CHICAGO — What, exactly, does the space that surrounds an artwork do? Gaylen Gerber has been posing this question for years, notably in his series Backdrops, which consists of gray-painted gallery walls upon which he hung the work of other artists. His current show, Supports, on view at the Arts Club of Chicago, continues to raise questions about what happens to an object when we place it in a gallery — questions as old at least as Duchamp’s readymades, and that may be regarded as perennial in art from modernism on.
The first, spacious room of the two-room show is largely empty, with just a few pieces mounted on the walls. The room’s sparseness underscores the crowded feel of the second room, where pedestals push up against one another at odd angles, making its navigation a challenge. Some pedestals hold a single object, some hold many, others are empty; some objects are encased in Plexiglas boxes, others are not. A few objects sit directly on the floor. Everything about the presentation conspires to foreground the fact that this is an exhibition: the means of display refuse to fade into the background, forcing themselves upon your attention.
What strikes me about the objects on the walls and pedestals is the curious combination of infinite variety and utter uniformity. They include a cup etched with images of an ancient Peruvian deity; an elaborately framed mirror from the Kennedy Winter White House in Palm Beach; a Russian icon of St. George; a Nigerian tribal tent post; a small porcelain artwork by Lucio Fontana; a film canister used in the production of Disney’s Pinocchio; a cardboard flip-top cigarette box; a Roman bone hairpin from the 3rd century; a prop of a Nazi head scalp from Quentin Tarantino’s film Inglorious Basters; a taxidermy pheasant; a rubber chicken; a pair of clown shoes; and a Tibetan figure of the god Vishnu dancing. The artist has imposed a strict code of visual monotony upon this miscellany, painting all objects either dull white or dull grey — shades best described as drably institutional.
Gerber emphasizes this standardization by giving each piece the same name, “Support,” as if to say that the objects are not the focus of the show, but merely support the fact of the exhibition, or the exhibiting institution — or, perhaps, the category of the aesthetic itself, with all its codes for viewing, contextualizing, understanding, appreciating, and criticizing art objects. The objects, for all their variety, become equivalents; they refer to each other as a set of displayed objects before they make any gestures toward other contexts and meanings. The result is that the “gallery effect” — the way objects in exhibitions are stripped of any meanings or functions other than the aesthetic — comes to the fore.
Because these are found objects, though, a trace of their prior existence remains discernible. Sometimes this is easy enough to infer — for example, a soda can that Gerber has painted. Sometimes, as in the Kennedy mirror or the Fontana sculpture, we need to consult the catalog to understand what Gerber has modified and displayed. In some instances, the sense of loss is palpable: now painted over, we cannot gaze into mirror, as Jackie Kennedy once did; we cannot see Fontana’s piece as he intended it to be seen; nor can we see the religious or ritual objects as they would have been seen and used in their original context, or even imagine how they may have looked. Gerber has said that he is a “FedEx artist,” having objects delivered to him from around the world. One way to conceptualize this is as a critique of the cultural leveling brought about by advanced global capitalism. But Supports emphasizes the fact of display so insistently that the exhibition’s primary thrust is clearly toward an examination of the effects and conventions of display.
The outcome can hardly be called beautiful, sublime, decorative, or even sensory. It’s not the kind of show that invites the slow, careful viewing of individual objects. The best term for Gerber’s apparent aim is “interesting.” But interesting in what way? The cultural theorist Sianne Ngai, in her 2012 study Our Aesthetic Categories, defines the interesting as an effect derived from works in series, and as an aesthetic of pointing, of singling out variations within a sequence as if to say “different: notice how!” The most interesting aspect of Supports, in Ngai’s sense of the term, is the one that most powerfully punctures the conceit of object equivalence. It involves an item the unwitting viewer is likely to first consider an intrusion into the show, the only one not painted in one of the two institutional colors. It is a liquor flask covered in a crumpled brown paper bag, positioned on the edge of a pedestal holding other objects. It appears to be something left behind, perhaps the discarded whiskey bottle of someone who had wandered into the exhibition.
This misinterpretation is facilitated by the location of the Arts Club of Chicago, which is free and open to the public, on the ground floor of a building in a busy urban environment. The piece thus draws attention to itself by both its visual difference from the other objects and its inferred reference to a plausible context of homelessness and alcoholism. In doing this it becomes not only the most interesting object in the show, but its most powerful critique of the isolating, homogenizing effect of galleries as spaces for visual experience; the piece underscores the exclusivity of galleries and their clientele. In the end, Gerber’s work does not seek to reward the connoisseur’s careful, perhaps cloistered visual appreciation of aesthetic objects, but to question it. The tradition of connoisseurship is trumped, in Supports, by another art-world paradigm — institutional critique, which intrudes on our norms of viewing like a discarded whiskey bottle left behind at a gallery.
Gaylen Gerber: Supports continues at the Arts Club of Chicago (201 E. Ontario Street, Chicago, Illinois) through December 21.
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