Local opinion considering the survey of Luis Camnitzer at the Helen & Morris Belkin Gallery has been shrouded with the term “one-liner,” nearly everyone who has seen the show has warned. The one-liner, currently (contemporarily) defined by contemporary (current) art is suggested to be a pithy non sequitur: a literal, bare statement that reveals with concision, requires only a rudimentary interpretation and holds little to no visceral resonance. This sentiment presumes that it has been achieved by the artist by sacrificing poetry, delicacy and ambiguity in pursuit of an artwork that functions similarly to a New Yorker cartoon; generically rendered, the title an expedited punch-line in italics.
Certainly, many of Camnitzer's works are puns, and pretty obvious are his examinations of the absurd relationship between art and commerce, as in a piece which proposes to sell slices of his signature, for example, or a large flat grey mural painted by a hired contractor placed next to one made by the artist's hand, complete with vastly differing price-tags. One can imagine art history students touring through the gallery whispering "Manzoni much?"
However, by employing a quantitative style of art criticism, one can surmise that even if each of Camnitzer's works was a one-liner, and many are far from it, the breadth of this retrospective counteracts this. Instead, the viewer who walks among over seventy of these conceptual sketches, prints, installations, sculptures, photographs and multiples is privy to a lifetime of laterally thoughtful observation. The exhibition's overall effect could not be described better (nor more bombastically) than by curators Hans-Michael Herzog and Katrin Steffen:
"Viewers are treated to a pyrotechnical display of intellect: an unusually coherent and principled corpus that is at the same time possessed of a rakish charm and poetic maturity."
Pyrotechnics aside, one should forgive Camnitzer for the odd eye-rolling dad-joke. He has operated as an influential artist, educator, critic, curator and academic since fleeing dictatorial Uruguay for the United States in 1964. He co-founded the New York Graphic Workshop and participated in the discourse surrounding American conceptualism of that era. He has eschewed the commercial art world (as many of the object de-materializing conceptualists of his era did, until the paychecks got too big to resist) and instead made his living teaching, and has only recently begun to receive his due.
It is also relevant to note that the term "one-liner" has been borrowed from the realm of stand-up comedy. However, within that particular milieu it is considered a classic form of humor, and pro-hams like Don Rickles or Henny Youngman are revered as masterful, great grandfathers of the craft, and even if, like Camnitzer, their work may be read today as being a bit dated, it is important to remember that the skeletal simplicity of their quips and barbs persist today as templates for younger comics to heap upon the vicissitudes of human experience observed. Analogous to visual art (the two mediums have a great many things in common), the same could be said for more recently prominent (contemporary) artists like Martin Creed and Ceal Floyer, whose similarly succinct gestures take on extra merit for their considerations of space, context and chaos, but are indebted to artists like Camnitzer for laying the foundations on which their endeavours are constructed.
—Aaron Carpenter, an artist and writer living in Vancouver.
Top image: Luis Camnitzer, Landscape as an Attitude, 1979. b/w photograph, 28.1 x 35.5 cm.; Daros Latinamerica Collection, Zürich. Photo: Peter Schälchli, Zürich.