Joshua Decter

"Visionary Pragmatism & the Triumph of Chameleon Aesthetics" from Nutopi (exhib. cat.) 1995

"Research into everyday life as a certain form of material culture." Vladimir Tatlin, 1924.

When is architecture not architecture? When we refer to it as a mode of painting. And when is painting not painting? When we think of it as architecture. When the respective languages of visual art and design (e.g., industrial, commercial, etc.) seem to collapse into one another, what is the result? A symbolic union that reminds us of art's ineluctable divorce from practical concerns, and design's substantive rendezvous with the utilitarian dream of a "common aesthetics." But when is a utilitarian object not a utilitarian object? When it's an artwork that appears to have all the characteristics of a utilitarian object. When is a sculpture not sculpture? When it becomes an everyday thing – i.e., an artwork. And when is an everyday thing not an everyday thing? When it becomes an artwork that has the appearance of an everyday thing. And what is an "everyday" thing? Perhaps it is an object that we encounter on an everyday basis, which falls into the category of either art or non-art. When does an organized social event become analogous to an art activity? When the artist – and the context of the artist's activity – endows the social event with an art condition. And what is the "art condition"? The resulting quality of an event, place or object that is the material manifestation of an artist's definition (i.e., intuitive or analytical proposition) of what art is, what it might be, or what it should be.

Anything and everything runs the risk of becoming the property of art's chameleon logic, and the work of an artist such as Clay Ketter – as well as the practices of Dan Peterman, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Jeffrey Wisniewski and Andrea Zittel – evokes some of the following aesthetic issues: the distinction between that which constitutes "reality" and that which comprises "art" is merely illusory, yet it is an illusion of difference (philosophical & material) that can be re-invented again and again to such an extent that the illusion itself (i.e., the illusion of that gap between "reality" and "art") seems to disappear, and is apparently replaced by other powerful illusions. Today, we live according to the rather persuasive illusion that the status, value and meaning of contemporary artistic practices has become so unstable that only the most generalizing of social-anthropological distinctions can be offered for our consideration. However, most of us would admit that there is something undeniably "liberating" in accepting the premise that artmaking is as mundane as any other cultural activity, even though it issues forth new meanings and forms through a specialized language. There really is no paradox: banality and specialization are equal partners in the art game.

Ketter specializes in gently confounding the polite etiquette of modernist abstraction: he's an artist alternately seduced by abstraction's clean elegance, who's at the same time somewhat put off by its requisite historical/ideological protocol of visual purity. Evoking the commonplace yet specialized process by which walls are erected, Ketter's work seems to dwell in that intermediary realm where the statuses of "virtual" painting and "virtual" architecture are able to reach a metaphorical rapprochement. There is something poignantly provisional about Ketter's painting-objects; basic geometric structures are articulated through the application of a white spackle medium that could be described as a proxy for canvas per se – a ground that is used as a component of the dry-wall construction process. To a certain extent, Ketter's involvement with such working methods (and the subtly – articulated emphasis upon an architectural physicality in some pieces) seems to invoke a reflection upon what kind of current viability the historical ideology of Constructivism – with its pragmatic/symbolic (i.e.,utopianist) merging of architecture, design, sculpture and painting – might have for artists today.

In a very real sense, Ketter employs the standard craft techniques of the carpenter as a specialized method of picture-making. Yet it is a kind of picture-making that puts a new wrinkle into traditional or normative conditions of pictorial organization: Ketter allows the disclosed evidence of his labor-intensive activity (i.e., the traces of a spackling and sanding process) to become the visual and conceptual filter through which we are asked to experience the work. "Gesture," so to speak, is articulated through the procedural markings that reinforce the geometric configurations inscribed into the ground; here, there is a calligraphy – intuitive yet practiced – that emerges from common working procedures. 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. Ketter's works seem to exist in a state of enchanted suspension, caught in between the "real space" of architecture and the "symbolic space" of painting – an art that gains identity as a third term, generating meaning beyond the province of visual similitude.

Art, as we know by now, is perhaps the most chameleon of cultural activities. Chameleon in the sense that it seems to become the thing that it visually emulates; and conversely, any material that is used to make art, becomes, both conceptually and materially speaking, art. We have become accustomed to the fact that anything that does not seem, at first, to meet a set of "art criteria" can be converted, formally and ideationally, into artistic matter. In other words, it is possible to manufacture things that trigger moments that can only be described as aesthetic. 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. Each and every time something is tracked down and tagged with the identity of art, the identity of art undergoes a further permutation. Art can re-cycle itself into just about anything, and just about anything can be re-cycled as art.

Art may have the ability to convert the everyday into the extraordinary, or the extraordinary into the banal, it may be able to transform "consciousness," yet its palpable role in the transformation of political and social situations continues to remain vexingly undetermined. 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 its own weight – and after the dust finally settled – we were faced with the easier burdens of a visionary pragmatism. Using the future present tense, artists such as Ketter, Peterman, Tiravanija, Wisniewski and Zittel articulate distinct models of what things might look like if our today was less about tomorrow than about today.