Guest Post by Robert Burnier
I once had a penchant for the obsessive, compulsive traditions of certain Dutch painters like Paulus Potter, Adriaen van der Spelt and Jan van Cappelle, so whenever I was in an encyclopedic museum, I would always make my way toward those galleries. Afterward, however, I would go straight to where the modern art was and stand in front of a Cy Twombly or some other such work. In 2002 the Gerhard Richter retrospective, 40 Years of Painting, came to the Art Institute of Chicago. One salient aspect of this was to witness a similar kind of range more or less present in one artist; one who held up Reading, Grey Mirror, and 256 Colors as artistic statements of the same order. I see these memories as analogies for the way I continue to approach works of art, especially – though in a limited sense – when it comes to issues of craft.
When I look at art today, I would say my taste still involves a dialectic similar to my earlier favorites. I can appreciate artists like Roxy Paine and Mari Eastman, Nicole Eisenman and Richard Rezac. With Paine, we have someone creating sculptures by a distribution of expertise among multiple minds through the idiosyncratic use of high-tech machines and processes, producing objects of a mysterious and alien ilk. Eastman at once shows her knowledge and understanding of painting while withholding some obvious trappings of virtuosity in favor of revelations of a seemingly more personal sort, which are then often further complicated by some borrowed subject or motif. Eisenman is commingling many ideas of painting together with the understanding of craft necessary to put them in conversation with each other, adapting them to her subjects. Rezac makes highly resolved and technological constructions that are nonetheless very slippery to our perception and suggestive through their careful arrangement. In all cases, the individual hand moves, sometimes at a distance, even if only to turn the knobs so that the machine overruns its target output.
Of course, for many reasons – call it the loss of center , bourgeois democratic/market forces, technology, transportation, and communication – our era is splintered artistically. It is apparent in public collections where many eras are present at once, creating a stacking effect of latent visual experience. Our perception of space and time are compressed. It isn’t really possible to point out what to do or not to do because no one person can index all of it. Technology is of little help. It only reminds us of our difficulties even more. But we can reach into this heap of history, as I like to think Robert Smithson might have put it, for resources, touchstones, and questions unanswered.  We can look for ways and means that might yield new meanings or recuperate older ones in new ways. Not only does this apply to the mode and medium, but also to the work, effort, or craft involved.
The degree of facility is linked to the effectiveness of the artistic statement, with the critical caveat that it is for something and not self-reflexive. I often find myself saying to people that craft is only craftiness when facture overtakes ethos. If you paint the sides of a stretched canvas because you want it to look “finished” the painted side remains a superficial garnish; if the painted side reinforces the conceptual aspect of the object, it can serve the work intrinsically. We could get into semantic questions of intent here, but I think if you really know it and mean it, it has a greater chance of seeming to be true, or we have a greater chance of becoming involved in the work on a deeper level. A specific example would be the vast difference between Karthik Pandian’s recently exhibited sculpture at Rhona Hoffman, I Am My Own Wife – a highly polished construction in steel and industrial-grade color – and any number of sculptures that are often sprinkled along Navy Pier or grace the ad pages of a major art magazine, aspiring to a similar finish. Pandian’s work perhaps takes us a distance toward examining issues of gender while the other sculptures too often don’t take us anywhere in particular beyond the awareness of their often massive size and tired formalism. Another successful example would be the work of an artist like Alicja Kwade, whose phenomenological sculptures and installations can cause a shift in our basic understanding of the elements of experience. Works such as Andere Bedingung (Aggregatzustand 6), 2009, toy with assumptions of objecthood in terms of weight, substantiality and permanence. So what I’m saying is that with our incredibly intense media saturation, I turn to usage before material specificity for what I get out of seeing a work of art. I want to try to not judge a book by its cover; to allow the myriad options to play out; to remain variable, accepting and catholic in my assumptions about material and craft. Here I am reclaiming the non-religious sense of having a catholic attitude, which simply means to be open to a wide range of tastes.
Alternatively, the work of an artist can be de-skilled either in the sense that he does not concern himself personally with technique or high craft, or he transfers it to an outside technician (or even leaves it to chance). But if this becomes too dominant to the meaning of the work, then the lack of facility or personal involvement may fall into banality. For example, I’ve found it hard to pay attention to very much “glitch” art. This has surprised me somewhat since it seems to go against my own extensive background in computer science. However, much of it seems to stop at the glitch itself, piling one glitch on top of another. Aside from the sense that I think glitch art may be claiming a little too much for itself anyway , I just can’t be too impressed by the mere malfunction of a computer, even though I’m fully aware of the potential auratic qualities of such failure.  It just stops too soon. That said, I really liked Christopher Meerdo’s recent show at Document. What separates his work is not only a very careful selection of some of the more uncanny images and a spectacular transformation into the medium of print, but also the stress laid on the origin and the process of exhuming source images: discarded vacation photos on found memory cards. Meerdo’s exhibition really reflects on the medium, its relationship to our human lives, and our capacity for recording and forgetting through the usage and leveraging of those very same auratic tendencies of malfunction. I draw a similar conclusion about the difference between some of the stacking and leaning of things we are seeing today , and the output of an artist like Felix Gonzales-Torres, some of whose best work relies utterly on stacking and piling for it to function.
So there is a kind of competence I see that has to do with an investigation within an artistic practice and through the artist’s level of experience with it. This most often involves objects and materials, though it could also be bodies and spaces or something else. The artist grows a micro history of production, a personal academy and repertoire. The depth of the work emerges from the depth of the investigation and the shape of the path walked by the artist. She can come to know quite well what she is doing, while avoiding the twin pitfalls of connoisseurship and disinterestedness. This is about studio time.  The artist may find it better to reflect on what she did rather than what she thought, or accept what happened over what she intended. This doesn’t involve the rejection of purpose, but the acceptance of things that come into view. For example, looking at R.H. Quaytman’s work for the first time a few years ago, I felt initially that the pieces functioned like works of art as essays in the sense put forward by Art & Language . But even as they projected a kind of ultra-intellectual air they had a resolve and physical quality that drew me in. From subsequent lectures and artist talks, I learned about the experiential origins of much of Quaytman’s work.  A frequent refrain I remember in her talks went something like “… after I did that, of course I thought it worked because…” In the end, the body of work she’s constructing is one of thoughts and contexts, but also of trials, errors and discoveries.
What kinds of experts do these artists become? All of them possess expertise in the statements they want to make in relation to their own concerns and toward the historical context. But in the same way that de-skilling was a term borrowed from economics, I want to say that these works have been “right-sized” in their respective areas of making. Pretty close to the mark from my perspective is a relatively recent piece by Claire Bishop where she says, “Some will say that skills no longer matter, that the artist today should be fully ‘spectralized,’ because the truly emancipatory position is to erase the line between professional and amateur. […] That said, the best forms of de-skilling evoke in the viewer something of this spectralization: Such works generate in us not a disdainful ‘I could do that’ but the generative energy of ‘I want to do that!’”  If I ever get that kind of energy from viewers of my work, then I have probably done my job.
 I saw this phrase in Christine Mehring, Jeanne Anne Nugent, Jon L. Seydl, Gerhard Richter: Early Work, 1951-1972. J. Paul Getty Museum, 2010.
 What I mean here is that glitch is a breakdown, a misuse or a chance process. Not a new idea, though consistent with a medium specific conversation, the fact that it is a computer malfunction makes it a contemporary concern. It’s a concern that is, of course, worth examining, but the question is how to approach it.
 See, for example, Martin Dixon, The Horror of Disconnection: The Auratic in Technological Malfunction, Transformations Journal, http://www.transformationsjournal.org/journal/issue_15/article_06.shtml
 Robin Dluzen, https://twitter.com/RobinDluzen/status/324255330265595904/photo/1
 For a fascinating read on contemporary issues regarding studio time and its effect on the production of art, try Dieter Roelstraete, The Business: On The Unbearable Lightness of Art, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/the-business-on-the-unbearable-lightness-of-art/
 Such as in Charles Harrison, Conceptual Art and Painting: Further Essays on Art & Language, MIT Press, 2003.
 Society for Contemporary Art lecture, The Art Institute of Chicago, March 15, 2012 and The Opening Reception Artist talk at The Renaissance Society, January 6, 2013.
ROBERT BURNIER is an artist and writer who lives and works in Chicago. He is an MFA candidate in Painting and Drawing at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and holds a B.S. in Computer Science from Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. Recent exhibitions include The Horseless Carriage at Andrew Rafacz Gallery, Salon Zurcher at Galerie Zurcher, New York, the Evanston and Vicinity Biennial, curated by Shannon Stratton, and Some Dialogue, curated by Sarah Krepp and Doug Stapleton, at the Illinois State Museum, Chicago.
So this is it; the last entry of Thoughts from Across the Cultural Divide. It’s appropriate that I’m writing it on a plane from New York to Milwaukee – that’s where I wrote my first one and most of the ones in-between.
I boarded bent on finishing before landing in Milwaukee as a kind of ceremonial gesture, but I came down with a bit of writer’s block. More like writer’s diarrhea, really; I couldn’t seem to reduce the last 26 entries into a succinct bite-sized wafer of truth fit to reflect what I’ve gleaned.
Fidgety, I reached into my pocket and pulled out a small piece of foil-covered hard candy and struggled over whether or not I should eat it.
I actually started unwrapping it, almost placing it on my tongue before rewrapping it and carefully putting it back in my pocket. The guy next to me must have thought I had a disorder. As I sat with the candy in my lapel pocket, I dwelled on this strange apprehension. Why did eating it feel so, well, unholy?
The candy in question was taken from a Felix Gonzalez Torres art piece, “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)”, from the Art Institute of Chicago, where I had taken a class on a field trip a few days prior. With my class in tow, I picked a couple pieces off the top of the pile, eliciting a hushed gasp from some onlookers. The security guard stood by stoically knowing very well the nature of the situation. Only after establishing that he was cool with the move did the rest of the visitors take their turn grabbing souvenirs. Did anyone get the wonderful metaphor? Did the sacredness of the context turn Torres’s point into an object to be fetishized?
I explained the nature of the work to my students, how the dwindling supply of candy represented the fragility of existence and, specifically the disease that tragically took Torres’s partner’s life. They seemed moved, if still content to have a bit of insider material.
Only a week earlier I had gone to the Lutheran church in Cedarburg. I attended in spite of the fact that I’m not religious. My wife and her family have belonged to the church for years, and the pastor is surprisingly ecumenical. That day, when it came time to take communion, I hesitated. Somehow, watching from the back pews, faking my way through the Lord’s Prayer and mouthing hymns I didn’t know, seemed ok, but consuming a wafer and some wine that represented, or, depending on your level of devotion, actually WAS the body and blood of Christ, pushed it. But, still, I headed toward the altar.
His body tasted surprisingly bland; his blood vintage Franzia, and, though I didn’t feel the prescribed transubstantiation, I did feel something more profound than indigestion.
This unexpected twinge reminded me of a piece by James Gleick that was in the “New York Time Magazine” a few years ago about the auction value of the Magna Carta. He describes a passage from Philip K. Dick’s novel, “The Man in the High Tower”, where two similar cigarette lighters are placed side-by-side, one owned by FDR and the other of no significance. One with ‘historicity’, the other without.
The narrator muses:
“Can you feel it? … You can’t. You can’t tell which is which. There’s no ‘mystical plasmic presence,’ no ‘aura’ around it.”
Or is there?
Though he doesn’t invoke it specifically, Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” seems to hover palpably over Gleick’s analysis. Are there plasmic presences? Are there auras? No and yes. As Benjamin noted in the essay we all choked down in art school, auras are born from artifacts that derive power from ritual. And rituals require gangs of believers to endure. And most of us, wherever we locate ourselves geographically or metaphysically, happen to believe in something strongly enough to wring a little plasma from it.
So, Religion? Culture? Not so different from 38,000 feet above the earth. Both are terms ascribed to all those things we can’t know for sure. And if you’re familiar with Descartes, Montesquieu, Wittgenstein, Barthes, Derrida or even CNN, there’s a LOT of things we don’t and indeed can’t know.
So what I’ve taken from 18 months of immersion in Wisconsin’s more parochial precincts is that one person’s “Light of Christ” might simply be another’s frisson of energy evoked by a Richard Tuttle wire piece or a Donald Judd “Specific Object”. Aren’t we all looking for a little transcendence, never mind where we get it or what we decide to call it?
There’s a lot of religion in a Tuttle and a lot of culture in a Lutheran pancake social.
It’s funny when you can feel the antagonism about your remarks as soon as you utter them. Now is one of those moments. My friends are generally from the tribe that would side with the transcendence brought on by a great work of art, rather than a passage from the “Book of Job”. Most of my acquaintances would probably claim that I’m making a false and probably dangerous distinction – the religious right influences politics, right? Indeed. They infringe on the civil rights of individuals because of a bunch of ghost stories in a book written millennia ago? Sure. They can’t compromise because their truth is not based in reason, but in the supernatural, right? Sometimes.
But then again, I felt something like sacrilege eating a piece of candy that was only ever meant to be a metaphor. And it occurred inside the hallowed temple walls of an institution that kind of chooses to keep those metaphors hidden, and in turn, keeps their congregations beguiled and charmed, perpetuating the aura of the object. That institution has priests who anoint objects with quasi-spiritual value. They have groups that help to canonize object makers. Not as metaphor-makers but as spirits. They have rituals, liturgies and taboos. They have saints and they have sinners. They all contribute to creating cultural relics that are sold at auction for prices that dwarf that of the most sought after religious relics on earth.
So if it walks like a duck…
Felix Gonzales Torres might be my favorite artist in the world. And God or god or Donald Judd rest his soul, I don’t think Mr. Torres ever wished for me to be spellbound by the aura of his art, only moved by the poetic truth it could impart by being an achingly wonderful metaphor for the sadness and confusion we all share in a world that overwhelms us.
So right now I will eat Felix Gonzalez Torres’s candy as a metaphorical gesture recognizing the power of art over the supernatural and all that mystical plasma that charms us into thinking we have an answer of a higher power.
28 episodes of The Cultural Divide reduced to one wafer of truth.