I Don’t Feel Guilty
Matt Browning at Gandt
April 15 – June 5, 2022
The show “Basement of Art” is something of a short, condensed excursion into art during the interwar years. It starts with the carving pieces (2013–ongoing), each cut out of a single block of wood that unfolds into a bounded grid. What appears at first as an exercise in a redemptive ethics of consumption (”how to use resources in the most efficient way”/”how can I contribute to a better world”) is really a reference to Rodchenko’s hanging constructions from the early 1920s. The major difference is that Rodchenko’s pieces expanded into a variety of forms such as a three-dimensional sphere. These spheres were then supposed to go on tour to the newly built Soviet factories to make the dream of modernization more widely available to the peasants turned workers, functioning like a logo or allegory for Communism, a new social order imagined as an infinite amount of circles within circles or squares within squares. The other major difference is that Rodchenko’s sculptures were also something of a lie: Some were made with wood veneers, others looked like metal (a symbol of 1920s modernization theory) but were actually painted plywood, possibly due to the scarcity of resources in the Communist war economy of the early 1920s. Instead of speaking to the truth of the material as Browning’s cedar carvings seem to suggest, Rodchenko was working to get the message across.
Indeed, it remains unclear whether the show is really an exercise in the form-politics of the interwar years or a rehearsal of the way in which the postwar minimalists nostalgically mined their predecessors to extract a depoliticized aesthetics. Take Plastic Freedom (2022), a sculpture in the shape of a very small pillow made of plastic bottles found on the street. This time, the title holds the hermeneutic key to unlock the meaning, a quote from Meyer Schapiro’s famous talk “The Social Bases of Art,” which he gave at the first American Artists’ Congress in 1936 in New York, the heyday of Popular Front art. The freedom Schapiro described in front of the hundreds of artists turned WPA art workers is a somewhat double-edged, if not entirely negative one, as he defines modernism’s escape into the leisure of formal experimentation to be completely locked in the individualist middle-class patterns of consumption. For Schapiro, the only way out of this bohemian cul-de-sac is to leave behind an art “committed to the aesthetic moments of life” and instead concern oneself “with the world around them in its action and conflict” and “ask the same questions that are asked by the impoverished masses and oppressed minorities.”
The question is what happens if we take Plastic Freedom by its word? In melting found bottles from Brighton Beach, the sculpture appears to rehearse the idea that artistic production is determined by the patterns of consumption it is surrounded by. But where is the second part of Schapiro’s point, namely his request for artistic practices to finally move beyond their middle-class complacency and tell stories from the front lines? Why does everything appear so incredibly immobile and passive, to a point where even liquids are transfigured into solid forms (The Ground Lens, 2022)? In the PR, we are dutifully reminded of the ’70s truism, namely that artists will never be able to inhabit the position of people at the bottom. All they can do is scavenge their own conditions, acknowledge them, accept their guilt. But this is the opposite lesson that we could be learning from the interwar years. There are ways to get rid of the first-person singular, just try.