Glass Plane, White Wall, Steel Grid
By Sarah Lookofsky
Traces of Modern Structural Forms in Contemporary Art
The steel frames, the sparse interiors, the white walls, and their glass counterparts are structural elements that designate the real manifestations and abstract generalizations of modernist architecture. The bare structures represent the surfaces upon which the discourses of modernism have been played out. There has been a considerable impulse in contemporary art of recent decades to take up and redeploy modernist design parameters and structural systems. Often such practices have involved a reworking of the surfaces and images of the modern.
Informed by and coinciding with recent discourses that problematize the modernist ideological project, specifically in terms of gender and class critiques, artists relate to an architecture that no longer can be viewed on structural terms alone. The possibilities of attaching lavish meanings to the unadorned glass and white walls are endless, producing a constant layering of significance onto quite feeble structural supports. Many of the contemporary elaborations seem to adapt the very techniques of modernism, using these pared down structural elements as the sites for their own ideological layering and critique. Artists have drawn attention to the ideologically steeped structural elements that otherwise tended to annihilate themselves as parts to the whole. The glass wall, that otherwise served as a mere mediator to facilitate the exterior upon the interior and vice versa, thus drawing attention away from itself, becomes the object of very directed material attention. Artists like Dan Graham and Siah Armajani have repeatedly lifted the glass plane from the modernist structure. Graham’s pieces often reveal a deep-seated irrationality in glass, which goes against the asserted rationale of Bauhaus architects, while at the same time crystallizing how the structure primarily functions to frame the human body.
The surfaces of the modern are blank. In traditional photographic renderings, the interiors appear uninhabited and depopulated – only an occasional Scandinavian lamp enters the scene, just as Mies’ Barcelona chairs are placed in perpetual "conversation" with one another. In several contemporary pieces, the genre of photography depicting modernist architecture has been disassembled. As an example, in his series of images entitled l.m.d.v.r. The German photographer, Thomas Ruff, takes on the photographic history of depicting an iconic building. As with Ruff’s usual subject matter, human portraits, a canon of viewpoints has been established from which the legendary structures of Mies are captured. In his series, Ruff takes on these conventional angles, questioning them and accordingly refashioning them, revealing the architectural subconscious in views never before generated. In a similar vein, Luisa Lambri re-photographs Mies’ structures, charging up the blank interiors with strangely ephemeral and mystical qualities.
Other works are invested in invigorating these barren interiors with life. In works by Sam Durant, beer bonging and other lowly activities are collaged onto the midst of a modernist home, bringing forth the implied classicist implications that these structures silently assume. Similarly, in Le Baiser/The Kiss, by Inigo Manlano-Ovalle, a window-washer and a female DJ are set on the scene of Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth. The glass house was originally unhappily inhabited by Edith Farnsworth, a single woman in her fifties in the fifties, whose signs of living is excluded from most photographic representations of the home. By placing figures within these structures ,the works show what many critics have remarked: within this system, the inhabitant is reduced to nothing more than her positionality within a set of axes. A person is framed in steel on a white backdrop visible through an exterior glass plane.
Despite recent critiques, modernism has hardly ended; its dysfunctionality continues to be churned out in new versions. The post- of modernism thereby in its most common contemporary examples is a mere continuation of the same minimal, steel, concrete, and glass forms – rather than being anything radically new and different — after modernism enters neo-modern chic. In contemporary art practices that employ the forms of modern design, there is a broad affirmation of the fact that modernism did go wrong, yet there is everywhere the complacent confirmation of; yet here it is! Rather than invoking a game-over-end-all stance, many contemporary artworks rather seem to investigate the implications of a profoundly ideologically dysfunctional system that is still stylistically in place. Many works even exhibit a sense of tongue-in-cheek nostalgia, longing for the original forms that most contemporary structures are somehow always unconsciously dedicated homages to. Tom Sachs, as if in an attempt to revisit and celebrate the traditional structures, redoes traditionally uncelebrated segments from classical structures (the staircase of a Le Corbusier housing project, for example) in small-scale, highly detailed models. Artists like Jorge Pardo, Andrea Zittel and Tobias Rehberger do not redo the modern, but instead reference these architectural parameters as inevitable traces on their newly fashioned, abbreviated architectural forms.
Many artworks exhibit refractions of architecture into different multi-media manifestations that grapple with its produced and reproduced faults. Kevin Appel has created several four-panel paintings that wrap the room of the gallery. When standing centrally in the room, a perspectival rendering of a modernist house, perceived from the vantage point of the gallery-turned-interior-courtyard unfolds. Here, all the stylistic parameters of modernism are in place, the blank surfaces, and the grid-like organization. Modernism is evoked, but it is as if this modernism has been stripped even barer than the forms from which it was derived. It is a synthetic modernism that was created digitally on the basis of Appel’s modernist fantasies. Appel then extracted these images from their virtual spatiality and flattened them onto canvases to produce a painted illusion of depth. The architectural edifice is brought about by washes of paint in pastel tones of blue, green, and gray, profoundly confusing otherwise clear-formed divisions between white wall and transparent glass plane, between transparency and opacity. Kevin Appel exhibits Bauhaus precision in eliminating ornament, paring the structure down, to an exhibition of its functions upon the surface alone. Here, all that is left is the stylistics, completely vacated from ideological content. The modernist dualities have broken down to singular elements — here exterior and form have canceled out interior and function. Despite architectural simulation, Appel’s works guard the specificities of the painted medium. Like much perspective-oriented painted surfaces, the compositions lead the gaze inward, while at the same time constantly keeping the spectator conscious of the fallacy of the surface. Similarly, the architectural rendering in their compositions of lines and blocks of color constantly hover between coming together as space, while exhibiting a parallel pull towards the dissolution into abstraction. Hovering in a liminal zone, this domesticity is situated somewhere between surface and image – between a 3D rendering, an architectural structure, and a painted surface. The spectator is stuck in a resonant flatness, the illusion continually fails to convince. As if a space that has frozen into an image of its former presence, modern architecture has become a distant ideal construct that has been reduced to the flatness of aesthetic illusionism. The surfaces of modernism have here been officially vacated. These structures clamp down on all attempts at entry — they are neither inhabited nor inhabitable.