Imaginary Monuments is a subtle but deftly curated group exhibition consisting of four artists: Amiee Burg, Mark Dixon, Thale Fastvold, and Emily Hass, organized by Ortega y Gasset Projects member Fritz Horstman. The exhibition, which ran from April 25 – May 31, 2015, consisted of paintings, sculpture, and photography- all of which share an affinity for memorializing the legacy of Modern art. The exhibition encompasses two aspects of Modern Art’s rich historic legacy: one that gradually became more Modern as it shed the traditions of late Nineteenth Century pastoral landscape painting, and the other that radically broke with its classical predecessor (think of the Russian Formalists and the Bauhaus.) Imaginary Monuments is a touchstone for reflecting on these two historic trajectories. The curatorial frame does not feel forced; rather the realization of these legacies gently hangs in the air during and after the exhibition.
For most people monuments are sites to remember historic events and people. In the case of Imaginary Monuments, the exhibition is a direct reference to art, which ontologically speaking always sits next to reality but, art can never be a stand in for the actual thing it is concerned with. If Monuments are sites that we visit to heal ourselves and reconcile ourselves to past events or historic traumas, does Horstman’s exhibition do this with Modern Art? In one sense, Modern Art already has this particular aspect of mourning already built into it, because to be Modern is to be autonomous and with autonomy comes the experience of melancholy. We are partially separate from nature, but we somehow still feel connected to it, humanity exists somewhere between the Modern and what came before it. The German Idealists believed that we came from Utopia and Modernity yearns to recreate that project, but this goal always has always alluded society. The work of art becomes the site and the key to this project because it does not seek to entangle its creator by creating an oppressive system; rather art seeks to create an open proposition.
In Sheilah Wilson’s interview with Fritz Horstman, Wilson suggests that the contemporary life of monuments take on a role in which their signification switches back and forth between being useful and falling out of use for their community. Artists have the ability to intervene on behalf of the monument, because of the unique capabilities that art possesses, artists can re-submit the sign of the monument back toward the public for consideration. This is also true of works of art and specific aesthetic forms that may have fallen out of fashion. Artists then can reconstitute both monuments and works of art.
With so much focus on Contemporary art these days it is often overlooked that work that is Contemporary has still been concerned with Modern Art since the 1960s. Take for example the work of Richard Serra or Gerhard Richter, which is still ongoing. In the 1960s and the 70s no one would have predicted an interest in the Modernist project would have lasted as long as it did beyond the critical skepticism of Postmodernity. Richter’s work during the 60s and the 70s certainly appeared to be more postmodern, but now over the span of 60 plus years, his works seems much more optimistically Modern. The work in Imaginary Monuments clusters itself to the same riverbed of art making in which these two artists established their projects. The process of making art is one in which I believe smaller gains are made in terms of aesthetic novelty, stopping along the way and admiring these artists timely contributions is the timely action to take.
The photographs by Thale Fastvold and paintings by Mark Dixon carry the earlier legacies of Pastoral and pictorial imagery of Modern Art in their respective contributions. What’s interesting about pairing Fastvold and Dixon is that the mediums, photography and painting, endlessly reference the other. Since the post-war years, the slippage between these two mediums- particularly with the dawning of the digital image- has become ubiquitous. The specificity of their point of origin becomes detached. Fastvold’s black and white photographs of parks in Greece and Norway feature strange wisps of foggy smoke and take on another quality altogether when read in the light of the coding that shifts between photography and painting. If Fastvold’s photographs are read in the context of painting, the subject matter of the ghostly floating mist can be interpreted as a cancelation: an abstract figure which interrupts Fastvold’s lush tonal pastoral landscapes. They also read in the context of photography; they are just unintentional photographic anomalies. The works in the exhibition have a double reading. Mark Dixon’s paintings of solitary monuments clearly reference the reproducibility of photography. The paintings reference the qualities of photography in their blurring of the paint mark that unifies the totality of Dixon’s paintings. Thus, Dixon’s and Fastvold’s contributions play an endless ping pong match of formal, contextual, and historical concerns off of each others work.
Aimee Burg’s table of handmade objects leave nature behind. The spirit of their abstraction hangs on Modern Architecture, tools, vessels, and geometry. These are objects that in ‘real life’ have a utility function, but Burg’s objects do not offer the spectator habitation or any real functional use. Rather, they put the imagination of the viewer into action by making associations to known things.
Emily Hass’ drawings are the most metonymic in this exhibition. I don’t know if I or any other spectator would have been able to apprehend any further meaning of their form and content relations. In some ways, Hass’ work is formally interesting enough not to get overly concerned in the content’s meaning upon first encounter. But the significance of the content can matter and be rewarding information. The source or intent behind Hass’ drawings as revealed in Horstman’s essay are to memorialize architectural fragments from buildings occupied by her family and other socially related German Jewish artists and intellectuals during the Nazi occupied period of Germany. Her father left the country and later prompted Hass to uncover their family heritage. The artist started with her father’s childhood home. As Horstman’s essay further relates, “One of the drawings, Kaiserdamm, 20 Triangle is a detail of the former Berlin Address of World War I veteran and artist Otto Dix.” Because Hass’ drawings function as a fragment and is removed from the totality of the architectural structure it is representing, the spectator is left with a highly compact and almost opaque symbol. But the drawings are wonderfully metonymic in their geometric configurations, which if understood in the context of the Modern Romantic fragment, is important in its own right. The fragment becomes just as important as opposed to Hass having chosen to depict the whole building itself. Hass’ work shares an affinity with other Modern works whose meanings are difficult to define.
Another work by Hass, String-Nail Drawing signification shifts between painting, sculpture, and drawing occupying a human sized area of wall. The work consists of three books that are open and connected to each other by a slim wooden dowel. A single string forms triangles that run through the entirety of the book only to run off the boundary of the physical pages and onto the wall. Directly below the book the string hangs on both side to form and incomplete square as if to suggest that this drawing goes on forever or that there is space left to the spectator to use their imagine to reconfigure themselves. This is one of my favorite pieces in the show as it invites the spectator to take part in the work.
Imaginary Monuments is a handsomely curated reflection on current art being made in reference to Modernism. While the exhibition is modest in scope, it does not disappoint in capturing the totality of Modern Art. I applaud Horstman with getting my attention with a concise and fleshed out show rather than over doing it. I would love to see more shows like this.