The Stockholder Code
Jessica Stockholder at Michell-Innes & Nash

FORGET DAN BROWN. THE “GREATEST COVERUP IN HUMAN HISTORY” has nothing to do with Mary Magdalen. The furtive truth is more absurd than the Da Vinci Code and is hidden in plain view: Visual art is no longer made to be looked at. Whatever appears on the wall, floor or ceiling is irrelevant. Contemporary art — that hermetic strain of it, bred and blessed by academia — exists solely as a signature of self-declared artistic identity. (Harold Rosenberg had something similar in mind when he noted that there was no longer any such thing as contemporary art. There were only contemporary artists.)

Jessica Stockholder

It does not take a cryptographer to understand the sculpture of Jessica Stockholder, Director of Graduate Studies in Sculpture at Yale. But cryptoanalysis is handy for deciphering the patois of publicists and anointed art appreciators. So, Reader, put on that secret decoder ring you found in a Cracker Jack box and wear it to Mitchell-Innes & Nash.

Professor Stockholder’s installation is “an invitation to enjoy the multiplicity of meaning embedded in the formality of all kinds of objects.” Run your ring over that sentence and up comes a signal that carving, casting or any other disciplined assertion of man’s prerogative over raw materials is off the menu. Sculpture, as understood since Cycladic times, was yesterday’s dish. Today, any 3-dimensional object is a sculpture; every definition is an interpretation up for grabs.

Sculpture here means manic piles of stuff: plastic baskets and buckets, hardware, skeins of yarn, throw-cushions, lamps, soap dispensers, light bulbs, nylon tulle — a scrap heap of rejectamenta. Crude swaths of brightly colored paint wander the miscellany in search of honest purpose. Untitled, numbered works are assembled on site, suggesting impromptu decorations for a frat party fribbled together from whatever is in the utility room.

“#436” (2006) is a catchpenny tangle of electric wires, metal and plastic parts, a shower curtain, expanding foam, bungee cords, hand weights , wooden brackets, a canvas folding chair, cabinet parts and a gunked-up Smith Corona stacked under several unidentifiables suspended from the wall. Arbitrary paint splotches signify “an ongoing dialogue about the possibilities of painting.”

The gallery checklist specifies components of each work with the attention due Quattrocentro altarpieces: “fluorescent: 4 feet x 7.5 x 4 inches; blue tub: 18.5 x 13 inches in diameter; plywood and paint: 4 feet x 23.5 x 3/4 inches,” and so on, measured also in centimeters for rigorous accuracy. “Height variable.”

Ad hoc compositions illustrate the professor’s contention that she is “trying to get closer to thinking processes as they exist before the idea is fully formed.” One idea she successfully arrests before it matures is that of felicitous form. No alchemy transforms random banalities. Lime green Tupperware remains … well, lime green Tupperware. The rest is commentary.

On view is a bankrupt residuum of Dada minus the formal intelligence, panache or frequent beauty of the near-century old original (itself a cobbling together of earlier avant gardisms). Ademicized Dada, a.k.a. contemporary art, institutionalizes a degraded sophistication indistinguishable from childishness. The professor’s magpie improvisations would be blameless as rainy-day projects for bored moppets. By ill hap, these arrive not from the family garage but from Yale, solemnized as “multi-media genre-bending installations that have become a prominent language in contemporary art.” That is why we are here talking about them.

Interviewed a few years ago in the “Journal of Contemporary Art”, Professor Stockholder confided: “It doesn't matter what I use. It can be anything. What's interesting is how what I'm doing meets with the stuff I use.” In other words — If your ring is working — her art constructs itself in an unguided, broom closet variant of the the Big Bang. The artist presides as a fascinated observer of the force of inertia on happenstance ( an admitted ingredient of her oeuvre). No honor is given to mastery or method, means by which the shaping intellect expresses itself.

Language is the crux of exhibitions like this. Sculpture’s collapse into accident is inextricable from the corruption of language bequeathed us by the academy, our own Priory of Sion. Words are the academy’s Grail, the chalice of salvation that redeems indifferent talents by turning artmaking into a verbal proposition. That inversion delegitimizes the testimony of our own eyes and barricades art from critical judgment. In the abyss of deconstruction, spin prevails. The breach between what you see and what is said about it — the rhetorical gymnastics, the bloated references — raises bluff to a professional code.

Don Judd’s 1965 boast that sculpture was “finished” did not mean its achievements were exhausted. It meant only that the supply side preferred products that defied canons of discernment. While Judd understood the art world, Andre Malraux understood the dynamic balance between continuity and change: “During periods when all previous works are disdained, genius languishes; no man can build on the void, and a civilization that breaks with the style at its disposal soon finds itself empty-handed.”

All the pointless daubs of paint call to mind “Claude and Madeleine,” Edward Marriott’s 1995 story of real-life French agents who worked for the British Secret Service in World War II. It recounts the night that Madeleine, for a lark, brushed red paint over the testicles of the sleeping crewmen on her lover’s private warship. That was genre-bending. Professor Stockholder just plays pattycake.

While the art is a nullity, the ethos it embodies — the squandered freedom — has consequences far beyond the deformation of artistic impulses. Our civilization has no guarantee; those who would annihilate it have already knocked at the door. But a culture lulled by cultivated and credentialed puerility cannot hear the sound of the knob turning.


“Jessica Stockholder” at Mitchell-Innes & Nash until October 14 (534 West 26th Street, Tel. 212-744-7400). Prices: $20,000 - $65,000.

This essay first appeared in The New York Sun on September 14, 2006.

Copyright 2006, Maureen Mullarkey

HOME        CONTENTS                 RSS logo RSS FEED