The Echo of the Object
The Echo of the Object sounds a familiar note, in that we might expect a contemporary mixed-media exhibit to bear such a resonant title. But what does it mean? According to the exhibit catalogue written by Ball State University art historian Lara Kuykendall, “an object’s echo is a reverberation of its presence and meaning, and that meaning lingers in our imagination.”
The distinction between an “echo” and a “reverberation” is difficult enough to maintain. But can the “meaning” of an inanimate object be equated with its “presence?” The artists in this group exhibition pose that question by dramatizing how the imposition of a definitive meaning fails not only to contain an object’s inherent qualities but also to preempt different perceptions of it. Consider, for instance, Jacinda Russell’s photographs of twelve lunch bags (12 For 7 Years As An Adjunct Professor: 2000-2007), each one a carefully staged portrait that emphasizes the highly subjective and conspicuous eye of the camera.
Unlike, say, the deadpan black and white photographs of weathered gas tanks that Bernd and Hilla Becher arranged into grids . . .
. . . Russell provides us with a form of historical documentation which records, in Kuykendall’s words, the “development of . . . [her] visual autobiography.” The Bechers’ austere depiction of codified structures offers a striking contrast to Russell’s ironic investigation of the narcissistic tendency to transform seemingly incidental objects (like a shopworn brown paper bag toted about by a beleaguered adjunct as a defiant badge of honor) into vehicles of self-expression.
The “object” in 12 For 7 indeed takes on a life of its own, which in part indicates that its significance is not reducible to the meaning the title confers on the photographs. For instance, those facing still dimmer prospects than adjunct professors may envision a paper bag that, when not empty, often contains an anesthetizing object whose consumption induces unpleasantly “lingering” aftereffects in both the imagination and the body. Alternatively, someone possessing an unassuming, quiet artistic sensibility might discover traces of a process not subjected to human control in the very texture and folds of a used paper bag. Indeed, the longing to recapture such a naive sense of wonderment manifests itself in Jacinda 6, Hannah Barnes’s striking “translation” of one of Russell’s photographs into the language of painting.
Barnes’s “portrait” confronts us as an object that seems to have emerged independently of an artistic intention. The same cannot be said, however, about the works of David Hannon—oils on paper and canvas that, like Russell’s photographs, playfully draw attention to their contrived character.
According to Kuykendall, Hannon represents objects (namely, paper bags and busts of Abraham Lincoln) as “characters, stand-ins, [and] personifications that take part in conversations.” In fact, a cleverly “staged” conversation also appears to be taking place between Kuykendall’s commentary and Hannon’s paintings. Kuykendall describes the latter as works that “deal with relationships and personality traits. Using a bust of . . . Lincoln as the ‘optimist’ and often haggard-looking paper bags as a family of ‘pessimists,’ he has developed a series of meetings-in-paint about these two potentially opposing worldviews.”
In and of themselves, pessimism and optimism do not of course amount to worldviews. These terms only take on an ideological “meaning” when placed in specific contexts, as Hannon demonstrates in an extravagant fashion that evokes the early, proto-surrealist works of Giorgio de Chirico.
In The Classroom, for example, simultaneously accentuates and gently mocks the importance of situating art in a secure historical context.
The bags and the bust could very well, as Kuykendall suggests, have convened to hold a debate on “whether industry should be applauded for modernizing our lives or derided for destroying the environment.” Perhaps the wall socket and cords serving some unknown purpose signify modernization. The billows of smoke emanating from a factory in the picture tacked to the makeshift blackboard in this classroom certainly do, though not without forcibly reminding us of increasing levels of pollution.
And how does the bust of Lincoln contribute to the ossifying terms of this debate? It reminds us that the sixteenth president helped spark an industrial revolution during the Civil War by gaining congressional approval for a transcontinental railroad. This could mean the bust personifies a once visionary yet practical optimism that has long since hardened into a spirit of pessimism which seeks consolation by directing its resigned gaze toward a heroic past.
Although not apparent in this particular painting, Hannon has given the “family of pessimists” a defining personality trait: two eyeholes that convert the paper bags into discolored and redesigned Ku Klux Klan hoods.
In Pecking Order, the ghosts of the Klan and Lincoln are lined up like a set of Russian Nesting Dolls.
The Klan’s heirs appear to have contained or absorbed the bust in this parabolic hierarchy—to the point where we can imagine a grim Lincoln staring at us through the eyeholes. If meant as a commentary on contemporary racial politics, this configuration seems to call for “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”
(Downtown Gallery; 106 South Gay Street; Through Sept. 26; open Wed-Fri: 11-6; Sat: 10-3)