The Art of Rhonda Weppler and Trevor Mahovsky
Published in Rhonda Weppler and Trevor Mahovsky
Lethbridge: Southern Alberta Art Gallery, 2006
A slab of concrete sidewalk patched up with a dollop of unevenly applied asphalt. Flat-topped metal newspaper boxes that double as platforms for Starbucks coffee cups or 7-Eleven drink containers, until they are, inevitably, lost to the wind. The urban landscape is full of such combinations and assemblages—metastasizations that function intransitively to any actual object; their physical presence is understood and undermined not so much by their provisionality but by their makeshift character. As such, their presence is as much image-based as it is physical or sculptural. According to Walter Benjamin, absence and presence are articulated in a productive synthesis within the artistic dream-work;1 however, the two examples cited here (and there are innumerably more) exist as combinations without feelings. Nor do they ever generate feelings, except as the perfunctory and homeostatic responses of human adjustment—opposed to that of adaptation. They are not so much objects to which a subject relates and wishes to grasp through representation, as their social affects are accorded by their intransitive status in the relation between subjects and objects.
The concern is not how these examples represent instances of despair, isolation, and alienation wrapped within the familiar trope of the city as urban wasteland, which they may well do, but that their indeterminacy is fraught with a muffled subjectivity, contained to the point of evacuation. To borrow from Albert Camus, they are combinations that express “the gentle indifference of the world.”2 The world in its physical manifestations is both elusive and elliptical with little in the way of connection to the inner life of its inhabitants. In a world waning in moral conviction, there is no response to indifference except homeostatis, a physiological adaptive response forced upon the subject by changes in the environment. Homeostasis is not an interior response in the psychic or self-reflexive sense of moral negotiation with the outer world, but rather a biological adjustment whereby the subject is reduced to form and matter.
The works of Rhonda Weppler and Trevor Mahovsky illuminate the way in which art functions as an indexical operation of language and image—as generating forces for both presence and embodiment. The surface of their art is an index of an eviscerated interior, but one in which the negative space filled in by plaster or resin is made to resemble the original object/model from which the cast is made. This is in contrast to the work of Rachel Whiteread, for example, or earlier Bruce Nauman or Carl Andre pieces, where the negative space is always announced as such, as the counterpoint to positive space—negative presence versus positive presence. Mahovsky and Weppler obscure this difference between negative and positive presence by, for instance, adding colour as a visual pun on the reference made by the particular work of art, be it stripes on a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket or black paint to suggest a full coffee cup. There is a slippage in the way colour is read, in the artists’ words, “as an impoverished or minimalist trompe l’oeil or as a kind of codex for a set of cultural signs.” Slippage occurs because the meaning of the colour slips between what it stands for—gravy or a hole in an empty tissue box—and the colour itself. Krylon red spray paint may stand in for ketchup, if only in the most impoverished of terms, as the Krylon red spray paint continues to announce itself as Krylon red spray paint.
The form of the respective work functions as a shell or approximation in which things are placed or embedded together but not synthesized. The shape of a Styrofoam drink container, rendered in plaster, may be conjoined with a similarly produced version of a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket to express a potential narrative, but the sum of these two parts are not meant to be revelatory in the sense of a whole that is sublimated from its parts. Plaster or resin are familiar materials employed for making copies or molds, but Mahovsky and Weppler are not creating copies in order to capture the essence of an original; nor are they commenting strictly about a Baudrillardian state of emptiness. Rather, they are interested in questions of loss and retention, where loss is dissipative and absent of longing and retention is not something to be claimed for history. Their works point to questions of affect, truth, and fiction in subject-object relations while alluding to a narrative construction. Their effect is that they operate as markers of indifference, yet it is not a postmodern indifference whereby the act of pastiche or the overloading of signifiers renders a critical emptying of modernist dicta. The indifference called up by Mahovsky and Weppler is one that taps into a set of emotions that sit vicariously between nostalgia, sentimentality, and haptic or embodied experiences, all within the matrix of a capitalist social order.
A tissue box, gift boxes, chicken containers, coffee cups, soda cans with straws, and blocks of caramel all conjure physical contact—the wiping of tears, the anticipation of gift opening, the eating of finger-licking good chicken, the quenching of thirst, the pleasure of sweets—and the emotional connections made through everyday habits and rituals. Mahovsky and Weppler’s art offers a bare minimum of potential for such emotional connections. Consequently, the viewer is left with form: neither an empty container nor a filled one, but a container that is denied even its potential to function as a container. Here it is memory that fills in for that which is denied by the objects. Another circuit takes place in which visual memory replaces the blankness (or blank surface) of the object so that the subject suddenly becomes the viewer who is the true container. In his book The Skin Ego (1989), Didier Anzieu describes the Skin Ego as a “mental image of which the Ego of the child makes use during the early stages of its development to represent itself as an Ego containing psychic contents, on the basis of its experience of the surface of the body.”3 The Skin Ego is a container for the Self, establishing the psychic parameters for the emergence of the Ego from the Skin Ego. Mahovsky and Weppler’s containers are paradoxical in that it is through their sealed forms that the spectator is evoked as a being that occupies the space between subjecthood and objecthood.
The pop and minimalist art of the 1960s served as important referents for both Mahovsky and Weppler prior to their collaborative partnership. The repression of social concerns, through the fetish of surface over substance in pop art, and of formal and phenomenological concerns in minimalism, is the salient character of American postwar art. Emphasis was placed on the manifest rather than the latent, on an expression in the opposite direction of expressionist art, perhaps as a Foucauldian means of escape from the tyranny of the subject. The language of presence, which so guided minimalism, was a language of spectatorial reification, and thus held an alienated relationship to a world where the human dimension had been diminished. Mahovsky’s minimalist-like boxes, placed very near the corners and surfaces of white-walled galleries, permitted spectators a glimpse of a Plato’s Cave shadow show of human drama and history projected from inside the faceless boxes. The source of the shadow theatre was never revealed, the only indicator being the emanation of light coming from within the boxes.
In Mutoscope, an early work from 1997, Mahovsky presented a one-person movie theatre, again in the trappings of minimalist form. The spectator completed the work by entering into its form only to be treated to a flip-card animation movie about a cycle of mundane, if ambiguous and at times menacing, domestic interactions. With this work, Mahovsky unleashed the repressed social energy of minimalism as individual cinema and spectacle. But to see this work as channelled from minimalism is perhaps too reductive and runs counter to the question of embodiment that is the theme and sustenance of the work. In correspondence, Mahovsky wrote of Mutoscope thusly: “So though your body is frozen and the experience of this minimal form is returned to something that is private and visual, the narrative itself is machinistic—endless and actually it induced physical discomfort. You are reminded of your body.”
On the other hand, Weppler’s earlier pieces played with 1960s and ’70s concerns of repetition and pattern. Her works dealt with the logic of commodity production in regard to capitalism’s surface as a continuous and discursive plane replete with circuitous formations. Other works had made use of the flimsiest wood veneer in place of actual wood for furniture constructions, which resulted in melancholic works of extreme structural precariousness, recalling the brilliant soft sculptures of Claes Oldenburg. Weppler’s wood-veneer works shared with Oldenburg’s soft sculptures an interest in common household objects, but whereas Oldenburg’s works were imbued with sexual energy—for instance, the flaccidity of a light switch that is turned off rather than turned on—Weppler’s works were brittle, rather than soft, with survival being a more urgent metaphor than eros. The point is confirmed in my correspondence with the artist, who offered a personal note about privation and a family culture of frugality—of making things out of scrap materials in order to procure what they could not otherwise have. Moreover, the things that were made from scrap possessed, for Weppler, both a Disneyesque quality, like the animated brooms in Fantasia (1940) as well as a blunt honesty regarding their materiality, rooted as they are in the embodied experiences of life’s struggles.
In their earlier works, Mahovsky and Weppler were, in their own ways, working through the problem of art and embodiment in a dehumanized age. How can art humanize the dehumanized situation of the world without resigning itself to a neutralizing, anti-humanist rhetoric? Minimalism’s anthropomorphizing of physicality and form was not a recovery of the subject based on a concentration of social relations, no matter how hidden, but on a unity of formal effects. The agnostic qualities of pop and minimalism (and indeed conceptual art) in relation to the questions of utopic embodiment and the mending of alienation describe a situation in which social relations seem to be beyond human control and are features of nature rather than of human construct. Moreover, the agnosticism or indifference (albeit one that may be fraught with critical potential) of 1960s avant-garde art expressed both its strength and limits, its ahistoricism being a defining expression of contemporary art’s inability to assert political effectiveness to socio-historical circumstances.
The impasse between art and social effect is a good starting point for an entry into Mahovsky and Weppler’s collaborative works. In their car sculptures, for example, the interpellation of the spectator—the work of art calling the spectator into being and the spectator calling the work of art into being—becomes more pronounced. A degree of absurdity infuses the car works, with the use of household aluminum foil to form a cast or template of an actual automobile. Too thin to resist gravity, the foil template is inherently unstable and the shape of the cast slowly crumples in interesting ways, away from the more static terms of identification and identity (of the thing cast) and toward something more operational to the informe. The effect is one whereby the spectator is impelled to make new connections between what is being signified and what is being experienced.
This slide toward formlessness also calls forth the construction of the self and the processes of spectatorship, an embodiment that is unstable in relation to all that is outside the self—or all that exists within the frame of otherness. Each changing state of the foil work represents a different moment in the process of enactment, of becoming present, as a result of spectatorship and embodiment. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty states in Phenomenology of Perception (1945), embodiment refers to the actual shape and the innate capacities of the human body, the ways in which the body opens up to the world:
The body is our general medium for having a world. Sometimes it is restricted to the actions necessary for the conservation of life, and accordingly it posits around us a biological world; at other times, elaborating upon those primary actions and moving from their literal to a figurative meaning, it manifests through them a core of new significance: this is true of motor habits such as dancing. Sometimes, finally, the meaning aimed at cannot be achieved by the body’s natural means; it must then build itself an instrument, and it projects thereby around itself a cultural world.4
Signifiers are also at play, as foil is a polyvalent term. Beyond being a material of metallic leaf, foil also suggests something that cannot be exposed or revealed, something that obfuscates and thwarts, including the undermining of certitude and success. Foil, in this sense, is somewhat of a negative term, connoting deflection or perhaps Lacanian deferment, underscoring all that cannot be said but experienced as embodiment contingent on desire. According to Jacques Lacan, “the signifier, by its very nature always anticipates meaning by unfolding its dimension before it [and] it is in the chain of the signifier that the meaning insists but that none of the elements consists in the signification of which it is at the moment capable.”5
As such, the process of producing the works is very much central to an understanding of the content of the works. A concern for literalism and process that characterized much of 1960s and ’70s art is complicated by Lacanian unfolding. To wit, the aluminum foil car sculptures are made by casting a real car. Large sheets of aluminum foil are hot-glued together, rubbed onto the surface of a car, and brought back into the exhibition space where they are provisionally supported by cardboard armature that assumes the approximate form of the referent car. The artists then crawl inside the foil car and remove the cardboard armature. Ultimately, there is nothing to support the aluminum foil frame except the aluminum foil itself. Once again, the materiality of the work announces its own physical properties, as the aluminum foil sculpture collapses unpredictably over time. In doing so, the work slips between 1960s concerns of anti-representational literality and representation. Mahovsky and Weppler’s use of foil also approximates, in a witty but deliberately enervated way, the process in which automobiles are made, as it involves a great deal of cast metal, including aluminum. In emphasizing this process, their cars pay homage to the process art of the mid-1960s with its concerns attendant to time and space, chance and movement—concerns which lie at the core of bodily experience.
Death and disaster in the context of an economy of excess was an abiding theme of the “automobile” sculptures of Arman and John Chamberlain, and of course, it is key to an understanding of Andy Warhol’s early disaster paintings, which included a series depicting horrific car accidents. Mahovsky and Weppler’s car sculptures also express an eschatological element, but they do not culminate there. Sinistration is not the sole expressive endpoint. Their cars deflate more than they crumple, with surfaces too fragile to buckle, and, in so doing, they transform themselves into a continuous “something else.” The behaviour of their sculptures unfolds in the manner of a Lacanian signifier. There is no entombing of cars in concrete, as in the case of Arman, or muscular bending and twisting of metal, as in the case of Chamberlain. With the foil car works, Mahovsky and Weppler continue their interest in art as an embodied vision, a concept cogently theorized by Jonathan Crary. The idea of embodied vision is given greater resonance in knowing that the aluminum foil car sculpture Mahovsky and Weppler produced was modelled after Mahovsky’s own car, the only car owned by either artist, and the one relied upon by both artists, a Ford Escort.
Both Mahovsky and Weppler worked through the lessons of pop and minimalist art, lessons that continue to resonate today in their paradoxical expression of the relationship between materiality and human presence, and the contingency of art to the indexes of architecture and photography. The life-denying repressiveness of capitalism formed the core of much of pop and minimalist art’s subject matter, of which their procedures mimicked the processes of capitalism itself. This is exemplified in Warhol’s famous statement, “I am machine,” and in minimalism’s hypostatization of objecthood and its troubled sense of relation—a conflicted consciousness in terms of minimalism’s reference to the social world. Mahovsky and Weppler’s notion of embodiment is neither strictly formalist nor completely given over to socio-politico concerns. Their work fluctuates between these two poles, resisting encampment at either end. Here, embodiment is a term that extends beyond spectatorial engagement and the interpellation of self-awareness by the work of art, to an articulation of the subject positions of the artists themselves. The art of Mahovsky and Weppler is a restless art, fraught with contradictions, calm yet agitated, tender yet resistant, and expressive yet restrained. It is the very nature of being.
1 Walter Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1968), 155–200.
2 Albert Camus, The Stranger, trans. Matthew Ward (New York: Vintage International, 1998), 122.
3 Didier Anzieu, The Skin Ego (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 39. Originally published as Le Moi-Peau (Paris: Bordas, 1985).
4 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. C. Smith (New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962), 146.
5 From a lecture given by Lacan at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in 1966 titled “Of Structure as an Inmixing of an Otherness Prerequisite to Any Subject Whatever,” in The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man: The Structuralist Controversy, ed. R. Macksey and E. Donato (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970).