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.
Group show at the new location.
Rotofugi is located at 2780 N Lincoln Ave. Reception Friday, from 7-10pm.
Work by Caitlin Arnold, Michael Boles, Jessica Taylor Caponigro, Olivia Ciummo, Sarica Douglas, Deep Earth, Ron Ewert, Michael Hunter, Leo Kaplan, Katy Keefe, Nicole Kita, Michael Kloss, Ben Marcus, Joseph Mohan, Sara Mosk, DJ Rad Pitt, Dustin Ruegger, Margaret Taylor, Frank Van Duerm, Kate Walsh and Lauren Walsh.
The Hills Esthetic Center is located at 128 N. Campbell Ave., Unit G. Reception Saturday, from 8-11pm.
Work by Gina Beavers, Chris Bradley, Andrew Guenther, Anna Krachey, Elisa Lendvay, Tim Louis Graham, and Eliza Myrie.
The Exhibition Agency is located at 2351 N. Milwaukee Ave., 2nd fl. Reception Saturday, from 7-10pm.
Work by Richard Rezac and Gary Stephan.
devening projects + editions is located at 3039 W Carroll Ave. Reception Sunday, from 4-7pm.
Work by Susan Garguilo and Troy Hagenbart.
What It Is is located at 1155 S Lyman Ave, Oak Park. Reception Sunday, from 3-8pm.
Richard Rezac has a wonderful exhibition up right now at Rhona Hoffman Gallery (through February 2, 2010). In addition, the Modern Wing of the Art Institute is currently displaying six Rezac sculptures (spanning the years 1985-2008) from its Collection — they’ll be on view through early May. Rezac had a survey exhibition at the Gahlberg Gallery of the College of DuPage last year (the exhibition’s catalogue, which contains an enlightening essay by James Yood, is available for download on the Gahlberg Gallery’s website; just click on the link above to go there).
Richard generously agreed to answer a few questions about his latest works via email. I’m very grateful to him for taking the time to provide such illuminating and thoughtful responses.
You won the Rome Prize fellowship in 2006, which enabled you to travel to Italy to study Roman architecture in greater depth. To what extent did having a more sustained, daily interaction with Roman architecture impact your work?
That 11 month experience in Rome and in numerous parts of Italy has had a strong, and I trust, lasting effect, though because it was so substantive, I still do not know the extent of the influence. My purpose was to study the Baroque architecture of Francesco Borromini, whose 11 or so buildings are all in Rome. My approach in taking this in was naturally one of an artist, not an historian, though I certainly read what I could about his work and that of his immediate predecessors and those he influenced, especially Juvarra and Guarini in Turin.
The great pleasure was in seeing Borromini’s architecture (and eventually a large group of drawings in Vienna) on a near weekly basis, allowing me to feel aspects of his accomplishment and study many details. I was also privileged, by the American Academy’s offices, to gain entry to parts of his buildings normally off-limits.
The effect on my sculpture is not so clear to me, other than a continuation of some complexity – several materials or layers or juxtaposed forms within one work resulting in a, perhaps, more broad, gently argumentative, dynamic. In the long arc, though, of my sculptural language from the past 25 years, there has been an evolution from simple and concrete form to more extended, thin, linear and colored form, so the desire to be around Borromini’s architecture was in some sense anticipated by my work before I went there.
Along with architecture, I often think of interior design when viewing your sculptures. Some of them, for me, bring to mind things as mundane as contemporary kitchen and bathroom fixtures! After coming home from viewing your show, the kitchen faucets, towel racks, and cabinet knobs in my house–the particular geometries of their placement and their relationship to my body–all of a sudden stood out for me. Even the old-fashioned diamond tile in my bathroom floor started to “dance” for me in new ways. Am I being overly-specific here, or do you yourself ever draw inspiration from commonplace domestic interiors?
There is certainly a resemblance to ornament, facets of interior design objects, furniture, and architectural detail, such as moldings, in my sculpture of the past 6-8 years. I attribute this mainly to geometric form – the basic language in which my sculpture originates. Perhaps most manufactured applied design objects rely on the ease of elemental, efficient geometric forms. So there is an overlap, to be sure, between the common domestic accessories often handled or those elements produced in multiples as in tile flooring and the appearance of some of my forms or combinations.
I consider most of my sculpture, and all of those that are untitled, to be abstract and they may only arrive at some suggestiveness or association to domestic elements when completed and then exist in our space. I have rarely begun a work with the intention of representing another existing form, if anything it is in pursuit of a persona or complex phenomena. I am most interested, in as much as is possible for me, in starting with nothing and finding a satisfying form or arrangement.