835 W. Washington , Chicago, IL 60607
A patchwork of navy blue carpet scraps covers the floor, shedding bits of fluff and attracting dirt. Strips of the wood flooring beneath peek through the pieces of carpet that have shifted from people walking on them. To your left is a quickly scrawled drawing of a drum kit with the message “drummer wanted”. It’s floating in a pristine little white frame hung precariously low and close to the entranceway of the rear gallery. The drawing has been mounted backwards, so what you are seeing is the permanent marker ink that has bled through from the front.
Continuing into the space you find a refrigerator-like, hulking white object. It looks sort of like a museum plinth that is much too high to be useful. Above this and opposite the drawing is a thin mirror, hung high above the situation, almost at the top of the wall. There is a small margin between the ceiling and the frame of the mirror, much like the small margin between the edge of the wall and the frame the drawing is in. While the drawing seems like it could be unwittingly knocked to the floor by anyone coming around the corner, the mirror appears to float above everything, out of reach. Which makes the smudged fingerprints on it all the more curious and unsettling, actually. Equally unsettling is the strange perspective it reflects down to the viewer. Tucked away, on the far side of the white box is pasted a life-size picture of Robert De Niro sitting backwards on a chair.
I’m not sure what to make of this, so after viewing “Occupation” for a second time I sat down with Mike Schuh, a colleague from the University of Chicago, to talk about the work.
With a lot of art there is a sense that as a viewer you are expected to decode meaning, that there are specific things you are meant to pick up on and extract. This, presumably, is what a piece is “about.” With Schuh I don’t feel like I am supposed to add up all these elements and end up with a particular message or meaning. But the scenario his installation presents us with just begs for a discussion.
For Schuh, “Everything about the picture of De Niro became important. And that includes him as the subject. He’s iconic. He’s become larger than life through pretending to be other people.” It was important the image be brought to human scale. So the white construction on which the picture has been pasted references the size and scale of a body occupying space. It is also architectural, this thing made of drywall doesn’t just exist in the space, it changes it. It divides the room from a cube into a site with two little niches or wings. One feels more open and free; the other feels crammed and constrained, this is the one with De Niro.
Schuh wanted there to be a literal interaction with the De Niro, which does occur but in a strange way. Since the actor is sitting, we are looking down at him. The mirthful grin on his face kind of makes me want to laugh. And let’s face it, stuffing yourself into a little corner with a life size poster of Robert De Niro is a ridiculous situation. We are face to face with the image of De Niro, at once powerful and personable, but ultimately just a representation. The look on his face seems to say that he gets it too. Equally important is the way this “architectural tumor” as Schuh terms the construction, interrupts and occupies the space. It is not a freestanding object but is fused or grafted to the wall and made of building material. “It is of the space and it disrupts the space.” So the relationship to the body is not just in the way it fills up space as a presence would, but in the way it forces the viewer’s body quite literally into a corner.
It is almost automatic for an art audience to immediately move to pin down meaning or figure out what the work is “about.” But for Schuh it isn’t even that he resists or refuses meaning. “Saying it is about something would mean that it is a stand-in for that which it is about. It then equates its material characteristics to symbols or codes. I think about it more in terms of what it does and what it has to do with, rather than what it means or what it is about.” Looking at the sparse selection of items it is clear that the material is all very important. And perhaps this is why it is so frustrating to encounter. Any urge to tie the work to a historical referent or a known allegory seems wrong.
Standing in the installation of Occupation you keep getting pulled back to the corporeality of the uneven lumpy carpet beneath your feet. Schuh’s hand is evident everywhere, but not in the typical craftsman-like sense we mean when we say, “the artist’s hand.” Schuh’s hand is evident in the frenzied drawing, the smudged mirror and the wrinkled paste-up of Robert De Niro. It is in the careful placement of the few objects that populate the space. Undeniably there is a sense of humor at work as well. As we wrapped up I noted that the “drummer wanted” drawing was also kind of funny and stupid. Says Schuh, “They’re all kind of funny and stupid, I hope. I like funny and stupid.”
-Erik Wenzel, Senior ArtSlant Staff Writer
(All images courtesy of Andrew Rafacz Gallery and the artist.)