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Art at the Institute: Seeing is recalling the name of what one sees

Oct 20 2009

The 2009–2010 Clayman Institute exhibition program commences with an installation of photographs and sculpture by San Francisco-based conceptual artist Rebecca Goldfarb. The current exhibition highlights a series of minimally composed photographs of striking, uniform color, each designed to interrogate the way viewers apprehend objects through language.

Goldfarb appropriates what typically passes for instantly familiar imagery — objects she photographs herself or sources from online photo archives — and subtly manipulates them, coaxing their appearance to near-flatness. She casts the entire composition in monochromatic tones that echo what one might consider the “essence” of the original object. Goldfarb distills these objects from their environments, highlighting their ubiquity and familiarity.

Chess pieces, disposable silverware, and standard-issue barbeque grills suggest a contemporary landscape, perhaps one populated by disposables and plastics; weathered boots, sensuously worm boxing gloves, and a small casket all carry profound weight, suggesting forces exerted upon the body in myriad ways. If the former category hints at the ephemeral or whimsical, then the latter might link the process of recollection with a longer sense of history — a register of how one wears, carries, or is carried through time itself.

Goldfarb’s strategy is remarkable in terms of its uniformity. In Well Done (2009), a standard Weber grill seems to have evenly discharged smoke and soot until the entire scene has been enveloped by a smoky, dull haze, the protagonist cloaked in an evenly applied field. Well Done hints at an afternoon gone amok, a barbeque under a dark sun. However, it just as easily shifts our thinking from the object per se, and back to the hand of the artist, the factory, and to the attendant questions of métier in relation to production. The grill is nearly lost in a homogenous landscape that serves to almost completely obscure its existence, and simultaneously refer to its original, uniform high gloss coating.

Goldfarb’s application of various surfaces to her photographs is an evolving and nuanced practice; each composition results in a different visual phenomenon. For example, an extremely reflective sheen covers Surveillance Camera, installed in the Serra House at a high-traffic hallway location. Here, a barely perceptible camera (composed in the same manner as the other works) acts in dialogue with whatever passes in front of the frame, prompting thinking about one’s own relationship to institutional settings.

Citing Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, a series of conversations between artist Robert Irwin and author Lawrence Weschler sustained over the course of several decades, Goldfarb signals that her photographs are designed to interrogate the ways in which viewers apprehend objects through language. Irwin recalls a moment in the early 1960s when he rethought the significance of a painting’s “flatness” in relation to its power as both an image, and its literal physical presence as an object hanging on the wall. Irwin’s epiphany was his realization that a picture constituted a “second order” of vision and perception: the endless chain of significations that an image would impress upon the viewer. In the wake of this realization, the challenge for Irwin was what the artist then dubbed a “less is more” strategy — an attempt to maximize the physical presence of the artwork while simultaneously de-emphasizing the imagery.

Goldfarb’s photographs speak to Irwin’s strategic suspension of an implied linguistic meaning. But if one believes that Irwin became increasingly focused on an almost Kantian level of concentration, one of pure perception that existed apart from language, then Goldfarb has taken on the bold task of refilling these things with meaning, of reintroducing — a possibly re-gendered — language to the equation. Here, the will to recollection is framed as an active process where the viewer must not only observe, but also participate in the formation of the object.

While the aesthetic impact of these photographs is of a decidedly material order — the works suggest a resonance with color field painting of the 1950s, perhaps even the rigid minimalist production of the mid 1960s — the manner and underlying logic of Goldfarb’s photographs are closer to what critic and art historian Lucy Lippard described in the early 1970s as a process of dematerialization, a deemphasizing of certain material aspects of a work of art (uniqueness, permanence, decorative attractiveness).

Instead of focusing on the formal qualities of the artwork itself — for example, the luster or finish of a sculpture’s surface, the grain of the photograph, the weight of a mimeographed paper, or a lightness of touch when a surface is scraped or inked, etc. — Lippard chose to track a number of other common tendencies found in work dating from 1966–1972, a critical addressing of the actual conditions of “perception, behavior, and thought processes” that formed (and in-formed) the conceptual foundations of much of the photography, performance, text, and paper-based artwork unfolding in the wake of the high minimalism of the mid- and late 1960s.

It is through her attention to the relationship between the faculties of perception and the signifying power of language that Goldfarb suggests another life, one possibly closer to Lippard’s inquiry than Weschler’s, one existing adjacent to the material demands placed upon us by everyday objects, and more akin to questions of perception and subject formation as encountered in poststructuralist theory in the early 1970s.

Goldfarb’s compositions appear deeply motivated by her earlier work with glass and her studies with Jane Marquis, a student of Josef Albers and devotee to the separation and study of minimalist color patterns. But if one takes Color field painting and abstraction of the 1950s and 60s as a starting point, one must acknowledge that this moment was a cultural landscape largely populated by male critics probing heroic male artists. Again, Lippard’s account dovetails with many artistic expressions dating to the period between 1966 and 1972, including those explicitly informed by feminism and institutional critique. When read against this historical grain (as well as against the grain of Irwin's and Weschler's sustained conversation), Goldfarb's approach to words and titles allows for the possibility of thinking through difference in terms of language, as opposed to simply its referent.

But it seems that Goldfarb is not simply suggesting a retreat into a realm of word play. Rather, her formal strategies and titles frequently suggest that "materiality" is not to be understood as simply a self-evident category, but rather a marker of what kind of perceptions we bring to the table. This is especially evident in those compositions registering a longer, more memory-laden and embodied relationship to the passage of time (e.g., Premature Coffin).

The same material logic could thus be lent from Judith Butler's "discursive materiality," a concept that questions the power effects of gender in shaping and defining bodies. It would then seem that Goldfarb's inversion of Weschler's forgetting - recollection - is a terribly complex action. It is first an entreaty to actively participate in completing the work, a call to conjure barely perceptible objects from the mind's eye; it is likewise simultaneously meant to question how the categories of difference and experience color that very journey.

A reception for Rebecca Goldfarb will be hosted on Wednesday, October 28 at 6:00 pm at Serra House. - James Thomas Clayman Institute Graduate Dissertation Fellow and Art Curator.


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