Lately I’ve been wondering if the artistic taste of most people is the result of a vast conspiracy. The mastermind would of course be modernist formalism’s architect, Clement Greenberg, aided by his inner circle that includes Michael Fried, and abetted by the art academies spread all over the world. The conspiracy aims to homogenize taste and effectively separate the various fields of artmaking in order to push each to their death. I’ve heard that painting is already dead, though the body has yet to be found.
I’m being a bit facetious of course, but I sketched out that Glenn Beck-style conspiracy just to point out how any dominating narrative gives rise to contradicting narratives. The art historical narrative of High Modernism yields alternative narratives, for instance, revisionist feminist narratives and, closer to Chicago, the raucous trajectory of the Chicago Imagists and their groups. The stories of Modernism, Feminism and the Chicago Imagists are all true, that is, they all happened. But each accrues power to itself, and with power comes dominance, and one narrative may rise over the others as we subjectively interpret the past. This may not be a conspiracy per se, but it can certainly appear and feel like one, as the Guerilla Girls have shown in their feminist critiques of art history and art display.
The entire world is currently struggling with postmodern doubt of objective truth and this is what Deb Sokolow’s art has at its heart. Sokolow’s art crosses genre boundaries and throws them out the window by including drawing, painting, bookmaking, calligraphy, typography, typesetting (of a sort) and narrative. The creative synthesis in Sokolow’s artwork shows the uselessness of strict modernist categories separating art production modes, while retaining a formal rigor in each work.
Sokolow is pursuing a highly ambitious new project with the work on view at Western Exhibitions. She aims at creating nothing less than a literal gesamtkunstwerk; beginning a series of artworks that will comprehensively include everything we cannot fully comprehend, with the knowledge that not only is this impossible, but that it will also never be completed.
Sokolow described the project in our interview for ArtSlant from September, 2010, as “equal parts naïve and epic-like.” Executed on heavy-stock paper in her instantly recognizable handwriting, disparate narratives are framed as chapters of a never-to-be-completed book. Chapters range in focus from why more restaurants don’t serve buttered noodles (Chapter Six. Noodles in Brown Sauce, 2010), to the ominous details of an architect whose building may or may not have driven him to suicide (Chapter Seven. The Architect, 2010). I cannot describe what the main plot may be since it is not yet clear, not even to the artist. But the chapters are currently centering around the conspiracy theory that holds that the headquarters of the New World Order are located under the Denver International airport. The results are both funny and frightening, as by turns they appear either far-fetched or almost believable.
The narrative voice itself has also been pushed in the work on view. The tone is more consistently serious, befitting the high stakes an d shadowy powers that are discussed. Sokolow also adopts a masculine voice in this narrative, as indicated by a textual aside in one piece in which the narrator tries to drum up courage saying “man up” and “use the balls you’ve been given.” The serves to more obviously separate the narrator from the artist; a division that Sokolow admitted was, and is, often hard to fully maintain.
The new work does indeed avoid representational imagery more than other work, as the artist mentioned in the interview. For those familiar with Sokolow’s work, the most difficult new work to appreciate may be the text-only pieces, a fact that the artist acknowledged. But these pieces are the ones that most fully collapse limiting and isolating artistic genres—handwritten text becomes recognized as drawing, the lines borrowed from typesetting that graph out the page layout become an evocation of minimalist artists like Agnes Martin.
The visual art that does accompany the text (“illustration” has gained too many negative overtones to be used here) is frequently more like a perspective drawing from an architect. Sokolow said that the starkness of Minimalism and Land Art seemed to fit with conspiracy theories “very well.” The results of her art show this is true, the above image from Chapter Six is based on Michael Heizer's North, East, South, West, 1967/2002, at Dia:Beacon. Thus Sokolow invests content into the typically content-less minimalism and modernism.
Sokolow’s focus on truth is something extremely important in our era of “truthiness” and conspiracy. There are the “birthers” who are convinced that President Obama was not born in the U.S. or the more extreme wing nuts that think he is part of an Islamic takeover of the U.S. Government (even though Obama is a Christian). But while these movements can largely be ignored and even laughed at, consider that in 2003 Colin Powell presented evidence to the United Nations supposedly showed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was conspiring to obtain more. We all know how true that conspiracy turned out to be.
-Abraham Ritchie, Senior Editor for ArtSlant Chicago