[reprinted from the exhibition gallery guide]
Ordinary Madness mines Carnegie Museum of Art’s rich holdings of contemporary art to suggest an unsettling observation: that the ordinary is in fact laced with the contradictory, uncanny, and surreal. The wide array of works on view engage the everyday from various skewed (or perhaps clear-eyed) vantage points, illuminating the bewildering experiences we subconsciously accept as part of our daily lives. Although the selection and comparison of works can be seen as a playful revision of standard art historical narratives, the exhibition’s purpose is to create a conversation interweaving art and life from varied perspectives, highlighting social, psychological, and bodily conditions; the act of making in response to these conditions; and the amalgam of images, materials, and objects that populate our world. This essay offers analysis of selected works.
Ordinary Madness unfolds over a series of intertwined groupings, comparisons that bring together works from across different media and styles, revealing how artists marshal a wide array of dissonant, raw, and otherworldly experiences that are nonetheless founded in the familiar. Such conditions suggest powerfully generative strategies for creating aesthetic experience that can simultaneously threaten a comfortable, cohesive understanding of the world around us.
Yet the exhibition is not about discomfort, per se. Rather, it presents a choreography of connections, breaks, rhymes, and metaphors—within each work, and among works—that ask us to scrutinize the ordinary against a backdrop of madness, a word used with an awareness of its outmoded connotations. (No longer a diagnosed psychological condition, “madness” is more likely to be uttered as an exasperated description of a malfunctioning society.)
Finally, Ordinary Madness addresses the lives of artworks now part of a museum collection. These superlative objects are normally displayed in our permanent galleries as part of the sweep of recent art history; drawing them out of their usual context can refresh their almost visceral, destabilizing impact. We may be able to see ourselves more readily in their content. And in a political culture that fetishizes a nonexistent population known as “ordinary Americans,” time spent among these strange evocations of the ordinary is indeed a reassuring madness.
Shift of the familiar
Large, dark, and hulking, Richard Serra’s monumental sculpture Carnegie (1985), which stands on the museum’s front plaza, escapes human scale and thus almost disappears against the facade. Difficult to view from a distance, Carnegie can appear to the pedestrian as an abstract obstacle or blind spot. Hollow, the work houses a vaguely sinister cavity at its core, inviting unseen activity; and at 25 years old, it bears marks of age on its flanks. Aggressive, proud, direct, and harsh, Carnegie is an inevitable, passive fixture at the intersection of Craig and Forbes, along with the beeping crosswalks, queuing school buses, and distracted undergrads.
How odd that many of us could live around a thing like this and not be jarred every time we see it. The preparatory model for this extraordinary structure is on view just inside the glass doors of the museum’s Heinz Galleries, confronting visitors to the exhibition as its behemoth relative does at the museum’s entrance. At four and half feet, the model is the size of a child. This drastic scale shift alters any prior relationship with the sculpture, replacing an invisible giant with an approachable interlocutor, but also revealing the logic, structure, and planning for a thing that is otherwise either invisible or alien.
Another scale shift is darkly humorous and unsettling. Beyond the model of Carnegie sits Mike Kelley’s Gussied Up (1992), consisting of heavily lacquered furniture fitted with shrunken children’s clothing, dressing wood knobs, legs, and posts . Suggesting the charged atmosphere of the home and a slippage between props, bodies, and clothing, Kelley’s wry anthropomorphism presents the memory of childhood through a troubled lens. Displayed on a worktable, the pieces of furniture function as anonymous archetypes, mannequins for the little outfits fitted to corners and spindles.
The familiarity and comfort of home are predicated on stable spatial relationships. We know rooms’ measurements, their physical contents, and our body’s relationship to them, almost instinctively. Where a sense of the uncanny in Serra’s and Kelley’s works is partly expressed through exaggerated shifts in scale, Doris Salcedo’s Untitled (armoire) of 1992 evokes memory and trauma by offering furniture in its actual size, entombed in that state. Responding to the political violence of her native Colombia, Salcedo fuses furniture with cement and steel rods, creating an impenetrable mass that is both defensive barricade and subsumed resistance. The remnants offer a household’s life upended and disarticulated, sealed and nearly erased.
Politics and history are mined through figurative paintings of seemingly disjunctive imagery: people (or bodies) connect (or don’t); atmospheres are saturated; urgent events are both repressed and revealed.
In Michaël Borremans’s enigmatic painting The Lucky Ones (2002), the dark, antiqued palette suggests a scene from a history book, perhaps women laboring in a factory or attending to some unnamed war effort, although the fruits of their labor are absent. An empty table is worked by empty hands. Despite the painterly surface, the cropping of the image implies a film still or documentary photograph, inferring an action that could be part of some grander, darker narrative.
No less mysterious, but visually explosive in comparison, is Art (2002), Neo Rauch’s painterly send-up of 20th-century Social Realist propaganda art. While the meaning of a traditional history painting is fixed by narrative connecting a series of recognizable symbols, Rauch conjoins jarringly disparate images and references, thus skirting any direct, articulated meanings. The experience of joining the ruptures between odd creatures, wild characters, and even heterogeneous painting styles provides the most powerful content. Rauch taps into deep wells of the Eastern European Cold War subconscious to reinvigorate the heroic genre of history painting, both deflating the promise of such images and making a bizarrely animated painting in the act.
Where the action in Rauch’s painting is often in the spaces between bodies, Peter Saul’s Mr. Welfare (1969)—explicit in its sociopolitical critique of systemic poverty—makes its points in the ways bodies are conjoined. Exploiting the borrowed consumer imagery of Pop Art, Saul pushes grotesque stereotypes to extremes and combines liberation and desecration in the same creative act. With a gleeful exuberance taken in debased imagery and protest, Mr. Welfare exposes bodies as viscerally interconnected with political power structures.
Philip Guston painted Plain (1979) a year before his death, and after he had definitively rejected a luminous, brushy approach to Abstract Expressionism and turned instead toward thickly painted conglomerations of (among other things) limbs, tools, faces, and interior fragments. Guston’s abandonment of abstraction, which shocked its followers at the time, was rooted in his belief in the artist’s responsibility to the world outside the studio and in the need to respond to mounting political travesty (Nixon, Vietnam). Guston’s imagery—hands, nails, planks, and wheels set against a claustrophobic blue sky—is emphatically physical, giving a sense of an almost neurotic struggle in its creation.
Rachel Harrison’s sculpture Utopia (2002), by contrast, seems to suggest an apparent nonchalance; yet the lurid, bulky, rough-hewn form could be taken right out of Guston’s amorphous landscape . An odd conflation of figure and landscape element, the craggy sculpture displays two souvenirs on shelf-like outcroppings: a piece of fool’s gold sits down low, while a miniature, jaunty 18th-century gentleman of the Enlightenment stands on a higher shelf, hands on hips. Harrison replaces Guston’s anguish with a knowing understanding of the relationships between junk, culture, and the “artistically” rendered form. Dwarfed by the very un-sublime mountainous body, the diminutive figure reduces landscape’s potential for awe to an awkward and humorous sculpture that confronts viewers at their own scale.
Such playful yet sardonic confusion of nature and culture finds its most cartoonish manifestation in Red Grooms’s Western Eagle (1980). Using the same mash-up approach as Guston and Harrison, Grooms jams his jokey piece with references to the myth of the American West. The stereotypes of an “Indian” and white man cavort with a weary eagle, oil well, and tourist trinkets. The willful bad taste employed by Guston and Harrison is taken to a new height in Grooms’s provocative icon of American down-market culture.
Instructions, score, plan: The grid and an absent artwork
The grouping of works on paper by Trisha Donnelley, Donald Judd, and Mary Miss underscore the way that art can model larger concepts, both abstract and concrete.
Each work applies the rationality of the grid to plan or document wildly different subjects, corresponding to an event or object rooted in a different experience of time and space.
Judd’s 1974 sketches are specifications for the fabrication of his wall sculpture Disconnected Progression, on view in the Scaife Galleries; his drawing was translated first into a physical object by the fabricator and then, by the viewer, into a spatio-temporal experience of the finished sculpture. Since Judd did not make his own sculptures, but rather directed a fabricator with highly detailed specifications, this drawing offers some access to artistic intention that its corresponding sculpture does not.
Donnelley’s drawings (2001) record a piano piece that she performed in Berlin in which she assigned mapping data from famous historical sea battles to different parts of the keyboard. The ivory and ebony keys, and specific parts of the keyboard, corresponded to particular cartographic locations of the battles. The minimalist, geometric abstraction that results is the most concrete aspect of her project; she fixes in graphite on paper the various events, locations, and histories that have been lost to time, space, and memory.
Mary Miss’s elegant drawing (1977) of an outdoor architectural installation, the most apparently descriptive and pictorial of the group, is nonetheless the most abstract image.
In each case, the viewer’s interaction with the drawing can shift, depending on knowledge of its correlating experience.
The adjacent group of works use a more familiar representational form—narrative—yoked to far less traditional art-making materials. With a darker undercurrent of unrest, these works use symbol, metaphor, and fragmented materials and images to combine some element of a story with looming cultural conditions.
Isa Genzken’s small tabletop sculpture Vampire/Empire III, #1 (2004), from a series made amidst the globalized reverberations of 9/11, has a reflective background that captures and distorts a scene of rubble and fortification. The mirrored surfaces and transparent plastics are intermittently made opaque by spray paint, which also covers toy soldiers. Scale shifts fracture the narrative, zig-zagging between the grand sweep of a battlefield and the cheap materials of a dollar store. Ultimately, it is an atmosphere of fragility and aggression.
The strewn toys in Vampire/Empire III, #1 find an analog in Karen Kilimnik’s 1991 installation I Don’t like Mondays, the Boomtown Rats, Shooting Spree, or Schoolyard Massacre. The Boomtown Rat’s song “I Don’t Like Mondays” plays from a boom box amidst a stuffed dog, toy guns, a lunchbox, and other schoolyard ephemera. The installation is based on a 1979 shooting at a Cleveland elementary school by a 16-year-old girl who killed staff and injured several children. When later asked to explain her actions, she replied, “I don’t like Mondays.” Together the objects in this work comprise an aggressive, unsettling scene that is by turns a shooting range, magazine spread, classroom, child’s bedroom, and crime scene. Things that at first blush appear maddeningly insincere come up against a sense of control, calculation, and clear-eyed knowingness. The total effect is as disturbing and complicated as the cultural and aesthetic conditions that make the work possible.
Tim Rollins and K.O.S.’s 1991 work takes its starting point from an angst-ridden story of biblical proportions, the temptation of Saint Anthony, yet it is also shot through with aspects of childhood. Rollins, who works collaboratively with teenagers (the Kids of Survival), used as a ground for these paintings a page from Gustave Flaubert’s 19th-century novel The Temptation of Saint Anthony. Employing a mixture of blood, alcohol, and acrylic to “lure the ‘primordial figures’ hiding in the text,” Rollins and his teenage collaborators made work that, in their words, is “about the disease that is our times. To make art is to have hope.”
Through a glass. Darkly.
The abjection found in Kilimnik’s installation is given strangely rational form by Barry Le Va’s On Corner – On Edge – On Center Shatter (Within the Series of Layered Pattern Acts) of 1968–1971 which anchors an adjacent gallery of glass, transparent, and reflective works. Repurposing the various functions of glass—mostly architectural and domestic—they bring out aspects of danger, control, and altered perception, which are normally invisible as we see right through this ubiquitous material (or only see ourselves in reflection).
Le Va’s rigid stack of successively shattered layers of plate glass records the trauma of its making in violent and elegant fissures. Made with a cool rationality and following precise instructions, the work nonetheless carries charged connotations. The action (and shattering sound) of its making are always alive in its silent, still presence. The beauty in trauma—found in the painterly passages of Genzken’s sculpture, the atmospheric forms in Rollins’s paintings, the fragile moments in Kilimnik’s scene—is present here in the deep blue depths, reflective edges, and glistening pit of pulverized glass.
Dan Graham has also explored the properties and connotations of glass, but to quite different effect. In a work from 1989, a model for a large-scale pavilion, Graham creates a complex interplay between vision and distortion, playing with gaps, mirrors, and transparent surfaces, revealing the way architecture—particularly Modernist architecture, with its roots in utopian ideals for organized behavior—can control the perception of space and one’s place within it.
Walls and floors, accumulated traces
Architecture is again an implicit subject, but this time through imprints, traces, and subtle destabilizations of floors and walls. Mostly drained of color, the wall that holds a painting or the floor that supports a sculpture become important extensions of the objects themselves. The works of Christopher Wool, Barry Le Va, and Miroslaw Balka instigate multiple ideas of ground—a painting surface, foundation on which to build, a stable and nourishing consistency—which play against each other on the walls and floor of the gallery.
Miroslaw Balka’s tripartite floor sculpture of 1993 is made from evocative materials that conjure sensory experiences, especially of touch and smell: steel, wood, terrazzo, soap, and felt. This range, from the hardness and certainty of steel and terrazzo to the pliancy and comfort of wood, soap, and felt, infers the poles of human experience in the built and familial environment. These softer materials are present only at trace levels: soap fills holes in the terrazzo, and thin felt wafers separate the sculpture from the museum floor. Haunted by the absence of humans, each surface empty yet capable of recording the slightest human trace.
Barry Le Va’s Diagrammatic Silhouettes: Sculptured Activities (Floor over Wall) of 1988 transfers the floor-based energy of his shattered glass sculpture onto a wall-work collage and drawing. The complex diagrammatic mass is made from accumulated representations of architecture: floor plans and abstract silhouettes derived from hybrid plans of floors and walls, as if a building has folded in upon itself. The result is a mesmerizing knot of forms that confuse the clarity normally associated with architectural renderings.
Christopher Wool also generates and fragments a ground in his untitled painting from 2007. Reminding us of painting’s centuries-old promise of a window into another world, Wool’s surface conjures both a dirty, streaked window and a graffitied wall. The painting seems to quote the act of painting, offering a surface that is at once opaque and translucent, synthesizing mark-making as defacement and creation.
Visionary and plainspoken, landscapes of the mind
Clusters of works in kaleidoscopic color crowd in the corner of the gallery: drugged constellations, fiery rock formations, glowing forests, pink and green organic forms, and geometric abstraction on chain link. Visions of landscape open into the mind’s inner world, and seemingly abstract images are anchored in experiences of the real and corporeal.
Charles Burchfield’s watercolors are visionary. The artist developed a grammar of abstract forms made of light, calligraphic brushstrokes and emanating auras to attempt to describe the incredible energy humming about his pstate New York and Ohio environs. Ponds, trees, clouds, skies, and backyards glow, as railroad tracks, worker housing, fences, and street lamps quaver. “Ordinary America”—that elusive demographic touted by politicians as unimpeachably authentic, honest, and plainspoken—is revealed by Burchfield to be aflame with ecstatic energy and finely tuned to the aesthetic vibrations running through everyday experience.
Nearby, a group of playful and suggestive abstract ceramic characters share a platform with a decorated bowl and plate. With a keen sense of the anthropomorphic, Ken Price’s ceramics suggest appendages and orifices, and above all personality. There is both great joy and wicked subversion in their plainspoken presence. And along with the colorful vessels, there are scenes of modest middle-class bungalows (with a car in the driveway) painted on a wholly recognizable and useful plate and bowl. Price’s “everyday,” like Burchfield’s, includes a well-kept lawn along with the hallucinogenic soft curves produced by the imagination and lovingly executed by the hand.
Shadows are intangible dark auras cast by masses blocking light, imprints of nature and bodies as day goes through its paces. Although they correspond directly to our world, they are immaterial and elusive. The delicate yet confident execution of Laura Owens’s untitled 1999 painting embraces the possibility of ephemerality as an organizing principle. With a dreamy atmosphere and on a large scale, Owens’s work mimics the pictorial organization of Asian scrolls, presenting a delicately daubed landscape formed by brushy blossoms over washy landmasses and barely-there waves or mountains. Although Wolfgang Tillmans’s flower (2006) is in a deeper, darker key, it approaches its botanical subject with equal certainty. The oversized photograph renounces romance, displaying its negative image with tonal subtlety and factual inevitability. This glimpse of delicacy is captured on monumental scale. Owens and Tillmans each push the boundaries of middling sub-genres of their respective media (taking on the roles of Sunday landscape painter and the photographer of dewy flowers) while retaining complete control, suggesting an alternative natural world, liquid and fleeting.
Andy Warhol’s Shadow Painting 1977 and Henri Michaux’s Untitled, 1969 plumb more nebulous territory, but retain Owens’s and Tillmans’s interest in the ephemeral and atmospheric. Warhol’s painting comes from a series of abstracted photographs of shadows. Michaux, a prolific poet and writer connected to the mid-century European avant-garde, made abstract, quasi-calligraphic ink drawings under the influence of mescaline. Both small works go to dark places. Both artists appended a date to their otherwise untethered titles, somehow fixing a position among the depths of shadows or hallucinogenic inner landscape.
The combination of fragility and decisiveness reflected in Owens’s and Tillmans’s two-dimensional works is found, in different ways, in two freestanding sculptures in the same gallery.
Damian Ortega’s Auto construcción (Auto Construction), Caja de velocidades (Gear Box) of 2005, a diagrammatic disassembly of a car’s gearbox, recalls engineering schematics as well as the more visceral environs of a mechanic’s garage. Abstracting these auto parts by casting them all in pale concrete, Ortega also renders them useless. Delicate and brittle edges, created from the seams in the casting molds, punctuate each form, recalling the vulnerable delicacy found in the work of Owens and Tillmans.
Tutti Fruity (2005) by Laura Schnitger is more physically vulnerable, its stretched Lycra membrane providing the tension to its visible wood skeleton. Recalling skin and bones as much as undergarments or clothing, the Lycra and wood (and totemic rabbit’s fur affixed to the front) appear plainly as themselves, denying complete metaphoric transformation. Awkward and diminutive, Tutti Fruity stands like a strange sentinel.
Skin and bones
Metaphors for skin and bones are overwhelmed by representations of exposed bodies, none more real and startling than those in Larry Clark’s iconic and still-jarring photographs from the series Tulsa (1963–1972). Skin is punctured by needles as teenagers shoot heroin and amphetamines between bouts of sex and gunplay. Clark captured middle-American teenagers (his friends) in the most familiar heartland environs engaged in startlingly raw and self-destructive behavior. The images range from exuberant to debased, desperate, blissed out, and rabidly aggressive. Bodies are mostly bound by walls and windows, caging them in claustrophobic domestic space. They are naked, pierced, bruised, and flushed, but all-American, nonetheless.
Willem de Kooning’s Untitled Woman (1951) also does damage to flesh, but in a more abstract way. Visionary in their combination of figuration and abstraction through energetic, expressive mark-making, de Kooning’s women (he painted many large canvases on the subject, one of which hangs in the Scaife Galleries) have spawned endless commentary, ranging from accusations of misogyny to genius (sometimes both). In this drawing, the woman’s limbs fragment into geometric planes, which still seem to exude the smooth and rough surfaces of skin. Amidst the aggression and erasure, we can recognize the outlines of what appears to be a large comfortable chair. Despite its primal force, the drawing situates the subject in the familiar, staging the disfigured form in everyday space.
The improvisatory energy of de Kooning’s woman stands in contrast to the stripped figure nearby. Francis Alÿs’s Untitled (Skeleton) of 2004 appears to capture a briefly glimpsed and vanished episode, fixing it through careful execution of small, slow strokes of wax and paint. In a work so small and fragile, the most certain passage is the grip of the figure’s bony hand, as the placid, one-armed skeleton masturbates. This meditative icon is literally flayed sex, and yet it is peaceful in comparison to Larry Clark’s compromised bodies. Alÿs’s preparatory drawings, on delicate tracing paper, underscore the care taken in depicting the vulnerable, universal body.
Bodies in light and space
Two quite different artistic forms—sculpture and film/video—bring the sensation of bodily experience to us with particular immediacy. We identify intuitively with sculptural bodies (they occupy our space), and we psychologically project onto the bodies we see in films (they move the same way we do). Here, a gallery is filled with works that reveal bodies in various states of disfiguration and distortion, and draw attention to the sculptural and filmic space that enables such depictions. Despite the visceral reaction to a word like “disfiguring,” none of these works are gory or graphic. Instead, bodies slowly melt, fragment, glow, and disappear. In a way, these works ennoble our own corporeal knowledge, providing a foil to each individual experience.
Robert Arneson’s trophy busts (1976), self-portraits in clay, show the artist’s head assaulted by blobs that read as feces, rocks, clay, or paint. His depiction is pathetic and yet filled with empathy. The heroic quality implied by the bust form (used to valorize Men of History), is undercut by the substances running down his face. But rather than letting the busts stay still (like a good sculpture should), Arneson shows each head in a defensive position. He knows what’s coming at him, and without arms, he can only wince, dodge, and take it.
Nearby, Peter Campus’s iconic early video Three Transitions (1973–1974) exploits special effects that were new at the time. With deadpan pacing, Campus cuts through himself to reveal another self, disappears into himself with invisible face paint, and burns a mirror image. Dressed in plain clothes, he does self-violence through cheap effects, hardly blinking.
Ann Chu’s Nine Hellish Spirits: No. 2 (2004) is a body-sized sculpture, distorted and shown in fragments. Partially dismantled, it controls a little marionette that hangs obliviously from its strings. Right around the corner, in a dead end, is another puppet. Tony Oursler’s forlorn figure of 1994—dressed like your uncle or some guy on the street—has a frighteningly animated, distorted face. He mutters to himself, words heard in the darkened corner, belonging to a familiarly human figure made of an empty scarecrow-like body and projected light.
James Lee Byars at Carnegie Museum of Art
Writing to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in response to her experience at the Carnegie Institute on Monday, October 25, 1965, Squirrel Hill resident Ruth Poritz sensitively described one of artist James Lee Byars’s first performances at an American museum:
“Art plays a meaningful role in helping man to see differently: In this instance there was more—a change in emphasis, even presaging a new form of consciousness. …Time in white feathers moved before us as part of a continuum: one’s position in relation to the figure indicated one relationship to Time—relative and different for each of us. …The passing of an ego oriented world need not be devastating to man. It can be a humbling and illuminating experience…”
The performance, which followed similar works performed in the museum’s Hall of Sculpture by a nun in November 1964 and January 1965, featured the dancer and choreographer Lucinda Childs. Dressed in a white costume, supposedly composed of “one million ostrich feathers,” Childs slowly unfurled a 475-foot-long riveted paper sculpture in the white, temple-like space. The “happening,” as it was defined by Byars (who was 33 at the time), received breathless, if somewhat bewildered, press in Pittsburgh.
On display in the museum’s Forum Gallery through February 20, as part of Ordinary Madness, is a never-before-exhibited collection of artworks, letters, and documentation of Byars’s relationship with the museum. His letters assume many forms: a scroll hundreds of feet long (his contacts for sending performance invitations); a message distributed over 17 individually mailed postcards; and a large, delicate foldout white circle sent in a red envelope bearing the inscription, “A White Paper Will Blow Through the Streets.” Over the years, Byars developed an enigmatic persona, a work unto itself, and refined a practice that included Eastern-tinged processional-like performances, letters bearing incantations for ephemeral and transformative events, and minimalist yet spiritually attuned sculpture that dealt with a near-mystical sense of time, space, and its creator’s presence. The letters on view testify to Byars’s mercurial alchemy of the necessarily banal (reimbursement requests, for instance) and the otherworldly (white script on white tissue paper describing a totally white performance), delivered in the same form.