Wall-kicking: Contemporary Art and the Middle Ages

Last time I wrote about ways that we construct history, interpreting facts to produce varying mental images of time periods. I’d also like to add that time periods are in an of themselves constructions. Sure, we can’t change the earth’s orbit, but humans have measured it in myriad ways. The western Gregorian calendar we use now is a sixteenth-century system. The impending Maya apocalypse? Really just the end of one of their calendar cycles. All of which is to say that I am intrigued by the wave of recent scholarship that considers art beyond the contrived borders of any particular time period.

For instance, postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies is a relatively new academic publication in which “contemporary events, issues, ideas, problems, objects, and texts serve as triggers for critical investigations of the Middle Ages.”[1] Hmmm, sounds a bit like my impetus for starting this blog, albeit theirs is in a peer-reviewed format. At present, there is an exhibition of reliquaries called Objects of Devotion and Desire: Medieval Relic to Contemporary Art at Hunter College that incorporates objects from the middle ages to the present. More than a mere ‘reliquaries through the ages’ show, it offers observations of memory and presence that consider the objects’ origins and audience as part of a human experience that transcends the practice of any given age.[2]

I like to think of art history as a contemplation of human nature. How sad is it, then, that I often feel more comfortable talking about Byzantine icons than the art that is being created now? A few recent projects have shaken my tendency to live in the past, thank goodness. One was the catalog essay I mentioned in November. Next came a conversation with my friend Zane. At the opening of his show last month, I struggled to give him a mid-cocktail party critical assessment of the work. (When you look at art for a living, “super cool” doesn’t really count as a contextualized acknowledgment). The result was a lively email conversation and a short piece that I wrote as a more articulated response than what I could conjure up on the fly. I’m publishing it here with the hope that you will check out the show’s closing this Friday (February 18) at Centotto and will join me in kicking down the walls between historical and contemporary art, at least for a day.

Selected works from Zane Wilson's Portrolio X Appunti at Centotto (clockwise from top left): Untitled (Anchor); Drawing for Ground Quiver; Untitled (Box, Noose, Nails); Untitled (Rubber Tree).

Five Responses to Zane Wilson’s Portfolio x Appunti at Centotto
by A.L. McMichael

On Friday, January 21, Bushwick’s Centotto gallery, recognized for its curatorial emphasis on dialogue and text, inaugurated a new exhibition format into its rotation. This format, called Portfolio x Appunti, is one in which an artist’s work is “mediated by a five-tiered framework of specific visual and written appunti, or ‘notes.’” Brooklyn artist Zane Wilson is the first to be featured in this configuration. The exhibition formula offers a structure in which the artist can experiment with specific tiers of information on a worksheet: the pieces on exhibit; five lines of text about concepts and contexts; five more on materials and processes; five lists (of inspiration or sources); and five studio shots. In light of the five-themed structure, I offer commentary on five elements of the sculptural exhibition.

1. Tactility. The show’s most striking object, a large wood and latex anchor, has the texture and color of skin. There’s an icky and mesmerizing feel to the latex coating many of the surfaces in the exhibition. More than a few viewers felt an uncontrollable need to touch the art, to interact with it, to see each piece from multiple angles. How many people couldn’t help fondling the tip of that anchor tantalizing them from above? How disconcerting is it to touch what looks like wood grain and feel rubber? This art demands action as much as vision. Everyday objects from tools to fingers are imbued with a lively tangibility.

2. Materials. There are combinations of materials that really shouldn’t really make sense coming together to form cohesive objects. The materials themselves make these objects into more than what they represent. Materials that carry social connotations—wood (life, nature), rubber (protection, sexuality, waterproofness)—make a viewer linger.

3. Objects. The chosen objects carry social connotations, shown in ways that are contrary to their roles in the ‘real’ world. The anchor, a weight, hangs above our heads by a rope, an element that can keep you anchored or pull you to safety. It can also be wound into a noose. A unicorn horn, a symbol of purity (or the loss of it) is made from a drill bit. Is it mounted to the wall or piercing its wooden base? These are not a collection of ‘real’ objects and not mere re-creations. They’re references to objects made with a layer of inherent meaning conveyed via the chosen materials.

4. Playfulness. (And its very sharp edge). There’s liveliness and joviality in a chunky latex saw that couldn’t cut down trees or in arrows that droop over their ground quiver. There’s a chuckle in fingers emerging from records on the wall or in the play on words when you realize Wilson has made a literal rubber tree. These serve as an unspoken dialogue between artist and viewer. The witticisms have shadows lurking in their corners, however. The vitality of the drill bit horn is crowned with a hot pink noose. The color laughs in the face of morbidity. The floppy arrows are incapacitated weapons. Nearby a hanging faux bois box holds hand-carved nails large enough to crucify or drive a railroad stake, but there’s nothing inside to be pierced. Is the measure of darkness or cheerfulness in these juxtapositions a reflection of the artist or of the viewer?

5. Words. Or lack of them, on the part of the artist. He shares many of his influences and inspirations in the five written appunti. However, he offered very little in terms of interpretative commentary on individual pieces during his artist talk. He lets the work speak for itself, leaving it open-ended. Part of me wants to howl until he explains every object, and the other part delights in filling in those gaps for myself. He gives hints in the titles; a pink rubber hammer for someone “all thumbs in love” plays on words and alludes to human fragility. The objects and their symbolism to the artist are an example of the personal made public, silently reminding us that there’s a soul behind these creations, but we’re only allowed a glimpse at it. Aspects of this show are reminiscent of the artist’s past work—which included images of genitalia or cartoons, for instance—but the references have evolved in their emphasis of the body and nature and manmade objects interacting to convey a sense of humanity throughout the show.


[1] From the Facebook page of postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies. Accessed February 14, 2011, https://www.facebook.com/pages/postmedieval-a-journal-of-medieval-cultural-studies/117178721653018. See also http://www.palgrave-journals.com/pmed/

[2] For the exhibition catalog, including images and essays by my professor, curator Cynthia Hahn, and her students at Hunter College, go to www.objectsofdevotionanddesire.com for links and a downloadable PDF. Better yet, go see the exhibition at the Bertha & Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery at 68th Street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, now through April 30. (Open Tuesday – Saturday 1:00 – 6:00 pm).

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