With work chosen by three galleries (Thomas Solomon, Kathryn Brennan and China Art Objects), on the other end of town hangs an even more hodgepodge group show at Cottage Home. Over on the right hand side of the room, past the particle-board stage with the musical instruments and stamped aluminum photoflood lights (a sculpture by Jonathan Pylypchuk and Paul Cherwick) sit two sculptures by recently minted USC MFA Alex Israel. Sort of sculptures—sort of conceptual gestures with objects as placeholders. The two sculpture-gesture-things, each sitting on its own low white plinth, are rented movie props and, as rentals, are not for sale. On the left is an old-looking red runner sled of a style similar to a flexible flyer (for those winter sportsmen who can tell the difference). On the right is an antique spinning wheel of the Rumpelstiltskin straw-into-gold variety.
I was led to believe that the sled prop was actually from Citizen Kane but, of course, it isn’t. There is an evocation of Rosebud, Charles Foster Kane’s childhood toy sled which symbolizes the simple comforts of home and a mother’s love which the wealthiest man in the world truly pines for when hanging on the edge of death. Except that it doesn’t really look like Rosebud at all, but I got what Israel was driving at instantly.
The Rumpelstiltskin story has it that a woman’s father tells lies and lands her in an impossible situation where her life is on the line. Then, a troll blackmails her into giving up her first born in return for the gold that saves her life. In the end she winds up married to the guy who was going to kill her, gets to keep her kid, and Rumpelstiltskin gets a gruesome punishment.
This pair of props is loaded with metaphorical meaning about creation and wealth and happiness, but so is a pair of Air Jordans. Or an AK-47. Or Bill Gates’ mugshot. Or the Maltese Falcon. As the readymade enters its second century as a device used by fine artists, it seems pretty clear that, within the art world at least, it’s totally uncontroversial. At this point, works that use the strategy need to be judged on what else they do beyond being readymades, just as paintings can’t be interesting just because they are paintings. I understand that Rosebud means money can’t buy the deeper things in life (read here as: Art) and that the spinning wheel symbolizes how liars and creeps can turn something worthless into value. These are battered clichés about art and the art world and hell, life in general. Renting props to realize works which cease to be art when they leave the gallery underscores these points: the part that makes it art is immaterial, value is often about mythology.
It takes a bit of decoding to get what allusions to Citizen Kane and Rumpelstiltskin have to do with one another and to figure out why the things are rented and not for sale. But that bit of decoding, once it is done, reveals facile choices of iconography. Without the cloak of complexity that the props gain by disconnection from their familiar cinematic or storybook contexts, their meanings are elementary. There’s something academic about the readymade as a strategy and whatever residue of commodity critique it still drags behind it. I don’t stand up in praise of capitalism as the best arbiter of value in art, but neither do I think that pointing out that money doesn’t buy love, happiness or art is either good effective radicalism or good poetry.
I can sit here and point to all the ways that Israel’s pieces don’t work for me, but truth be told, they still cause that irritation that makes me keep thinking about them. There is something deeply unresolved about the work and it gives me anxiety. If he wanted to evoke Rosebud, why not have an exact replica fabricated? If he didn’t want a permanent object, why not have a ceremony to destroy the piece afterwards? All of this to say, why did he choose such an inaccurate prop? It seems that the general idea is good enough and that a stand-in version can hold as much mythological weight as a perfect simulation would. In this it seems the artist has struck on an essential truth about the moment we live in, for better or worse.
I wish Israel’s props had been in the same room as the Brian Fahlstrom painting across town. They both gain strength from exerting less will and letting things happen. I’m reminded of a story about an artist who makes the preparators move a painting up six inches, to the left six inches, down six inches and to the right six inches and then declares the placement perfect. That kind of controlling behavior is for the artist’s neuroses and not much for the art. This work is thankfully the opposite of that. In the end, I can get behind a show curated around the idea of how truth manifests in not being overly fussy or devoted to perfection, but by letting things be less tied up and overdetermined. Maybe if we think about it in the most generous way possible, those loose boundaries are what all those summer group shows set for themselves anyway.
- Julian Hoeber