Six Art Problems / by Chris Hall

Postmodernism shuns useful rules and conventions and rationalizes inferior art by wrapping it in words—a suit of armor with no one inside. It thrives in the academy, where language abandons reality to serve ambition, and reputations rise on hot air. It is silly and joyless at the same time.  Postmodernism seems to be fading away. Let’s hope! But when it comes to trendy intellectual nonsense, academia is infinitely resourceful. What will it come up with next?
Walter Darby Bannard

Claes Oldenberg – The Store, 1961.  The Store was an installation, literally in a store.  In it Oldenberg sold life-size little objects made of plaster such as food, shirts, ties, cigarette packs, lingerie, and other commodities.  The Store both celebrated and critiqued popular culture and American consumerism.  It was also made to make fun of the grand gestures of Abstract Expressionism. Sure, nicely executed, but in championing the mundane, please don’t be surprised if I get bored and walk away.

Bridget Riley – Movement in Squares, 1961.   A fine example of Op Art, Op Art is all about movement and illusion . . . and not much else.  Essentially it all design without any critical commentary.  And since I don’t find anything attractive in it, even as a design, it is very easy for me to dismiss.  Despite not being well received by the critics, it proved to be very popular with the public.  Soon Op Art was used in a number of commercial contexts.  Bridget Riley sued an American company for incorporating her art into fabric designs, without success. 

Roelof Louw – Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges), 1967.  There is nothing soulful about it. It is just a pile of 6,000 oranges, stacked in a pyramid.  Visitors to the galley are invited to take away an orange and eat it.  The work is meant to raise questions on ephemerality, the passage of time, and decay.  If that is the case, then it fails on me.  The Tate recently recreated the piece for roughly $47,000, so it comes out roughly to $8 an orange, proof that even a bad idea can be commoditized.

Lawrence Weiner -  A Rubber Ball Thrown on the Sea - Cat. No. 146, 1969.
It is currently displayed at the Hirshhorn Museum in large, blue, sans-serif lettering. Weiner is open to the seven words being produced in any color, size or font.  The work destroys any notion of the artist as auteur, because, like Sol LeWitt’s drawing instructions, it requires other people’s labor and decision making for it to exist.  It deconstructs the once widely held belief that art is something to be praised and is special.  

Wim Delvoye – Cloaca, 2000.  Cloaca, also known as the "poo-machine", is probably Wim Delvoye's most famous art installation. In 2000, he put together complex machinery at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp, Belgium, that mimics the action of the human digestive system and converts food in feces. Real food is dropped down a funnel into a meat grinder (simulating the teeth) twice a day. Then, viewers can follow the food as it makes its way through a series of glass containers containing human digestive juices and enzymes, which represent the various stages of digestion. At the end of the tract, the machine produces feces which are then vacuum-packed and sold in translucent boxes.  When asked about his inspiration, Delvoye stated that “everything in modern life is pointless. The most useless object I could create was a machine that serves no purpose at all, besides the reduction of food to waste.”  

Attila Csorgo – Novecento, 2008.  It is a dead horse suspended from the ceiling.  At first glance, the work seems a bit gratuitous.  After some reading (why is it always necessary for me to read text in order for me to get conceptual art?) it turns out that the work references a 1976 Italian film 1900 (pronounced Novecento in Italian).  1900 is about Italian Modernity, presenting Fascism and Communism in opposition to each other.  Csorog’s Novecento is meant to be a eulogy for these 20th century revolutionary impulses.  What isn’t clear is Csorgo’s intentions:  is the artist lamenting the loss of radical politics or lampooning their failure?  Without clarity we are left with nothing but a dead horse hanging from the ceiling.