History As Medium
Part III: Guerilla Collage
March 29 - June 25, 2011
In the final phase of late capitalism, history itself appears as a commodity.
The philosopher of history does not have before him the whole of history. At best he has a fragment—the whole past. But he thinks in terms of the whole of history, and seeks to discover what the structure of this whole must be like, solely on the basis of the fragment he already has…To ask for the significance of an event, in the historical sense of the term, is to ask a question which can be answered only in the context of a story.
The odd thing about a specimen is that it's a kind of cipher when considered in isolation. Specimens are a lot like words: They don't mean anything unless they're in the context of a sentence or a system, and their meanings are extremely promiscuous. You can't gain admittance into the meaning of a specimen simply by looking at it harder, or even by anatomizing it. The significance of the collected object does not inhere in the specimen itself, but is socially and theoretically constructed.
Stephen T. Asma
Darryl Lauster—Chronicle is the final exhibition in the History As Medium series, a three-part, yearlong exploration of the trend among modern and post-modern artists with a predisposition for collage to construct conglomerate imagery using found, manipulated and artist-generated materials. The series emphasizes three artists' shared affinities through specifically different uses of historic references. At its center, History As Medium celebrates unfamiliar, unconventional and evolved collage practices.
The series opened with Attempts at a Unified Theory
, Bo Joseph's uncollages
—a collage process that completely undoes all residue of the paper used to create the image rendered. The show introduced Joseph's
strategies for burying and excavating anthropological and art historical imagery, which revealed relationships, connections and "hyperlinks" between seemingly disparate things. Our second exhibition, ReCollections
, looked at the virtual collages
of Fran Forman
, whose haunting, chance-encounter digital combinations demonstrated how elusive, intuitive selections could create lures that prompt personal associations. Thus far, History As Medium
has prompted a game of sorts, of image and idea tag in our first exhibition, while the dreamy, surreal and fantastic imagery in our second show tugged on the strings of emotional attachments. With a tactical shift, Darryl Lauster's
approach is more political in its undertones. Chronicle
is deceivingly presented as an archeological find, organized by a bona fide institution of authority, which purports certain histories and characteristics of American culture that regardless of the apparent issues of its factuality, tell us something significant. Chronicle
, with its irregular and quasi-museological presentation about civilian life, introduces guerilla collage
into the ever-evolving arsenal of this near-century-old artistic process.
For the last decade, Darryl Lauster has made sculptures that blur the distinctions between art and artifact, invented histories and historical records, artistic muse and museum scholarship, and significantly, social justice and social ignorance. Ironically, despite that Lauster intermixes fact with fiction in his practice, his intellectual couplings expose issues of prejudice, privilege and exclusivity. An Assistant Professor of Art at the University of Texas at Arlington and the recent recipient of the prestigious Painters & Sculptors Grant Program by the Joan Mitchell Foundation, Lauster considers himself a storyteller.
I combine fact and myth to complete narratives about important, yet arcane and largely unknown figures and events in American history. Historic objects, embedded in museum collections, speak of wealth, status, morality and values in a culture whose idealistic origins lie in the Enlightenment concepts of equality and freedom, but whose practical reality was often quite different. As such, American decorative art functions on various significant and often highly stratified sociological levels, exposing incongruity, humor, contradiction and charm. I am deeply interested in commemoration and memory, and its loss over time, particularly in the way the historic record is often forsaken or transformed through it.
In the general sense, Lauster creates seemingly authentic artifacts, posing as common utilitarian objects, and these he places into the context of museum-like, archeological organizations, replete with background scholarship and didactic displays—albeit, his documentation, though often grounded by his research, are falsified truths, authoritatively written in the past tense, which ultimately exposes things that have not necessarily transpired, or, that are otherwise projections of things that might still come to pass. By design, this ambiguity helps to establish each viewer's own positions regarding their social, economic and political situations and alignments.
Lauster instigates this line of personal identification through a heightened imagery selection process that involves the appropriation of key images, personages, events, documentation, and consumer products. He goes to great lengths to fabricate and print labels or photographs on his handcrafted ceramics, glass vessels and plates. Once a work is completely fabricated, the artist breaks the ware and he buries the pieces for certain lengths of time. Eventually, he excavates the shards and reassembles them partially, while also singling out particular shards that can stand as artifacts in their own right. Lauster catalogs and conserves, notates and documents his archeological finds, and ultimately installs them into gallery and museum settings. Thus, it is his installations—guerrilla-style operations—that wittingly infiltrate viewer consciousness with highly organized juxtapositions of historically charged artifacts.
Visitors of Lauster's museum first encounter a wall text that introduces them to Merchantville Archaeological Research Site (M.A.R.S.). Regular visitors to the Thompson Gallery will notice the conspicuous absence of a checklist—labels have been mounted to the walls instead—as well as the absence of the gallery director's wall text, which is replaced by the Garbage Archeology wall text. This is the first way the artist co-opts space. Thus, as we enter the space our minds are already well at work on the notion of a show about the things we would throw away and generally do not think about—out of sight, out of mind.
Encountering one of Lauster's installations can be baffling and unsettling. Viewers have to contend with familiar objects donned with faked signs, that on the face of things feel legitimate, when in actuality, such commodities have not yet been mass-produced. Or more precisely, viewers find familiar objects with familiar imagery that would more then likely never be fabricated as mass-produced objects by the present consumer culture. For example, upon a broken Grecian vessel form, which rests on a lone pedestal, viewers find a dynamic snapshot of Cornell West lecturing—clearly capturing on film an intense moment of outspokenness. Another broken vessel form—which has been "removed for conservation"—with an image of "Smokey Bear" pointing at the viewer, heralds the message "Only You." On the walls we discover a plate, and a shard with the same recognizable photo transfers of Ronald and Nancy Reagan bearing the phrase, "Renew America's Strength." The plate also has a repeated motif of an elephant and legible text that reads "GOP Victory," and "1994." These unexpected juxtapositions catch the viewer off guard as they play in the mind and agitate it. But, oddly made tableware is not Lauster's only strategy as a stealth infiltrator.
Another key way Lauster wages viewer's reconciliation is through irregular museum didactics. Often, in Lauster's installation we find seemingly insignificant broken bits of stuff that we might just as well ignore, but given the context of the exhibition materials with its apparent scholarship, viewers grant forbearance, if not their curiosity, and when we read the wall label, we learn compelling information about things we would generally consider to be invisible, if not illegible. From one wall label:
This frieze bears a portrait of U.S. Representative John Saylor with Punxsutawney Phil, and was recovered during the excavation of a waste pit. In 1962, Saylor was made an honorary member of the Seneca Nation for his efforts to protect their lands from the erection of the Kinzua Dam. This object may have been commissioned in recognition of his lifetime of dedication to wilderness conservation and environmental protection.
On the face of things, Lauster's exhibition does not resemble the work of a single contemporary artist. Lauster's deception poses as the huddled masses1 of post-consumer goods, which are assumed by viewers to be the work of countless hundreds of artisans and industries, all having been tossed to the dump heap, and which were "recently" exhumed by the authoritative M.A.R.S. project. Considered as a unit, this motley mosaic of wretched refuse2 forms an ever complex portrait of America's psychological disposition in the viewer's mind as they progress through the gallery. By fabricating pseudo-utilitarian artifacts with contemporary logos, signs and images of specific personages—individuals who fight for issues of social justice, and lawmakers, who each in their own way promote truths of one sort or another—Lauster ambushes our imaginations in such a way as to expose gaps between race, gender and economic class. With such strategies, the artist wages small intellectual conflicts.
Between Two Wilsons/Between Wonder and War
And it's that very shimmer, the capacity for such delicious confusion…that may constitute the most blessedly wonderful thing about being human.
To speak of the ideological apparatus underlying museum practices is to speak of the relation among power, representation, and cultural identity; of how history is written and communicated; of whose history is voiced and whose is silenced. Behind their often–cavernous halls of cultural relics, museums are places where sacrosanct belief systems are confirmed on the basis of hierarchies valuing one culture over another. Art and artifact, style and period, high and low, dominant and marginal—these are the boundaries museums rely on to sustain "society's most revered beliefs and values."
Lisa G. Corrin, Carol Duncan and Alan Wallach
Darryl Lauster is not the first artist to co-opt museum practices, but he is carving out a particular niche for his work due to the ways in which his work differs from his predecessors and contemporaries. For example, Gallery visitors are strongly encouraged to look up the respective work of David Hildebrand Wilson and Fred Wilson, two artists, who besides being a most unusual comparison, offer great insight into the art-historical alignments within Lauster's work.
David Hildebrand Wilson, founder, director and curator of the Museum of Jurassic Technology, Los Angeles, California, is known for exhibits that blur the boundaries between fact and fiction, science and history, artistic and museum practices, as they promote wonder for science and nature. Fred Wilson's widely celebrated Mining the Museum—which simply placed museum holdings in proximity to other holdings and in so doing exposed American racial prejudice from colonial to contemporary times—not only continues to inspire generations of installation artists, it continues to prompt the industry of museums to take a good look at its practices. In a sense, both Wilsons criticize contemporary museums, for reasons of either prejudicial or intellectual exclusion. Lauster's work shares aspects of both Wilsons' works, he is just s much concerned with criticizing the institution of the museum—Lauster generally exhibits what museums would probably not exhibit: refuse and the seemingly ordinary everyday objects of people. His art prompts "delicious confusion," to borrow Weschler's marvelous phrase, as it explores poignant, politically-charged subjects, criticizing American democracy, which still does not live up to its name. In his beautiful response to a Thompson Gallery's blog entry, Lauster describes his approach:
I’m looking for lonely things…objects that have been used but are denied their significance due to the fact that their unknowns outweigh the knowns…in that way I can fill in their meanings…I have the power to write their autobiographies and interpret them historically anew.
It is my intention to place viewers in an ambiguous place by presenting something, which, viewed quickly, is familiar, but when observed more closely, is noticeably off in some way. By unraveling this thread in various ways I can address the confluence of myth and fact in the chronicle of human history. The historian M.I. Finlay stated, “truth and accuracy are not synonymous.” Stories or narratives often build our accounts of things...but stories change according to the biases of their tellers. “Truth,” as Finlay sees it, is embellished, assumed or edited for the convenience of its believers. I like to remind us of these realities.
Unlike Fred Wilson's purist juxtaposition method, Lauster creates artifacts from scratch, then alters them, and, furthermore, combines images and text that he either makes or appropriates. Although Lauster shares David Hildebrand Wilson's strategy for fabricating fictive museum materials, Lauster does not go to the tedious lengths to cover his tracks that Wilson does. In fact, he often chooses to deny the viewer certain anticipated pieces of information and often allows his sense of humor to enter his didactical and visual materials, all of which makes further demands upon his audiences to pay closer attention. Lauster mines the historical record not just for "lonely objects," but also lone individuals as he works to Chronicle "Americaness." In this sense, Lauster's subject is more general than Fred Wilson's, and more politically resonant than David Hildebrand Wilson's. But Lauster's work has no less impact.
A fine example of the conceptual resonance within one of Lauster's pieces is his Amphora for Cornel West, which, as aforementioned, is modeled after a classic Greek amphora. Lauster superimposes an image of Cornel West—who is a known advocate of Parrhesia, the Greek term for frank speech—over an object that is easily associated with Greek philosophy, and by virtue of association, is thus also connected with the origins of democracy, for which West is a contemporary spokesperson. Candid speech can only occur in a culture that values it, but such speech Lauster points out, is not visible everywhere, nor available for everyone.
Guerrilla Collage and the Art of Intellectual Conflict
I. Laying Plans
18. All warfare is based on deception.
III. Attack by Stratagem
18. Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
IV. Tactical Dispositions
4. Hence the saying: One may know how to conquer without being able to do it.
Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Lauster co-opts galleries the way civilians who form an irregular combatant group uses a pastiche of military tactics—knowing the enemy's methods, or in Lauster's case, the institution of museum's—to infiltrate or intervene with an element of surprise. By appropriating museum practices and grafting them to his arsenal of artistic processes, Lauster has evolved a practice predicated on irony upon irony. Lauster's art may not have been fabricated through the means of mass production and thereby have a validity in that sense, but his objects and didactics are nonetheless observant of our isolationist, consumer society. Furthermore, the artist has indeed spoken the truth, all the while purporting his archeological finds—which are in actuality, one of a kind items and not the mass-produced objects he passes them off as—and in so doing, Lauster chronicles our contradictory society. Thus, it may be said of his art that as it lies, it shows us the truth. Lauster may not know how to conquer the societal issues that his work examines, but he does know how to subvert the systems at work in our tempest-tost3 culture. Chronicle then, essentially asks the question, "What do our garbage heaps portend?"
In a profound way, Lauster's art co-opts the impact it has on his viewers. Ultimately, a realization arises that we have been invited into a group we did not realize we were already a part of, and now edified, we realize the cost of our membership is an invocation to action. The curious thing about social justice is that at the same moment you identify and name an injustice, you realize you have a responsibility to act on your knowledge and get involved.
Todd Bartel, Curator
1. Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus
, Statue of Liberty, Liberty State Park, 1883