Dan Jönsson

"Under the Volcano" fromClay Ketter. Gulf Coast Slabs (exhib. cat.) 2008

Under the Volcano

It is said that everything human is eternal. So it's told about the owner of Casa degli
Amorini Dorati, "the House of the Golden Cupids", in Pompeii, that he loved the theater. After the discoveries that archeologists have made we can be pretty sure he did; when the reception room of the mansion was excavated, it turned out to have the shape of a theatrical stage, and between the peristyle columns, actors' masks were hung. On the whole, Gnaeus Poppaeus, as the proprietor was named, must have been a first-rate art lover. Every corner of his garden was decorated with statues, and the walls of the house were exquisitely painted with subjects from Greek mythology. When the town was buried by the volcanic eruption on August 24, A.D. 79, he was not at home.
        
About the owner of 111 Hayden Avenue in Pass Christian, Mississippi, the
remains of the building tell us much less. Hurricane Katrina, which hit the coast in August 2005, left no more than an arcane grid of terra cotta and linoleum tiles, mimicking the neighboring house, No. 113, except for the color. The roof, the walls, the furniture, the appliances—everything was brushed away by the tempest. What remains is an impersonal pattern, a simple, low-maintenance living surface for immaterial vacationers.
        
Of course, we do know something of these people's lives. About the two
houses on Hayden Avenue we've learned that they belonged to a father and his son, and that their family name is Oden; we can perhaps imagine them sitting on their patios in the evening, tossing a few words over the fence, slackening their gazes to the rhythms of the water sprinklers.
        
What we also know for sure is that the owners of these houses on Hayden Avenue, just like Gnaeus Poppaeus in Pompeii, lived in anticipation of the inevitable disaster. The beach settlements along the coast of Mississippi were, so to speak, built in the shadow of an active volcano, as the Italian villas were quite literally. Just as the inhabitants of Pompeii knew that their town in due time would be covered by the ashes of a great eruption of Mount Vesuvius, so did everybody in Pass Christian and the other towns along this artificial coastline know that the "storm of the century" sooner or later would be moving in from the Gulf of Mexico—and when it did, it would sweep their town off the map. Against a hurricane of Katrina's caliber, with its enormous flash floods and the thousands of small tornadoes that arise when it makes landfall, the houses of cards in a town like this have no greater chance of survival than Pompeii had against Vesuvius. If that.
        
Still these towns were built. Still people remained here, as if nothing ever would happen. Still real-estate companies and retail trade flourished—as they will do again, very soon. Are people in their right mind?

Clay Ketter's Gulf Coast Slabs deal with this (and much more). Much has been said and written of the art-historical references in Ketter's work—its affinities to American "hard-edge" and color-field painting, to Abstract Expressionism, to Duchamp, Ellsworth Kelly, Brice Marden. But very little, if anything, has been said of the Pompeian in them. To me, having followed Clay Ketter since his first gallery shows, in the early nineties, the photographs of Gulf Coast Slabs are something of a revelation. Even in reference to these most recent artworks one may speak of abstract readymades, of paradoxical "action paintings" made possible by nature's enormous invisible hand and uncovered by the subsequent extensive clean-up. But with their ominous sharpness, their unsentimental documentary brute force, they cast an unexpected light on the artist's entire oeuvre. They disclose something that—indisputably—has been there all along. Come to think of it, Ketter's pictorial world has from the very start gained strength from this Pompeian ambiguity, the dual perspective of construction and ruin. The one is a  prerequisite of the other. Hidden within the construction is ruin, and not until ruination is construction revealed.

Immediately, Gulf Coast Slabs connect with two clusters of work that have absorbed Ketter during the last few years. First, there is a planned series of "burned" interiors, of which but one is executed. "Kreugerküche", as it's called, is a combination of kitchen fixtures from IKEA covered with a blistered patina of varnish, a process that has made the melamine surfaces melt and assume a dark brown, mahogany color. The second series consists of works where Ketter has made use of doll houses, dismantled and folded open to form two-dimensional images. Then the houses have either been burned in a similar manner, or "drowned" in a thick layer of transparent polyester, a method that gives the impression that you're watching the house through a surface of
water.

The creation of both these series of works has run parallel to the development of Gulf Coast Slabs, and the "drowned" houses have a particularly uncanny kinship to the pictures from the Mississippi shore. The doll houses used in the series are of the Swedish Lundby brand, anchoring them in Scandinavian modernism and in the fascination with Swedish building norms and standardized measurements—most of all IKEA's kitchen systems—that have become a seemingly inexhaustible source of energy for Ketter's art.
        
Keeping painting or sculpture in mind, it may be tempting to interpret this infatuation as a purely estethic passion. It is not. Indeed, it is an important part of the context that Clay Ketter is a trained joiner, and that his interest in these materials, processes and regulations to a great extent is that of the professional. Even when he first exhibited his  spackled “wall paintings", at an exposition in the now defunct Forum Gallery in Malmö, 1994, I was struck by his insisting on the image being a result of certain regulating restrictions on one hand, and of a craftsmanlike work process on the other. The paintings were simply the outcome of putting spackle on plasterboard, using the number of variations as to format and "expression" that were available according to Swedish building standards.
        
This realistic, basically anti-conceptual approach landed even then and there in a profitable conflict with the abstract, sheerly artistic tradition to which these images simultaneously seemed to aspire. Ketter kept on making use of this energy during the nineties, in his kitchen pieces as well as in his so-called "trace paintings", where the images were what came into existence on a wall when, for instance, a cupboard was pulled down. (Thus they were an unequivocal counterpart to the spackle paintings, although situated in the final phase of the building cycle). The same force was eminently present in Ketter's Valencia pictures, a series of photographs of the median walls left bare on demolition sites in Valencia, Spain. And it is still in place as an explanation of the strong dynamics of Gulf Coast Slabs.

How, exactly, is this dynamic constructed?
        
Primarily, one may perceive the Gulf Coast images, although they can technically be regarded as documentary photos, behaving as if they were paintings. And what's remarkable, even paradoxical, is that their documentary nature, their circumstantial survey of the material consequences of the disaster, actually makes us look upon them in this way—to zoom in, letting the eye wander over their large surfaces, in terrible fascination before the physical devastation, searching for something that will reveal "how it's done".
        
Returning to "111 Hayden Ave.", our awareness of the reality behind the es-thetically well-balanced checked patterns and color fields leads naturally to a need to interpret the traces of a life lived here until quite recently. Instantly, we discern an approximate layout of rooms; tentatively we align our gaze to what seems to have been a hallway along the longitudinal axis of the house; perhaps we guess that the surface in the picture's upper left-hand corner, covered with yellow tiles, may have been the kitchen, and that the darker square sections might have been the shower and the toilet.
        
If we compare this with the house next door, No. 113, we get more information. We can see that the patterns in the basically identical buildings diverge a little, probably as a result of differences in the placing of appliances and kitchen fixtures. In "Destiny Oaks Drive", the pattern becomes even clearer. Here, in what seems to be an expanded and rather more exclusive version of the same bungalow, the space at the center of the picture—which was a raw, hard-to-define concrete surface in the houses previously considered—has become a parquet floor, miraculously steadfast in the face of the raging storm. Our "reading" of these surfaces begins to bear fruit. The rooms become tangible to the imagination; we move around in the picture as if we were in an imaginary building.
        
Yet nothing of all this exists in the pictures "themselves". Transferred to an art-historical framework, they are hardly to be regarded as anything else but painting (or, possibly, sculpture—though here the ground seems a bit more insecure). Preoccupied with surfaces, materials, color and structure, they are plainly painterly as objects of art, even though it is, paradoxically, their photographically documentary, narrative qualities that by and large produce this effect. Many threads come together in these pictures; one of the most important has to do with the impure duality already touched upon—with Ketter's way to insist that painting—despite a multitude of theories—is something more than just a picture, that it's an imprint of work done, and of a lived experience.
        
In Gulf Coast Slabs, Ketter exposes, more clearly than he's done for a long time, this documentary strain—his interest in the narrative that was also apparent in the Valencia pictures, but which in fact arose in an earlier, and very momentous, project: his scrutiny of an apartment for rent in 1994, in the housing area of Rosengård, in Malmö. In his practical-minded dispassion, in his realism if you will, Ketter seems intent on reminding us of certain self-explanatory matters that the art world, in its conceptual devotion to ideas, tends to disregard. Surely, a "readymade" is never "already made".

By sticking to this discrepant prospect of construction, attrition and collapse, Clay Ketter's images take a significant step to the side of the quite narrow idea of time that contemporary conceptualist art, more often than not, propagates. This is the second important aspect of the esthetic "conflict" that these pieces are charged with. Ketter's work in the Rosengård apartment was in a number of ways a downright progenitor of Gulf Coast Slabs: a prosaic, close to chilly "securing" and restoring of the traces of the recently deceased woman who had been living in this rather dilapidated flat, in one of the most disreputable examples of the so-called "million program" of Swedish social democracy, which in the sixties and seventies provided most Swedish cities with ring-walls of cheap functionalistic high-rise blocks.
        
Ketter's painstaking way of proceeding—like a forensic technician, a claims investigator, a taxidermist—mirrors, in part, the instrumental, technocratic frame of mind usually associated with these building schemes. Ketter's attention to detail—not least his move, in a couple of the rooms, to restore the medallion wallpaper the landlord had renovated away—was on the other hand trenchant enough to let the contrariness of life, or perhaps death, to incessantly leak into the scrutiny. The traces of wear and tear on the floor and the door edging, the damaged kitchen fixtures, the rust stains in the bathtub testified, for the viewer, to a certainly anonymous but still peculiar life story. As in the Mississippi pictures, time became literally visible in its erosion of the materials.
        
To understand time in this way, as something tangible and wordly, has consequences. Ketter's art has, from the very beginning, been imbued with his fascination with modern, serial house-building norms: standard solutions, tract housing—house machines, if you will. But in contrast to many other contemporary artists interested in issues like these, Ketter's way of handling them hardly manifests any social or political criticism. When he looks upon these phenomena, he employs the gaze of the archeologist, as if he were dealing with the residue of something that is already past and gone. The contemporary world is basically chaotic and may only be fathomed as a piece of future history. A pattern in time.
        
In this manner, the images become open to existential, even speculative, readings, light-years from the innocuous frigidity they give off as objects of art. In spite of all their dispassion they hold a latent pathos, a poetry of loss that anchors them not only in a contemporary American painterly tradition, but also gives them more unexpected tie-ups with, for example, the vanitas motif of baroque art, as well as with current European "memorial art", as practised by Christian Boltanski and others. Clearly, the issues brought up here are common to all mankind, and timeless. As an important reference to the Mississippi pictures, Ketter acknowledges the biblical tale of Job, the righteous man who without any apparent cause is put to the test by an omnipotent and ruthless God. Subjected to one trial after the other, Job is suspected by his friends to be a sinner, since, according to religious tradition, the righteous don't meet with misfortune. Through all the catastrophes, however, Job persists in affirming his innocence and demanding redress by God. Not until he humbles himself before the Almighty is he pardoned. Redress, it turns out, is not gotten through righteousness, but through submission.
        
In a like manner, it is quite possible in the last years' discussion concerning the climate to make out a moralistic undertone—as, for example, in the debate on and reporting of hurricane Katrina. If global warming is something created by man—and most things point in that direction—it is not hard to conclude that the victims of natural disasters of this kind, where the greenhouse effect is considered instrumental, are themselves to blame. Our way of life, hard on nature's resources, is supposed to have challenged the ecological balance, causing nature to "hit back".
        
My purpose here is not to make us doubt this. Still it may, after all, be useful to call attention to the fact that very ancient notions of punishment and penance now return through the ecological back door, Nature playing the part of God. As Sodom and
Gomorrah were stricken by the wrath of God and burned to the ground, and as the tales of the licentious life lived in Pompeii, with its countless taverns and brothels, always have been given a piquant flavoring by the dramatic destruction of the town, so the hedonistic consumer culture of the twenty-first century seems to call for similar quasi-religious doomsday scenarios. More modern than that, we are not.

Yet Clay Ketter's pictures demonstrate something else. In Gulf Coast Slabs we can trace the pattern of a starker structure. We may sense the traces of a life that only within very confining bounds—choosing the color of the floor tiles, locating the kitchen appliances—allows free scope for individual options. The houses in Pass Christian were, after all, not occupied by immorality, or even by error; they were occupied because they had been built, and of course they were built with economically rational incentives: because the market regarded them as potentially attractive objects. Their traces testify, in other words, to a historical context, a cultural and economic system of physical and symbolic relationships that we, as private consumers, have an exceedingly small chance to influence, simply because it's so much larger than we are, its norms and values forming the very framework in which our individual ethics must act. Before powers such as these we lack practical alternatives.
        
Perhaps you might say that this historical approach to our age attests to dejection and disillusion. I don't think so, though. For at the same time it opens up a world of new artistic possibilities. Clay Ketter always has possessed the ability to make order unsure, to force the viewer to ask himself what is what, what is how, what is important, what is real. Regarding Gulf Coast Slabs we must pose yet another question, maybe the utmost. What is human? To be sure, in these pictures as well, the entire fascinating self-reckoning of modern painting is present—the attempts to defend its territory against photography; the difficult questions of representation and abstraction; the heroic efforts to establish painting as a reality in its own right. Ketter's new images succeed in keeping these complex questions up-to-date, while at the same time moving on by divulging their historical nature. Issues like these are undeniably important, but in the final analysis they have to be subordinated to those commonly called eternal—those that are about what is human.
        
And Ketter's answer is very factual: this, he says. This is human. In Gulf Coast Slabs the unsolved riddles of painting are presented as the fundamentally existential questions they, after all, are. As I see it, these pictures most of all deal with our attitude towards time, our ability to understand our brief moment, our numbered days, not only in relation to those who have gone before us, and those who will follow, but also in a considerably longer perspective—meteorologic, biologic, even geologic. Modern painting always has had one foot in the future; Ketter indicates that the only certainty about the future is that it will bring our annihilation. It's important to understand that this doesn't make it less interesting, or less necessary—but that it makes time more precious. In Pass Christian many house-owners return regularly to mow the lawns around their ruins. Maybe it's not a very rational behavior. But it's a way to offer some resistance to time. An unreasonable longing for the house on the shore, or a passionate love for the theater: the difference is not very large. It's all incantation. Is painting able to be more than that? In these pictures we sense that it's necessary that painting's claims on reality have a firm foundation in the very human wealth of precious time.