passaic; Robert Smithson.