Bruce Fergusson

"Labors of Love. Love's Labors Lost" from Clay Ketter: Labors of Love. Love's Labors Lost, 2000

 

The similarity between art and labor
thus lies in their shared relationship to
the human essence; that is, they are
both creative activities by means of which
man produces objects that express him,
that speak for and about him.
Therefore, there is no radical opposition
between art and work.

—Adolfo Sanchez Vasquez

...to produce a work which is not a work of art.

—Marcel Duchamp


Clay Ketter came to make mature artworks through a consideration of his work as a laborer— as a carpenter or construction worker to be precise. The construction and deconstruction work that he did as a laborer, particularly but not exclusively in art galleries and museums, became both the subject and the object of his art: of paint-ings, sculpture and sometimes installations. Simply put, his work became his work of art. Subject, object and process were brought together in a unified triangulation of purpose. No translation, no metaphor, no representational image of work is necessary to Ketter's project. Labor, as an abstract form of exchange and as the telltale product of hard ritualistic work, and as material evidence of human accom-plishment, became the total reservoir of meanings, unfiltered.

Ketter, then, was not necessarily trying to extend the idea of "pictorial nominalism," the term Marcel Duchamp used for problematizing painting by virtue of the "assisted readymade" in the early part of this century. But Ketter's artistic work has much to do with the same kind of issues, although inverted and imploded in relation to their original significances. If "pictorial nominalism," as thoroughly extrapolated by Thierry DuDuve, means a moment in history in which the terms of art change by virtue of a new cultural frisson,(1) Ketter is not so much an innovator as Duchamp, but he certainly is an extension of that early modernist crisis. Ketter presents a new ghost with its shadow in the machine of art history.

By this, I mean that Ketter poses a similar question but with a much different attitude, extending the series initiated by Duchamp not as a radical gesture of negation but rather as a positive gesture of gentle irony. Work for Ketter comes before the work of art, offering a provisional solution to Duchamp's dilemma by changing the class undertones, which underwrote Duchamp's earlier radicality. Ketter offers, not incidentally, a bit of redemption to the mix, as well. It is understood that Duchamp took industrial manufactured objects as material signs of the division of labor, and thus alienation, between "high"-class artworks and "lower"-class mass-produced products. By doing so, he was more or less asking the question, "when is a work of art?" meaning, "under what conditions does an object come to be seen aesthetically?" He conflated the power of the artist to make an image and the power of the patron to have it made, beginning the tradition of the artist/curator. And he made clear that a work of art as a term is dependent upon its institutional discourses to exist.

Ketter, instead, uses his own physical and conceptual labor as an artisan and an artist simultaneously to produce works which are both objective determinations and subjective acts. Ketter's successful method resolves the modernist estrangement impasse by displacing two terms, art and labor, in a set of parallel gestures, without conflating them to one reduced sign. Rather than a sociological speculation, which is Duchamp's move, i.e. when an object is placed in an art discourse it becomes "art," Ketter returns us to the materiality of work itself—of painting as the application of marks and color on a surface, of sculpture as three-dimensional made object. He assumes the when of art under art-institutional conditions, and he also assumes that when something looks like art already made, it can and will be said to be art, as well. Thus, he uses these assumed conditions to address the how of art's material status. Or, moreover, how can art look like art and everyday reality at the same time? It is simply a different moment in the history of art that Ketter is exploiting, one that is clearly post-avant-garde. For Ketter, for better or for worse, institutional histories, or art histories, determine works of art and where and under what conditions they are seen. Therefore, the idea of a radical new language of forms being introduced to the discourse of art today is irrelevant and would only reproduce another myth of originality. Instead, it is the language of Minimalism, Donald Judd's furniture, Mondrian's compositions, Constructivism, Productivism, Neoplasticism, and so on, which give the sheetrock surfaces, the kitchen-wall "traces" and Ikea-furnishing "simultudes" their understood and acceptable legitimacy as art-like surfaces and objects. This allows Ketter to play on the notion of work.

Jean Baudrillard has written that the dream that haunts the Marxist imaginary is to strip objects of their exchange value in order to restore their use value. This was the goal of the historical avantgarde—to produce an "alienating effect" through artifices that, in turn, produced a consciousness of alienation in the real world. And the ultimate alienation, for Marxists and avant-garde romantics alike, was labor: the un-equal exchange of human labor for deferred rewards, exemplified in polarized ideologies like capitalism and socialism. These kinds of alienated labor were proposed as being determined in a state of objectivity by capitalist or governmental industrialism rather than being determining in a state of subjectivity. Passive rather than act-ive, it might be said.

Art, especially of the kind considered "radical" like Duchamp's "ready-mades," was contrasted against this kind of industrialized labor as almost transcendental work—labor with a higher value and with a much higher status—because it was seemingly unalienated. Art's connection to community rituals and its "uselessness" in the social if not the economic sense contributed to this notion of it as an unalienated secular calling. One contradiction, of course, was that even avantgarde artistic activity, in the name of global consciousness-raising, had this elite aura of superior status. It, too, depended on privileged institutions, patrons and exclusive receptions for its meaning as Duchamp had shown. And even Duchamp's own choices of objects for "art," no matter how seemingly vernacular, embodied the aristocratic position of one consumer privileged enough to be able to choose everywhere. His own consumerism arose from a position of luxury, not need. In other words, even art made in the name of the "people" or as "unalienated" labor was inherently separated from its political and moral aims because it participated in a perceived different and more important kind of labor than the labor of the people in whose name it was being proclaimed.

What Ketter has done, remarkably, I think, is to de-center both notions, labor and art, so that they become one and the same at the level of consideration. Through his paintings, sculptures and occasional installations, Ketter has made use value and exchange value closer in equivalence. Or, more importantly, his works allow the observer to oscillate in the space between, a space which carves out a still and contemplative moment in the circulation of objects from work to art, and back again, from which to consider both. Sarah Kent has written about this oscillation: "Considering they are so similar, it seems unreasonable that one activity should be viewed with contempt, the other eulogized. But Ketter is not on a crusade. His work is less worthy than that, and much more humorous."(2) His labor as a laborer and his artistry as an artist can fluctuate in these surfaces and objects, which reveal both as equal contenders for content and meaning. And, as Kent points out, take themselves only so seriously.

Another more academic and less user-friendly way of saying the same thing is that the signifier (a physical object of work) and the signified (the concepts it refers to) relate to the sign of "art" and to the sign of "labor" equally. Ketter's works are always a composite and compound sign of, at the very least, both concepts. There is both a natural relation and a man-made one. Joshua Decter suggestively and accurately calls Ketter's work "the Triumph of Chameleon Aesthetics." He has written of this compounding of signs as a way to produce a third term: "While it is tenable to suggest that Ketter flirts with the reductive aesthetic idioms usually associated with a lineage of modernist artists such as Malevich, Mondrian, Ryman and Stella, it is also important to recognize that his art exists in a state of virtuality: there is a willingness to defer the final formal resolution—to thwart our desire to pin it down to one thing— so that an authentic ambiguity emerges."(3) If labor and art are not opposed as Adolfo Sanchez Vasquez suggests at the beginning of this essay,(4) Ketter's work illustrates a strengthening of the sign by an iconic melding. Even if labor and art are seen as incompatible, the sign divides and creates a conundrum, which is ongoing and hovering over both interpretations, favoring neither. It is this virtuality or levitation that keeps the work from fixed meanings.

Theodor Adorno once wrote that "It is now taken for granted that nothing that concerns art can be taken for granted any more: neither art itself, nor art in its relation-ship to the whole, or even the right of art to exist."(5) This might be a coda, perhaps, for the work being done by Ketter's artistic products, in which nothing except art's former history is assumed. Or it might be said that Ketter "monitors" rather than creates, in a state of partial commitment. He reverses ready-made forms and understandings of their connotations from exchange to use, from use to exchange and back again. Like many other artists today, he is conscious of everything from Duchamp's concept of the "readymade" (which includes painting by virtue of its use of manufactured tubes of paint and purchased canvases) to ideas from cultural anthropology which address the nature of produced materiality as thought. But, against a cynical post-avant-garde agenda, which often resorts to the announcement of the death of art and meaning as a solution to complexity, Ketter draws out the implications of his materials and processes for positive social and aesthetic appreciation. Applying simple methods drawn directly from construction materials and methods used in building sheetrock walls, Ketter has listed the possibilities (252) for constructing a painting based on predetermined standards (3 or 4 different wallboard sheets varying in size and thickness, 3 different dimensions of lumber studwork, 4 different kinds of wallboard compound—each with a different hue, beaded edges or not, etc.). Following his intuition, born from his experience as a carpenter/art installer, Ketter "painted" new works with nothing but wallboard compound. Needless to say, to a large extent these works resemble, or even duplicate, unfinished states of wall construction.

What the sheetrock-wall and trace "paintings" essentially do, conceptually and aesthetically, is act to remind us of a whole history of Modernism in which those who work with the decorative and the industrial were excluded. Art under Modern-ism was often made to appear as a secular religion rather than an arbitrary institutionalized social division, despite the radical avant-garde attempts to elucidate the conventions of its nominalism. The physicality of painting and the labor of its making were sanitized in favor of romantic biographies and transcendental (or at least intellectual) meanings. (And of course, even radical avant-garde gestures like Duchamp's have gone the way of these fetishizations via the art-history machine). Ketter's paintings force us to remember these violent exclusions and excisions, or, at the very least, act to remind us of their absent presences. The part and the whole are the same thing here, each reminding us of the other in a mise-en-abyme of connotative unity. There is no "vanishing point" in scopic or metaphysical terms. There is only the staged presence of physical work. The end of modernist idealism has not, for Ketter, closed the door to the investigation of its strange legacies and its possibilities for suturing. As Decter has written, again of Ketter's work, "The old model of utopianism that promised a new and improved tomorrow has been replaced by a phantasmal utopianism that promises a new and improved today, which is to say that when the former utopianism collapsed under it own weight—and after the dust had finally settled—we were faced with the easier burdens of a visionary pragmatism."(6) Ketter's work is exemplary of this new and lighter burden: an ability to carry hope without promises.

The sheetrock-wall paintings and trace paintings return us time and again to the idea of painting as "practice," as work unfinished, in need of reconstruction, or maybe even unresolvable. In making these works, Ketter relinquishes the idea of creative genius and the idea of an isolated studio practice in favor of an incarnation of social connotations and a solicitation of a notion of class difference and social positioning in the world. There is an understated pride which underlines these works, a pride in the complex skills it takes to build a wall and, even more so, a pride in making visible the invisible labor which underpins all urban institutions of art as well as domestic and commercial spaces. At first seen as a displacement of the aesthetics of the everyday, the wall and trace paintings forcefully act to put an image of daily labor into play within the framework of art. Condensing a situated labor to its essential art reference (the wall which gives much art its authority as material sign), Ketter still preserves its original meanings as construction work or kitchen wall while simultaneously elevating its meanings to the status of art. Forcing the non-illusionistic space of reality into the art discourse produces a möbius strip of continuous relations. As David Summers has written, "Real space, being subjunctive space, is always culturally specific and the 'reality' and 'certainty' it possesses in practice is that naturalized reality and certainty within which we all enact our lives as participants in one or another construction of things."(7) The pragmatism of Ketter's New England background meets the decaying perfection of a modernist hangover in a process that is a literal conduit to both the world of painting and everyday life.

Art's meanings change by virtue of the social context in which they are seen and historicized, as we have seen. Andreas Jürgensen puts it perfectly, "Knowledge of art is knowledge of the way the knowledge of art is handled."(8) But, strangely, it seems as though Ketter's "still lifes"of labor will be able to retain their authenticity for as long as walls of art galleries, museums, apartments, houses and kitchens, in particular, are built like this. They are both topical and have a bit of the longue durée of history as it were. Ketter has said that he embraces the conventions of art museums and domestic spaces in order to "extract" qualities and forms from their found manifestations.(9) The long-standing everyday applications, connotations and familiarity of these walls/paintings or paintings/walls assure that their original values are maintained despite their entering the unfamiliar territory of art. In other words, their social context is stable and their meanings might be sustained for a longer time than some other contemporary strategies whose absorption is faster and easier. Ketter's works wear their extra-aesthetic elements as comfortably as they wear their aesthetics, maintaining a state of deliberate incompletion that announces their modesty as well. Like transvestites, these works "pass" as works of art, without losing their original difference.(10)

The specter of daily labor is invoked, as well as the historical specter of almost a hundred years of geometric abstraction. Unlike paintings in which the procedure of painting is at odds with its subject matter (representation of flesh by paint, for instance, or metaphysics by paint), there is an odd congruence in Ketter's sheetrock paintings. The very uselessness of painting as art and the usefulness of walls in architecture are inscribed and then de-centered again. Painting as art becomes useful as a reminder and the walls useless as functioning architectural –surfaces. Daniel Birnbaum has said of these works that "Ketter's work takes place before and after painting."This refers to their instability as secure signs, their inability to be either/or. They are, instead, both/and as active meanings. It is this dynamic oscillation that both reminds us of the convention of using flat surfaces to depict things in the world (representation) and acts to expose procedures of illusion (abstraction) in painting, while staying within the limits of everyday objects.

Ketter's works, of course, involve an introduction of the "vulgarity" of ordinary objects into the inflated category of art objects, an incongruity which is now old hat as a tried and tired method of passing "low" vernacular concerns into high-art museums. But, as I have pointed out, his work strongly disowns the hierarchical differences of class that underlie most projects involving discussions of high and low in art. He introduces, as a subject, an object that is mass-produced and therefore "indifferent" to a highly structured reception process that depends on value differences. Art has, of course, been that place where the differences make the difference, i.e. bravura brushstrokes, play of imagination, métier skills, conceptual complexity and so on. But Ketter undermines the importance of trained perceptual skills on the part of artist and audience both by interjecting the simplicity of familiarity. No center of importance for form or content, no locus to differentiate points of interest, no exoticism, no interpretive bias, no up—no down. This differs from earlier interests in high/low transformations in the fact that Ketter's works remain "low" regardless of context. No amount of intellectual maneuvering or euphemizing will make the sheetrock and its spackle or the traces of a kitchen anything other than what they are at all times. They are obdurately low regardless of their company.

Fine art, interior design, contract work, unfinished or deconstructed walls, architectural remains, Robert Ryman and Donald Judd are all called forth in Ketter's works. Lorand Hegyi, writing about Bertrand Lavier's artistic strategies, coined the term "radical similarity."It can equally be applied to Ketter's methods. Instead of the legitimation and glorification of the object which avant-gardists engaged in, "radical similarity" subtly transforms perception to an arena in which the obvious uselessness of a work of art is contrasted with the original usefulness of the wall, the shelf and so on. And the irony, of course, is that the wall which exists to hold art, the wall from which a series of shelves have been torn away, and the Ikea fixtures which are the sculptural inspiration to Ketter, were themselves initially a result of the same kind of utopian modernist impulses.It is in their similarity to the "original", already mass-produced, that Ketter's paintings and objects allow for difference to exist—not in the obvious class distinctionsfl on which earlier avant-garde methods depended. The enlightened mission of Modernism, whether in its arts, its architecture or its democratic vision of mass-produced objects, was a myth of such proportions that, to this day, someone is always building institutions to uphold it. But for artists like Ketter, the myth's downside—its evil twin, its doppelgänger aggressivity—was its denial of the real world of exclusivity, a denial which made such pure ideology possible. Like all good artists today, he does not obviously offer a new morality. Rather, the works act as a corrective reminder of the dangers of overwhelming models of efficiency, whether aesthetic or social—the models of technically rational productivism which underwrote all modernisms.

In invoking the term still-life painting for these works, I am thinking of a number of qualities that Norman Bryson has identified in his rereadings of this conventional genre. One is humility: the idea that the painter is involved in portraying the order of ritual rather than the realm of god-like invention. As Bryson says of Cotán: "…the tendency to geometrise fulfils another aim, no less severe: to disavow the painter's work as the source for composition and to reassign responsibility for its forms elsewhere—to mathematics, not creativity."Secondly, there is the idea of closeness to the picture plane. As Bryson says: "Still life is in a sense the great anti-Albertian genre. What it opposes is the idea of the canvas as a window on the world, leading to a distant view. Although its techniques assume a mastery of perspective, even in xenia, nevertheless perspective's jewel—the vanishing point—is always absent." Three hundred years later, of course, the subject matter of Ketter's still lifes is no longer the table per se but the basics of a humble, ritualistic, predetermined close space which offers a theater of the ordinary, the everyday, and the quotidian. The monasticism of still life tog"ether with the lessons gained from a quieting of modernist excesses lead, in Ketter's case, to a body of work that, in its self-negation, highlights the labor of love that is its subject.

These paintings (sheetrock, trace etc.) and these sculptures (surface composites and surface habitats), then, are doing two things at least. In the first instance they are acting in the interstices created by an understanding of modernism's inherent shortcomings. They obey the strictures of a modernist canon formation of aesthetics (flatness, geometry, brushstrokes or hand-made construction, reduced palette etc.) and, at the same time, point to a repressed content (labor and its connotations, middle-class aspirations, materialistic values, and so on). The higher ground, as it were, constructed by history and authorized by the legitimizing institutions of art history and museums, is undermined by the proposition that the same thing can be achieved without excess and without excise. As Ketter says: "to eradicate a difference which actually doesn't exist." What Bryson has said of the lesson of The Fall of Icarus by Brueghel might well apply to Ketter's whole project. Bryson uses the Brueghel image as an allegory of the difference between history painting and still-life painting but it might equally apply as an allegory of the difference between the precariousness of the avant-garde and the assured productivity of a more conventionalized image-making. Bryson says: "When still-life painting comes to look at the overlooked, what it can reveal is accordingly the Icarus shock, of the irrelevance and expendability of the individual contribution. Brueghel's image implies that in fact what runs the world is repetition, unconsciousness, the sleep of culture: the forces that stabilise and maintain the human world are habit, automatism, inertia." (16)

It is to this neglected and underestimated stability that Ketter returns again and again. Bryson's "overlooked" is restored to us in ºthe form of images of labor, new kitchens or memories of such, the hand, the eye and the body of everyday life. A different kind of modernism emerges: one which does not believe in universal utopias but believes instead, perhaps, in the rich completeness of the inherited everyday practices of human labor—not in its universal structures but in its ability to collect or invoke a specific cultural memory of the body in action toward common goals. If this is still a modernist project, it is indeed a modest one. Ketter offers a corrective, not a solution, to the questions of what is art, how is art and what and how are the similarities between it and the reality of everyday life and its products. Instead, he offers us a powerful way into these questions that is democratic and accessible. If we follow this invitation, the rewards result simply from our own choice, an effectual act in itself. Ketter grants us the right to act according to our own ùprotocols and our own biases. This is the encouragement of interpretation at its finest—open and responsible, consistent and connected. And surprisingly, works of art bring it about.

 

 

Notes


1 Thierry DuDuve, Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp's Passage from Painting to the Readymade
(Theory and History of Literature Series, Vol. 51)
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991)
2 Sarah Kent, "Clay Ketter" in Deposition: Contemporary Swedish Art in Venice
(Stockholm: Iaspis, 1997)
3 Joshua Decter, "Visionary Pragmatism and The Triumph of Chameleon Aesthetics in the Work of Clay Ketter" in Nutopi
(Malmö: Rooseum, 1995)
4 Adolfo Sanchez Vasquez, Art and Society: Essays in Marxist Aesthetics
(London: Merlin Press, 1973)
5 Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life
(London: Verso, 1978)
6 Joshua Decter, ibid.
7 David Summers, "Real Metaphor" in Visual Theory: Painting and Interpretation
(New York: Icon Editions, Polity Press, 1991)
8 Andreas Jürgensen, "Mass and Meaning" in The Mass Ornament: the mass phenomenon at the turn of the millennium
(Odense: Kunsthallen Brandts Klædefabrik, 1998)
9 Norman Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still-Life Painting
(London: Reaktion Books, 1990)
Norman Bryson, using George Kubler's concept of "prime objects," speaks of these kinds of familiar forms. "As such, the
forms are in a sense unconscious: they do not need to be re-invented from scratch or thought through from first
principles at every new intelligence that bypasses the necessity of invention. For as long as such forms are
able to do the job, they propose that human life can best be organized by submitting the requirements of
the present to the solutions of the past and by subordinating the impulse of invention to the authority of
cultural formulae".
10 Here I am extending Decter's (ibid.) metaphor for contemporary art: "Art feels quite comfortable wearing borrowed
clothing in order to assume just about any sort of identity, and it occasionally travels with a passport bearing
a 'false' name, allowing vicarious entry into the artifice of the everyday and the ordinary."
I am giving this process the name "transvestite" to invoke the "passing" Decter refers to: the theatricality of the moment.
11 Daniel Birnbaum, "Before and After Painting" in Clay Ketter
(Stockholm: Galleri Andreas Brändström, 1995)
12 Lóránd Hegyi, "Strategies of Deconstruction" in Abstrakt/Real
(Vienna: Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, 1996)
13 Daniel Birnbaum, one of the earliest and best writers on Ketter's work, has also written on Ketter in relation to the founder of Ikea, Ingvar Kamprad. See "Ikea at the End of Metaphysics", frieze (#30, 1996.)
Birnbaum discusses the double-edged sword of Kamprad's modernism, both democratic and fascistically tinged, quoting him archetypically as saying, "We don't just sell a chair or a table, we sell a philosophy and a mission." Today, of
course, there is also a cosmetics company called "Philosophy."
14 Norman Bryson, ibid.
15 Norman Bryson, ibid.
16 Norman Bryson, ibid.