13 April 2015
image: Janine Antoni, to long (Detail) (2014), Polyurethane resin, 67 x 26 x 21 in., (c) Janine Antoni
NEW YORK — I have been thinking about pedestals lately. Their use is one of those conventions of display that has worn so thin you can’t help but see through it. Their ubiquity is only trumped by their clumsiness. Like the fishing line that hoists an object into the air so it appears to float, there is a convention of invisibility that we are being asked to accept, despite vision’s insistence to the contrary. It has been noted that the pedestal is the analog to “the frame” in 2D art, but it has not provoked anywhere near the degree of discussion and experimentation that the latter has. Like “the frame,” the pedestal denotes the boundary between reality and the illusory world of art. It also connotes preciousness and status, and on a more practical level, keeps work safe from being tripped over, and allows the height of viewing to be adjusted.
I have seen several strategies for dealing with the problem of the pedestal. Both Brancusi and Rodin sought to incorporate it into their work — Rodin by carefully designing it as an integral element, or omitting it altogether as needed, and Brancusi by using it as a decorative extension of the sculpture. Another approach that bravely acknowledges the pedestals presence is more design-oriented. The pedestal is manufactured to echo and reinforce the aesthetic of the work. This ends up looking like a shop display. The most typical approach, of course, is the “false denial,” which is basically to put the work on a white pedestal and pretend its not there. Finally, there is the “radical denial,” ie. putting the work directly on the floor.
This brings me, in a roundabout way, to Janine Antoni’s current exhibition at Luhring Augustine gallery. More specifically, the seven cast polyurethane resin sculptures that occupy the first gallery. There is a lot to say about this work, notwithstanding its relationship to the aforementioned pedestal problem, but I want to begin there because I feel it provides an important way in.
All of the sculptures are uniformly white, creating an initial impression of calm otherworldliness. It is as if you are looking at the ghosts of sculptures, or their memories. Each white form reveals itself to be unique from the others, and composed of what can be viewed as discrete parts or components. Of these components, one plays the role of the pedestal or plinth, in that it provides a surface on which the other components can rest. Antoni has some fun with this idea. Upon entering the space, the first sculpture fairly trumpets that it is sitting on a pedestal — tall and narrow, with equal sides. On the pedestal rests a pillow, and on this pillow rests “the sculpture.” Within that deceptively mundane sequence of observations, the viewer’s expectations are completely overturned. A second look reveals that everything, from plinth to head in this case, is made from the same white resin. The hierarchy collapses. The pedestal is not only part of — it is the sculpture — no less than the things that rest upon it.
Now that we are all in on the joke, lets move on to the other works. “Pedestals” in evidence include a sisal rug, an overturned flower pot, a stool, and a wall-mounted cabinet. Thanks to Antoni’s first bit of philosophical wizardry, it seems clear that if a pedestal can be a sculpture (of a pedestal), then any of these common household items can function admirably as a pedestal while at the same time being an integral part of the work. Good. We are no longer pretending that the thing the work sits on top of (the thing we see quite clearly — large, white and cumbersome as it is) doesn’t exist. This puts us on more honest footing, which I believe is one of Antoni’s intentions.
The upper elements of each sculpture depict assemblages of human bones, and their fleshier counterparts — body parts. They are all stranger than they look. Once again, Antoni seduces us into accepting something before we are able to claim its absurdity. Each of these considers the body in its dual identity as structure and as vessel. They also partake in the lineage of still life and memento mori. By displaying explicitly female body parts on pedestals, Antoni brings up unsettling ideas about the female identity and experience. This is reinforced by the one sculpture I haven’t mentioned yet. It is a basket-shaped vessel formed of delicately curving rib bones. It sits directly on the floor, and it points, however elliptically, to the status of craft and utility as gender-identified, denigrated practices within the art world. Dissected, put back together, and displayed on a plinth, the female body is here in danger of becoming a commodity, a trophy, and worst of all, an empty shell.
Fortunately, Antoni’s move to bridge the objectifying pedestal with the domestic setting her alternate pedestals evoke sounds a note of triumph. Moreover, there are cracks in the structure — quite literally. The flower pot is breaking apart. One of the rungs of the stool is looking more like a living branch then turned and finished wood. This revolt against the static, orderly and paternalistic structure of the past is echoed in the titles of the works — “to return,” “to channel,” “to coalesce.” The infinitive verb form suggests flux and transformation — an openness and fluidity that humans aspire to.
One last note — there is a video work in the back gallery — a collaboration between Antoni and choreographer Stephen Petronio, called “Honey Baby.” I wasn’t that into it. Janine, if you are reading this, I would have liked to have seen more dick.