Wednesday, July 01, 1998

Gimme A Little Death, Baby: Michael Rees From Ear to Ear.

A woman lies waiting in bed as a man nervously undresses:

Man:  It's been a long time since I've been with a woman, I may be a little rusty.
Woman:  Great, tomorrow morning you'll wake up with a terrific smile on your face and I'll wake up with lockjaw.

From ear to ear.  What is from ear to ear?  Two expressions come to mind:  To smile from ear to ear; and To have a throat slit from ear to ear.  The reference in the first is often to sex.  In the second, death to be sure, but so too is there the whiff of sex.  The combination of sex and death has a comprehensive history in both art and literature.  The combination of sex and death with the specific image of the slit throat has its own history in art.  In 1932 Giacometti produced the unforgettable Woman with Her Throat Cut.  Roughly one hundred years before that Goya did a painting with the same title, but depicts his naked subject at the moment just before the violence is done.  Michael Rees combines the references, but turns towards their light rather than their dark aspect.  His interest is not in any violence to the body per se, but in, as Rees says, "ecstasy...the ecstasy of the body as it is in vision, sex, sleep, and death". 

In writings about the work of Michael Rees there is an overriding emphasis on the body and on the technologies Rees employs.  As much as Rees may make use of technologies that can be applied to the body, and though recognizable body parts are included in the works themselves, something more than the body is afoot.

We have sought for firm ground and found none.  The deeper we penetrate, the more restless becomes the universe; all is rushing about and vibrating in a wild dance.
     Max Born

Definition:  ‘Pataphysics is the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments.
     Alfred Jarry, from Gestes et opinions du docteur Faustroll.

Though most talk of fin de si├Ęcle similarities is ca-ca, I can’t help drawing a parallel between two aspects of the last turn-of-the-century in France, and our own.  One of these is a correspondence between technological revolutions in industry that include the bicycle.  Clearly our new bikes are better, though then as now they get you where you’re going.  In France there was also a revolution in art of a magnitude which had never been seen.  In this matter, if the advent of computer driven media and technology is putting us on the brink of another aesthetic revolution, then Michael Rees is one of its tremors. 

In Roger Shattuck's The Banquet Years, Shattuck describes the avant-garde arts in France at the turn of the last century as characterized by juxtaposition without transition.  Movies represented the purest form of the art of juxtaposition.  Eisenstein is the radical juxtaposition, the hard edit, the image in conflict or collision as was much of the art of the early Twentieth century.  Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, Dada, Orphism, Simultanism, Surrealism, Vorticism, all shared a common impulse.  

In the work of Michael Rees, juxtaposition is still a key element, but it is juxtaposition with transition as opposed to conflict.  Transition, whether of the body, sexuality, form, or any other boundary is much more the defining characteristic of art at our end of the century.  Rees's is not the explosion in a shingle factory or the chance meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table.  It’s not even the clumsy stitching together of a Frankenstein monster, but a much more seamless creation.  Movies, especially horror movies, are not unrelated to Rees’s work.    
Going to see Rees's sculpture is like taking a trip to a surreal knacker or the back rooms of fossil storage at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.  I am reminded of that now as I glimpse the odd bits of skeleton that Rees displays.  Over here are vertebral columns with pelves attached, over there a skull.  You’d expect all these skeletons to be pushing up daisies, instead they’re festooned with fungi-like growths, and uteri, and ears, and other things besides.  The growths turn out to be representations of the chakras of Hindu philosophy.  Though decidedly human, these extra-skeletal additions make me think of Dr. Moreau and strange science-fiction experiments that include alien abduction.  The materials themselves contribute to this.  Just what the sculptures are made of is unclear, the color and quality of the materials adding to the stangeness.  The translucent amber sculptures are especially seductive.  In one of two small rooms the lights are low.  Two small amber sculptures glow and sparkle like crystal.  Ajna 3 Amber is in part a skull.  Placed inside is a uterus.  Sprouting from the top, the front and the back are tuberous chakras.  The head of a cow is a part of the stalk that comes from the top.  Nearby stands the vertebral column of Ajna Spine Series 12.  As the light moves through them it is broken and reflected by the faceting on their surfaces which is a byproduct of their manufacture.  The effect is dazzling, jewel-like.  The opaque black and white sculptures could be plaster or stone or plastic.  The black sculpture Ajna Spine Series 13 has a rich black granulated surface that absorbs both light and sound.  The single large sculpture in the show, Cakra Seuss, seems carved in wood.

What are these exquisite corpses?  It seems we've entered the palace at 4 a.m.   In A Land, Jacquetta Hawkes calls art "fossils of the psyche", a phrase most apt in describing the sculpture of Michael Rees.  If so, are the sculptures a glimpse of past, present or future?  Are they images of the ruins as we were, are, or those that we will rise into?  

For Hawkes the development of the human brain, of consciousness, past a certain point became a pathological condition.  Like the Irish Elk with its massive rack of antlers, what for us started out a positive adaptive function that allowed us to survive and progress has become the engine of destruction: "There is some merciless force in evolution that may cause trends, once they have begun, to become excessive and at last pathological, the unfortunate species concerned being utterly helpless and unable to check their racial suicide."  The development of those materials, processes, technologies and attitudes that enable us to kill ourselves and destroy the planet are symptomatic of the brain's progression into a pathological organ.  Extinction is never far behind.  Perhaps, then, the sculptures are shades of what we are as a deranged consciousness transforms the body into strange and monstrous forms, weird hybrids of internal and external physiology with plant-like appendages.  The body reduced to a skeleton, the head replaced by pure consciousness and an organ of creation.  

Admittedly, the developing brain as it takes hold of consciousness portrayed as a rampaging organ of destruction and generator of aberrant morphology is a compelling image along the lines of The Blob, yet Hawkes is not convinced by her own doomsday scenario and neither, most assuredly, is Rees.  Hawkes changes to an optimistic note and believes what initially led us to the brink, is now reversing itself as another hell raiser is put back into its box: "Mind, which at first denied men their instinctive sense of wholeness, is at last returning such a sense, but on its own mental level.  Consciousness is melting us all down together again - earth, air, fire and water, past and future, lobsters, butterflies, meteors, and men."  This is his territory.  Rees seems to be participating in a reunification on a mental level of his own, making the sculptures the 'Pataphysical remains to come.  

More than a Dr. Frankenstein or a Dr. Moreau, beyond a mere physician or metaphysician, Rees is a 'Pataphysician, a creator of imaginary solutions.  You hear a lot about art in a prescriptive sense in terms of asking questions as opposed to having answers as if answers were anathema, something to be avoided.  As if answers were a pathogen of their own.  Yet Rees proposes answers to our questions of... of what?  It doesn't matter.  And if they're only answers to his own questions?  It's enough to recognize that there are answers there.  Not hard and fast answers.  Not bludgeoning and unyielding.  Not the kind of answer that would gladly slit your throat.  No.  Let's say instead that there are solutions being proposed.   

Undeniably, part of the solution Rees proposes is spiritual.  It is also lyrical and delicate.  It is fuller even than Rees's own Visual Taxonomy, a grid of images that catalogues references, inspirations and influences.  Balancing this, the solution also includes an earthy humorousness in a nonsensical way as do the sculpture.  Ajna Spine 13 is more nonsensical than most as a series of tuberous protrusions are bookended by human ears.  Cakra Seuss participates even more fully as its name would suggest.  This is the way though and this is the fullness that Rees attempts.  The all encompassing sex and death and sleep and vision.

Looking at the sculptures themselves, they are not adult scale, but they do not mean to be child-like either.  Most are the size of a pet, something you could hold in your arms.  By engaging this scale Rees allows them to inhabit an otherworldly realm only vaguely human.  We know we're involved, but don't know quite how.  To see how the sculptures would change by changing scale one only has to look at Rees's Cakra Seuss, a towering piece that indicates a logical and fruitful direction for Rees to go; one which he has already started on in this and even newer sculptures.  Cakra Seuss has come down off one of the tables and begun to enter our domain as more of a personage.  The animation of the work is delightful and unavoidable.  Besides the practical problem of stabilization,  I don't understand why Rees didn't let this piece take the final step off the tables and take possession of our space fully as this sculpture seems capable.  Imagining a room full of overgrown Ajna Spines is truly to be in a land somewhere between Dr. Seuss and the Day of the Trifids.

And what about the bases?  Something is clearly going on here and yet they are consistently overlooked or given very short shrift.  The bases could have been simple.  Plinths would have done to elevate and isolate these delicate pieces.  Yet Rees chooses the tables, and he makes these tables himself.  Is this the physical  expression of the irrepressible desire to create that is the subject of much of Rees's attention, but which he denies himself in his sculpture?  What else is going on?  

The bases stand one atop another, one table on top of another much as Eric Satie had stacked one piano on top of another in his apartment.  Never mind the pianos.  Why does Rees stack tables?  The table that stands directly on the ground has legs that are short and squat.  The table above, legs that are long and spindly.  The decrease in mass suggests a speeding up in time and space.  Looking from the ground up gravity lessens as table surmounts table, the whole thing picking up speed as it stretches to the sculpture.  It seems as if the squat table below had sampled a little cake labeled 'EAT ME' and been stretched accordingly.  As in Alice’s Wonderland, odd juxtapositions, nonsense and the absurd are always at hand in the land of Michael Rees.  On the more rational side of the glass the multiple bases with their varied designs reflect Rees’s stacking of visual and intellectual references in the sculptures themselves.  Each platform becomes another platform of meaning.  Thinking of the vertical Anja Spine Series 1.11 in particular, it seems possible that the whole configuration is a grand representation of the computer itself:

Floppy Disk

Maybe I'm doing Rees a disservice by calling the tables bases.  After the thought and work put into them and their relationship to the sculptures, they are clearly part of the sculpture in a way that most bases are not today and have not been since the beginning of the Twentieth century.  Without them the sculptures become very different works.  They become disengaged and precious objects rather than a part of the mix.  On a base more base they would lose their connection to the ground which seems significant for many reasons especially when the composition of tables and sculpture is seen as pyramidal.  Representative of stability as well as hierarchy with its ascension to a peak, the pyramid has its base in royal Egyptian funerary and sacred architecture.  So too may Rees's work.  Thinking in terms of sacred architecture adds new levels to the sculpture (by which I mean to include the tables), but it is the sacred architecture of Buddhists rather than Egyptians that seems most relevant.  The stupa, a dome like mound containing a Buddhist shrine, is the Buddhist's sacred architecture and relates back to burial mounds as well.  The form of the stupa, no matter what variation, location, or age, takes the characteristic form of a square surmounted by a hemisphere out of the top of which comes a tree-like form which is crowned by a small form often a precious stone or some residual reference to it.  The symbolism is a movement from the earthly to the spiritual with the forms becoming more attenuated as they move from the ground up.  Rees's sculptures, from square tables, to vertebral column, to their more ornate tops really seem to follow the stupa model.  Forget that they don't quite have a dome shape.  Rees isn't building a replica of a stupa, but it sure makes you think of one.  The shared symbolism of stupa and sculpture, reinforced by Rees's incorporation of other Eastern imagery, is beautifully subtle.  And if Rees didn't intend it, maybe it was just meant to be.

Ken Johnson, in his review of this show in the New York Times, commented that the discovery that the sculptures were not made by hand was disappointing; his enjoyment and understanding of the show compromised as a result.  Curious.  Would it have made a difference if the sculptures were made by hand but not Michael Rees's hand?  It would be interesting to have known Mr. Johnson's impressions of the sculptures had he remained uninformed.  Nevertheless, I believe Mr. Johnson has a strong point when he warns of the danger inherent in the use of new technologies by artists and the too frequent tendency to end up with nothing but technology on display.  I don't believe Michael Rees fits into this category.  The reason is that Rees isn't doing anything that couldn't be done by hand given enough time using traditional modeling techniques plus the lost wax or some other mold making and casting process.  Nothing, in fact, that couldn't be done by a skilled modeler or a skilled sculptor working with a skilled craftsman, or done for that matter by a skilled craftsman under the direction or from the instructions of even an unskilled sculptor.

As every art student rather disappointingly learns, the use of assistants has been a commonplace in art making since before the Egyptian sculptors had someone else polish the stone.  The Renaissance masters had workshops with assistants who did much of their painting for them.  One such master is reputed to have only painted the hands and faces of his pictures.  Sculptors regularly handed off small studies to be enlarged for bronzes or carved into stone by skilled craftsmen.  At other times in history the use of assistants is understood as interfering with the integrity and authenticity of the art created.  Economics, politics, and aesthetics play a part in the use of assistants and how they are viewed, with tension seesawing between the pro and the con.  During the Banquet Years, and in those immediately preceding them, the vanguard artists did their own work.  Rodin and Duchamp bracket these years and participate too in the use of assistants.  Rodin learned the craft of being a successful sculptor dealing in commissions that made the use of assistants imperative in the decades before 1885.  Duchamp changed the concept of artist's assistants altogether by ushering in the Readymade thereby making industrial processes and workers into anonymous assistants.  

Like Duchamp in his participation with modern technology as an assistant, neither the identity of Rees's assistant nor the quality of the work qua work is in question.  Just as it was neither germane nor helpful to inquire whether the 4 was a well made urinal, so too the quality of Rees's sculpture must be seen to lie beyond the body of the work itself and to reside instead in a more abstracted realm that could be called its essence.  A perfect symmetry exists between Rees's Cartesian interests in the body and spirit on the one hand, and his method of art making and its comprehension on the other.

Until recently, no matter if an artist worked alone or had assistants, something was always lost in the translation.  It can be a surprisingly long way from the mind to the eye to the hand.  So long, in fact, that crossing may be altogether impossible or only on the shakiest of bridges.  It may be a technical inability, a communication problem, financial difficulty, or more seriously, a skeptical gap, a form of impotence.  The greater the number involved the greater the potential loss.  Technology is also like that.   Unfortunately this isn't usually the type of influence the poet and critic Paul Valery had in mind when he wrote that, "No word comes easier or oftener to the critic’s pen than the word ‘influence’, and no vaguer notion can be found among all the vague notions that comprise the phantom armory of aesthetics.  Yet there is nothing in the critical field that should be of greater philosophical interest or prove more rewarding to analysis than the progressive modification of one mind by the work of another."  With the new technologies that Rees uses it's like having the perfect assistant/technician.  No loss of vision occurs as one mind modifies the next.   

Doing this, exposing the quality and profundity of your ideas without benefit of the escape hatch of compromised expression because of technical or procedural difficulty, is a naked and risky and potentially terrifying act.  The spectator’s knowing that there is no limitation to expression except the richness or paucity of the artist’s intellect and imagination makes the art itself transparent in a way that other styles of art do not now and have not in the past.  Rather than seeing the forms first, it is possible to see almost simultaneously into the consciousness of the artist and to understand it, and judge it, at that rock bottom a foundation.  This is the strength and primary interest in Rees’s work.  Being brought into the infinite space of that velvety blackness that is both the background of the CAD screen and the artist’s mind makes the experience a visionary or hallucinatory one.