The conventional use of the term "material witness" refers to someone who has information that contributes important value to a legal proceeding. Here, we redeploy it specifically to mean artists who incorporate and explore abstraction, materiality, and physicality, revealing the non-obvious in mundane, found materials and objects. The artists are essential witnesses to some inherent, perhaps indefinable, meaning or essence; they all have and hold "relevant knowledge" about a case at hand.
The use of found materials and objects in modern and contemporary art has ground-breaking origins in the ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp and has been championed extensively by artists ranging from Robert Rauschenberg and Jason Rhoades, and from Louise Nevelson to Cady Noland. More recently Andy Coolquitt coined the term "somebody-mades," referring to casually altered ready-mades, abandoned on the streets and reclaimed by the artists. Interpretation of the object is generally left to viewer discretion. The object is the object, but in a new context. The artists exhibited in Material Witness combine the ready-made and somebody-made, leveraging them to create a non-representational picture or sculpture.
Material Witness specifically considers materiality and abstraction by four artists - Charlotte Becket, Andy Coolquitt, Isa Genzken, and Molly Zuckerman-Hartung. All four artists incorporate industrial materials, defiant of common studio tradition. Moreover, they all explore the physicality and poetics of found and rediscovered materials and objects in their work, each confronting conventional definitions of painting, sculpture, and installation. The objects these artists found and use are typically human-made, anti-natural by-products of innovation: tapes, films, plastics, fabrics, synthetics, and mechanical parts. Their work transmutes meaning of otherwise banal objects.
The very tangible physicality of the works in the exhibition feel animated. Genzken's work draws extensively upon contemporary visual and material culture. Using plaster, cement, building samples, photographs, and bric-a-brac, Genzken creates structures that have been sometimes described as contemporary ruins. Likewise, Coolquitt's work uses both the found object and somebody-made, offering these objects a second or third life in a sculptural configuration. Zuckerman-Hartung selectively uses found material, including photographs, to animate and accentuate her paintings. Becket, on the other hand, working in a more austere palette, frequently animates her work with motors work, giving them a mechanical, robotic-like life.