Box & Pole

When I was about 14, I had a figure-drawing teacher in a local after-school program, a brilliant and hyperactive man who compared the honing of our representational practice to the training of a chef.  To hear him tell it, a really good chef can taste a dish and say, “ah, yes, I taste this ingredient prepared in this way harmonizing with that ingredient prepared in that way, NICE MOVE.”  As artists who – whether arriving in the form of training or proximity – have at least been exposed to enough art to deconstruct according to a similar model, the recognition of moves and their subsequent naming (and occasional pocketing) should sound familiar.  It was with this in mind that I embarked two weeks ago on this admittedly incomplete cataloguing of moves, not as a How To or a Why, but as a What Is and a Where.

In my last column, I used a chess analogy to explain my premise.  One expression of this analogy was of the finished and total game as both catalogue of and as principally manifested from the moves that constituted its play.  When considering the particular totality of a finished game, both representing and represented by its contained moves, we are able to read its progression with a focused linearity, each move in dialogue with the move preceding it and the move following it.

Within the relative totality of a work of art, while we may be able to perceive the moves constituting its actualization, the linear narrative of their implementation is often lost.  This is by no means a value judgment.  With all of the moves now existing on the same plane, their dialogue expands beyond their teleological neighbors-in-time and into interaction with every single other move now sharing the plane of totality.

While the moves residing upon this plane of distribution certainly contribute to the manifestation of a totality, it is the relationships occurring between and thus around the moves that necessarily form the edges of this totality and therefore our perception of it as a totality.  The relationships generated between and around these points form a container or theatre for these interactions and it is at the edges of this between-and-aroundness that we find our image of the total work and the point of our most immediate interaction with it.

Proximity is crucial to these generative internal relationships.  By the model of totality established above, wherein the relationships contained manifest the Thing Itself, the Proximities defining those relationships become an essential factor of that manifestation.  Differing Proximities establish different relationships and produce fundamentally different totalities.  Proximity as move.


More context:  That which exists in a vacuum may not, in fact, exist at all.  If it does, we are afforded two possibilities.  In the first, we are all (in the non-anthropocentric sense) That-Thing-Taking-Up-The-Vacuum and as such, the intricacies of our collective existence as that thing puts said vacuum beyond the limits of our perception.  In the second possibility, the existence of this thing inside the vacuum precludes our exclusion by the very nature of vacuum-ness.   So, given that this is not a metaphysical proposition, This Thing exists outside of our ability to interface with it and outside of any sort of possible sharing of reality-space.  As Far As We’re Concerned, the thing does not exist.  Therefore, whether we like it or not, Proximity is not an option.  It is a fact.

Furthermore, if we are to reject the vacuum of pure autonomy, logic follows that the edges of these proximal relationships do not necessarily manifest totality, as I stated earlier, but merely reinforce an idea of perceived totality.  This perceived (yet no less real) totality works within a pragmatic model of delineation, one which enables embodiment and day-to-day materiality.  In short, these relationships of Proximity have no law enforcing their internment, their edges are not a given; they could go on forever.  It is only by an inherently creative practice of “picking and choosing,” that totality is even a possibility in an endless sea of relationships and proximities.  Without a doubt, so much of artistic practice revolves around “Knowing When It’s Done,” a process that can be at once intuitive and prefigured, and a process certainly engaged with creative acts of choice and delineation.  Creative acts of agency.  The selection and cultivation of proximities.  Once again, Proximity as move.


Let’s look at a proximate relationship existing between two things.  Take, for example, Martin Puryear’s 1977 sculpture, Box & Pole, represented in the photograph above, a four-and-a-half-foot-square wooden box and a 100-foot-tall wooden pole installed directly next to each other at the Earl W. Brydges Artpark State Park in Lewiston, NY. The title of the piece describes its contents and the closeness of the two forms enables our viewing of box and pole simultaneously, thus enabling our ability to both verify and interpret the relationship made plain by the ampersand in the title.  While the formal discrepancy between the two shapes is made evident and made novel by the nature of their Proximity, what is it about this Proximity and its relationship to the “total work” that enables these effects?

What is it about the piece’s interior proximities that manifest its totality?  What if the box was out of sight, implied in the title but located elsewhere in the park?  The pole, surely visible from a distance, might indicate that at least half of the title was true and either manifest the box as an imaginary-implied or rather as a prize to be sought out during a walking tour of the grounds.  What if there were two boxes and two poles?  The Box & Pole of the title might then become the Platonic box or the Platonic pole, with each set of twins rallying to represent its singular ideal.  What if the piece was untitled or the box was on top of the pole or the pole was on top of the box or the pole was horizontal rather than vertical?  All of these relationships of Proximity manifest a necessarily different totality, a necessarily different narrative not merely describing the thing before us but actualizing the work itself.

In Jean Baudrillard’s doctoral dissertation, Le Système des Objets  (The System of Objects) (1960), he introduces a useful structure of autonomous and relational value.  With regard to (bourgeois) interior decoration, Baudrillard posits that where some one-of-a-kind painting may possess a high autonomous value, a mass-produced commercial print of the same painting, while possessing a lower autonomous value, possesses a much higher relational value as it pertains to interaction with the objects around it.   Surely this model persists when the plane of totality consists of more than merely mass reproductions or further iterations of a single object.

As Box & Pole becomes Boxes & Poles and then Boxes & Poles & A Photograph & A Marzipan Pear & A Calculator Tied To A String, Martin Puryear becomes Rachel Harrison or Isa Genzken.  The work itself becomes a theatre for the performance of a cornucopia of relationships, all subsuming their relational values into the autonomous value of the whole, the total object both generated by these relationships and functioning as container for these relationships.  As more and more parts are accreted to this whole, we must reconsider it with each new addition and as the makeup of its totality is changed.  White added to blue makes a lighter blue but it does not stay light blue when we add yellow.

Proximity as a tangible substance functions both as a move itself and in between moves.  At the heart of any notion of Proximity is the relationship it enacts.  Implicating some spatial or otherwise positional affiliation, Proximity cannot exist in a vacuum or as a property belonging to singularity.  Proximity relies upon proximal points.  For the artist, as these contingencies gain intention and subsequently some form of materiality, we must not ask how these proximal points change ‘conceptually,’ that is, poetically, metaphorically, or symbolically by virtue of their Proximity.  We must ask how they change ACTUALLY: How, by the Proximity contributing to their relationship, the points themselves actually change and take on not merely new meaning but new BEING.  A new totality as a work of art.

Sam Davis

Sam Davis is an artist living in Los Angeles, CA.

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