Sunday, March 21, 2010

Living Fossil: Thoroughly Cramped

by Danity Child

If there is one thing that can be said about Taylor Baldwin’s newest exhibition, it is that the artist has definitely been thorough. Living Fossil, opened January 16th at Connor Contemporary Gallery in Washington, DC, is both a literal and symbolic documentation of human history. At the least. It also documents the earth’s geological history, consumerist history, environmental developmental history, cultural evolutionary history and Baldwin’s own personal history.

His work, a mixture of drawing and sculpture, asks viewers to contemplate and participate in the complex relationships between humans, histories, and objects. However, the question common in contemporary sculpture arises: are his combinations asking more than viewers can actually absorb?

Upon first inspection, Baldwin’s work appears simply to be conglomerations of “stuff.” The sculptural wall piece, value added, exemplifies this. There is a neon skull, plastic rock formations, a cube, a playing card, a spill, two pushpins, and a magazine page all stacked and arranged on a small ramshackle shelf. There is no plaque, no description, and little room between it and the next piece. It takes a second look to begin to delve into layer after layer of culture and counterculture, of fabrication and creation, of history and personal history. Or a third look. Or a fourth.

His work has a distinct ability to create connections in which the viewer can feel and participate actively. It speaks of past and current culture, something that can resolve differences and even fragment similarities in an object’s history or future. But what of a fabricated rock formation and a cast skull? What of a National Geographic car ad from 1975 that holds no emotional value for those who had never seen the issue, much less its advertised subject, the Oldsmobile Toronado? The inclusion of these salvaged items serves to generationally and experientially distinguish Baldwin’s audience, a service that does not necessarily match the artist’s initial aims of an overall documentation of human life. It instead calls into question Baldwin’s concept of documentation—what version of history is being used, and how can the viewers be either isolated or included in that history?

This query is both compounded and alleviated by the artist’s 150 personally-made programs. These “diary-like entries,” found by the Washington Post’s Jessica Dawson to be the best element of the show, detail the sources of each sculpture in the form of extensive footnotes. Beyond the artist’s amenable but quirky writing style, each note provides a paper trail for the material or object that has been included. Baldwin writes of his media list:
“The footnotes sometimes trace a potentially imagined path of the material from geologic antiquity to present form, or just document the relationship between the previous owner and the current. This use and cataloging of material is important not just for the ethical and environmental implications, but also as a way to access material lineage.”

Each listing is thorough and intricate, much like the sculptures themselves. He references upwards of 20 locations and situations per piece, stealing at liberty whatever he, a jackdaw of the art world, would wish to add to his collection. It smacks of history and of his intentions to showcase complex relationships of objects while providing a means to combine and dissolve those created and preexisting object relationships. For example, in men who measure the earth, the viewer-turned-reader discovers the origin of the coated pickaxe found standing on its head:
“22. Bought from Pleasants years ago and initially intended for use in an ultimately misguided and failed video piece, but the current use of which in this later piece brought me a good degree of pleasure and provided the relished opportunity to seek out the colorful old chroming guys way on the south side in order to polish it up but was ultimately left sort of depressed by their squalid and hazardous working conditions.”

From this note, in combination with the viewer’s pre-established history and the pickaxe’s now created relationship between itself and the other elements of the work, the meant connections spouting from this one pickaxe become an endless romp through the annals of time and society, something that this critic is not sure viewers have the time or space to do.

Baldwin’s approach to sculpture, one that takes note of the ultra complexities of history and culture, is also apparent in the work of his sculptural predecessors, Rachel Harrison, Andrea Cohen, and Mindy Shapero, among others. Contemporary sculpture, it can be argued, just may have become something that cannot be completely dissected and analyzed fully. In the February 2007 issue of ArtForum, critic Michelle Kuo said, “However expanded its field of activity has become, "sculpture" today might be seen to cohere around the deviousness of physical matter--its inexhaustibility, opacity, and guile…You will never be able to apprehend all aspects of a sculpture at once, and it will always evade availability as universal (phenomenological) or collective (ideological) experience, despite modernist hopes to the contrary.” Her coverage of the 2007 Hirshhorn exhibition, “The Uncertainty of Objects and Ideas: Recent Sculpture,” documents this motion.

Baldwin’s ideas are just as much an accumulation as his sculptures. He is certainly included in this recent sculptural approach, yet does not seem to garner its many intricate implications in Living Fossil.

It is, quite simply, too much for one visit. The space, the amount of work, and the depth of thought put into each renders the show difficult to dig into and even more difficult to get out.
There are 148 footnotes to read while seeing four sculptural works, the inequity between these two tasks quantitatively apparent. In addition, the footnotes are not universally accessible. There are only 150 copies of said programs, which were handed out freely during the opening but dwindled down to two gallery copies during any other viewing hours. Between reading and computing and side-stepping and seeing and wondering, any person is unlikely to grasp Baldwin’s messages and meta-messages to their fullest extent.

In his defense, the artist does acknowledge this tremendous over-absorption of history. His artist statement, not included in the program, is in fact entitled “Too Much Information.” In some sense, Baldwin meant for his sculpture to breach human comprehension with this in mind. However, the now-two copy supply of programs as well as the Connor’s cramped space does not do Baldwin’s work any favors in appreciating his many layered messages. His line drawings are perhaps a perfect visual representation of the artist’s intent—beautiful ink on paper works made compelling through the intricacy of one object set alone on the page. They are, however, overshadowed by the sculptures that amass in the room. This act is perhaps a further representation of object accumulation, but is more than likely a simple dearth of space.

Even the most visually successful of his sculptures, martyr me a little, cannot receive the fanfare it deserves. Assembled to resemble a trophy on a constructed crate, the work is set on the ground, too far away from the eye for the viewer to truly absorb its complex details. It was only until perusing the show online that this critic even discovered that the crate was constructed by minute wood pieces, along with the discovery of the hanging newspaper’s intricate and fantastic fabrication. The piece is too close to the wall to walk around or bend towards comfortably, but must be there owing to the space required by the other larger sculptures. Baldwin’s detailed recreations of certain objects are truly beautiful, an element lost in the overwhelming amount of objects one must take in.

The show was curated—and the spaces chosen—by Connor Contemporary gallery curator Jamie Smith with help from owner Leigh Connor. It was installed by the artist himself with edits by the gallery. As a *gogo emerging artist, Baldwin is part of a special Connor Contemporary project to represent and give space to recent MFA grads and other upcoming artists with an interest in diverse, experimental media. The gallery describes it as such: “projects will present artists with challenges and opportunities by providing various venues to exhibit and interact with other artists at different levels of experience.” This was certainly the case, as Baldwin opened with fellow *gogo artist Matthew Sutton in a small side room and the already established Jeremy Kost exhibited in the large front room, the latter artist garnering the most press.

It was seemingly a joint culpability that placed Baldwin’s heavily complexities in the small room at the back of the gallery. It is possible that with a more breathable area for viewers to think, understanding and appreciation for the artist’s concept would have become more readily available. The aforementioned crate and newspaper, for example, as well as a fabricated box fan in men who measure the earth, call to mind the thorough, complex genius of Charles Ray’s No, as well as serves the artist’s purpose: “creating actual physical anomalies: finding the point where the physical world oscillates between raw material and known form, familiarity and disorientation.” These recreations, along with the small line drawings hidden in the conceptual chaos of Living Fossil, embody a historical making and remaking that could have generated profound thought before losing it to a conglomeration of objects and a small space. In other shows, other spaces, perhaps Baldwin’s full intent will be spread out to better reach its audience. At the beginning of his career, he certainly has more room to try.

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