The Walker Art Center makes us look twice at life’s most ordinary objects.
This article originally appeared in the March issue of Art & Antiques Magazine as “Uncanny Doubles”.
By John Dorfman
You walk into a kitchen with a yellow stove, yellow refrigerator, red, brown and yellow-tiled walls, dark brown wooden cabinets and pale yellow Formica on the countertops and floors. Through a side door you glimpse a hallway with bright red carpeting, a red mushroom-shaped seat and wallpaper imprinted with what look like fleurs-de-lys on acid. Are you asleep, dreaming of your childhood? Have you been time-warped to an early ’70s department store’s kitchen demonstration room? Actually, you are in the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, viewing artist Keith Edmier’s 2008 Bremen Towne, an installation that is prominently featured in the Walker’s current show “Lifelike” (February 25–May 27) dedicated to art from the 1960s through today that painstakingly recreates ordinary objects from everyday life, focusing our consciousness on the things we live with most and pay attention to the least.
According to curator Siri Engberg, the strand of realism this exhibition explores began shortly after Pop art brought representation back from the brink. But the work in this show is not Pop—it’s less flashy, less jokey, and while it often deals with mass-produced culture, it tends to eschew the iconic. (Pop master Jasper Johns is in the show, however, with a slice of white bread made of painted lead and a coffee tin stuffed with paintbrushes.) Instead of American flags, comic strips and giant Marilyns, we get a pink rubber eraser, a tortoiseshell comb (both by Vija Celmins), a box of tissues (Robert Gober), a pile of laundry (Sylvia Plimack Mangold). And while some of the painters here, such as Chuck Close and Robert Bechtle, work from photographs and aim for a heightened realism, their goals are different from those of Photorealists such as Richard Estes. They’re not singing hymns to the shiny surfaces of urban life; they’re engaging in a process intended to have very specific effects on both viewer and artist.
“One thing that really binds the artists in this show together,” says Engberg, “is the privileging of process over products. For most of them, it’s about the route to getting there. They set up very rigid parameters for themselves, which is grounded in the legacy of conceptual art.” For viewers, Engberg explains, knowing the process adds a whole other dimension to the visual experience. Looking at a pink rubber eraser by Celmins, one realizes that this object wasn’t pumped out in seconds by a machine but made by a person over days or weeks. In the case of Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds (2009), 1600 people in a Chinese village dedicated themselves to hand-crafting millions of tiny porcelain facsimiles of the seeds. Whether group or individual, says Engberg, “you have to consider the labor involved and the time, in this day and age when those are hard to come by.”
Many of the works in the show have a whimsical aspect, such as Yoshihiro Suda’s Weeds (2009), hand carved, intricately painted plants that are intended to be displayed rising out of cracks in the gallery floor, or Jonathan Seliger’s Heartland (2010), a much-larger-than-life milk carton. But there’s a philosophical agenda afoot here, having to do with the nature of perception. Celmins has stated that when she makes a three-dimensional work, such as her 1970 Untitled (Comb), she conceives of it as a painting rather than a sculpture. “She thinks of it as something that fell out of the picture plane,” says Engberg, who relates this approach to the time-honored practice of trompe l’oeil. Another artist in the show, John Haberle, engages directly with the 19th-century American trompe l’oeil tradition with paintings such as The Slate (1995), a blackboard with children’s scrawls on it and a piece of chalk seeming to dangle right in front of the picture plane.
In addition to issues of space and representation, the artists’ choice of subject matter itself has a philosophical purpose. “All the artists are interested in very banal objects that we pass by every day and discard,” says Engberg. The labor that goes into them and the recontextualization of the object in a museum setting “endows them with a poetic energy. They’re very contemplative.” In her starry Night Sky paintings, Celmins (a guiding spirit of this exhibition) was so contemplative that, as she has written, “I am leaving out the comet [from the source photograph] because I can’t stand an event that exciting in there.”
Contemplating anything—whether the celestial sphere or a milk carton—long enough can cause it to lose or change its meaning or cross over into the territory of the uncanny. As an example, Engberg cites Gober’s Untitled (1997), one of the artist’s “psychological furniture” pieces. It consists of a box of tissues resting on a plastic chair, under which is a mysterious drain in the floor. Of course all of this was fabricated from scratch, not put together from found objects; the exhibition catalogue calls such works “remade readymades.”
Even uncannier are works, such as those by Duane Hanson and Ron Mueck, that are replicas of that most common of all everyday objects—ourselves. These life-size, painted figural sculptures both fascinate and repel; they inhabit what computer scientists call “the uncanny valley”—the cognitive zone in which an attempt to replicate a human being comes too close for comfort but not quite close enough to convince.
Edmier’s Bremen Towne is an attempt to recreate the kitchen of the house he grew up in in Chicago four decades ago. For his purposes, memory alone wouldn’t serve, so he used old photos as source material. Flipping through the family album, Edmier would ignore the relatives and focus on the backgrounds. He hand-drew the wallpaper pattern and then had it fabricated. The dinette set is a piece of cast sculpture, not found furniture (although the artist did find some of the work’s components on Ebay). The end result, says Engberg, “becomes this amazing period room. As you look through the pass-through window, you imagine you might pass the casserole into the dining room. You’re transported into another moment and immerse yourself in something that is hyperreal.”
With all the artworks in “Lifelike,” Engberg says, the viewer’s experience “is a three-stage process: The first stage is that it’s not real; the second is that it’s a facsimile; the third is that it’s a work of art. Your sensations go from confusion to curiosity to a sense of wonder.”