By Invitation: notes on midwestern conceptualism

March 12, 2014 · Print This Article

januaryshow_artists
Photograph of the artists who participated in the January Show
Photograph by Seth Siegelaub, 1969. Taken from Moma.org
From left: Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, and Lawrence Weiner.

“In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art. This kind of  art is not theoretical or illustrative of theories; it is intuitive, it is involved with all types of mental processes and it is purposeless.”  –  Sol Lewitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art”

Sol Lewitt goes on to write that conceptual art frees the artist of trade, skill, and any semblance of feeling. Instead, the responsibility of the conceptual artists is to leave the viewer with a kind of mental entertainment or novelty, some bit of cognitive candy, like solving a sudoku, or discovering that the vase you are looking it is in fact two human faces peering into each other.

It should be noted here that Lewitt would likely take me to task for confusing the perceptual and conceptual with that last example. In any case Lewitt is not my main concern and while parts of his text propel me occasionally they can do no more here than to haunt a certain regional tendency, what I am calling midwest conceptualism.

“When an artists uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair.”

What I have observed in the midwest is a kind of social conceptualism. Artists here do not arrive at an idea so much as invite each other into an elaborate system of responses that reveal the idea to everyone involved slowly and deliberately. Midwestern conceptualism enacts a human, read also as intuitive, structure that disperses authorship and catalyzes collaborative relationships best described as hospitable in that there is evident an element of hospitality.

An anecdote: the practice is always encountering interruption.

The studio is interrupted by the invitation. The invitation is interrupted by the curatorial frame. The frame is interrupted by the space. The space is interrupted by the viewer.  And so on and so on.

Hospitality too is a kind of interruption, the knock at the door, the footsteps of the guest as they cross the threshold, echoes breaching the silence of the home. What follows is the clamor of hospitality as one sets oneself aside in service of a guest.

Hospitality is implicit in the service industry of art. An artists is invited by a host to make work for or take part in an exhibition or program. The artist in-turn invites a host of collaborators to occupy, program, or inhabit the space that has been allocated to them. Thereby creating a platform that extends the opportunity and the resources provided to their social network and various communities. Whether home or abroad artists from across the region are fond of making social spaces, forming temporary collectives, and opening up the individualistic terrain of the exhibition.

Repair Shop 2
Material Exchange, InCUBATE, and Adam Bobbette

“I still insist on the social roots of the problem. “The group” forced to compete in an individualistic antagonistic self-interested (Adam Smith you Scottish Bastard) world. For example: “having a show” is a one or two man endeavor. You need impact and gestalt. The whole thing is epistemologically individualistic. That’s that. One reason for the collapse of A&L [Art & Language] was that it moved from the journal (which was a “group effort”) to gallery shows which suddenly meant 15 or 14 out of the 16 people were standing around pretending they knew what was going on. There’s nothing wrong with leaders, it’s just when others see them leading and you following that we get screwed up. Again, these problems are social, not “merely psychological.” – Mel Ramsden in a letter to Joseph Kosuth, extracted from “1975” by Joseph Kosuth.

The nature of any given network and the quality of the relationships therein is a matter for critical faculties and human insight alike. How else is one to understand a practice that is both experiential and contextual if not with the mind and heart, that is with cool headed analytics running alongside lived experience (intuition again). Given that this kind of conceptual practice is social, invitational, and hospitable, the way towards understanding such a practice must come from a committed audience member. It is not enough to pass off some quick judgement after having poked one’s head into the room. One has to set oneself aside, to give time to the work, it is as if the work is a knock on the door interrupting a busy host.

The relationship between host and guest, organizer to artist, artist to viewer, is one of reciprocity and generosity. Each becoming, at times, more or less the host or guest of the other, never fully inhabiting the other’s place within the network but instead moving between hubs. This elaborate courtship proposes a way of being together and a context to occupy.

“There’s nothing wrong with leaders, it’s just when others see them leading and you following that we get screwed up.”

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