Lars Nittve

"I wonder what happened" from Clay Ketter. Moderna Museet (exhib.cat) 2009

2009

I am regarding a small Polaroid shot. 8 x 8 centimetres, slightly blurred and a bit yellowish the way Polaroids sometimes are – especially after a few years. This picture was taken on 5 August, 1993 –15 years, five months and 21 days ago at the time of writing.

That day, a decisive event took place in Clay Ketter’s artistic career.

The picture is small and blurred, but the characteristic architecture of the now defunct Rooseum art gallery is easy to recognise. The grand north-facing bow window is partly obscured by a large wall construction. In the foreground, a crate of the kind used for art shipments – a dark unidentifiable object is also cluttering the floor. It could be a piece of crumpled fabric. But that’s not important. What is important is the wall. And the photo.

1993

In August 1993, Clay Ketter had been head technician at Rooseum for a few years – working part-time. He had just finished removing and packing the complex group exhibition Passagearbeten (Passage Works) and was erecting the walls for the next exhibition, the Icelandic artist Kristján Gudmunðsson. The largest free-standing wall, measuring 9 x 4.8 metres, had just been built by Clay and his team. The joins between the chipboards and the screw-holes had been taped over and spackled.

He’s dressed in worn jeans, a tee-shirt, boots and a baseball cap with the initial “B” for the Brooklyn Dodgers. In fact, he looks more like a worker from a lumberyard on Lower Manhattan than someone at a kunsthalle in Malmö.

“Lars, this is it! This is my painting. My wall painting,” he says and hands me the small Polaroid. “This is it! To be continued!

He had made a discovery – in himself and in the wall.

1991

Clay Ketter had been employed for some time, building exhibitions at Rooseum. I first met him at the openings at Anders Tornberg Gallery in Lund, where he also hung exhibitions. I knew he was an artist but had no idea what his work was like. I asked Anders Tornberg discreetly, but he wasn’t quite sure either what Ketter was working on in his studio. However, he had seen him in a band that played at the club Mejeriet in Lund…

One afternoon, I accompanied him to his studio in Lilla Uppåkra, on the plain among the Viking graves, just outside Lund. He had bought a little house with barns. Refurbishment was in full swing and one of the barns had been converted into a combined art studio and rehearsal studio for the various musician constellations in which he played the drums. But what sort of art did he create? Well, it could best be described as assemblages with vaguely surrealist traits. Evocative combinations of found objects – occasionally assisted by a finely crafted cabinet or pedestal. Sometimes with a slightly quirky, witty title that accelerated the interpretative process. I remember the feeling I experienced – something between relief and disappointment. Relief that his art was not bad, or actually quite OK. It felt good that this person I had been working closely with and had started to really like, made art that wasn’t embarrassing but rather talented. And yet a disappointment, because it felt like the road he was on was nevertheless quite impossible. That whole field of assemblages, combines, assisted readymades and the likes, with roots in Duchamp, Dada and Surrealism, reactivated in the 1950s by the Beat artists on the American west coast and, of course, by the first generation of pop artists with Rauschenberg as its figurehead, is so well-trodden, so thoroughly threshed out, and yet so limited, that the likelihood that anything truly significant could emerge from it in 1991 seemed minimal. Clay Ketter’s part in Rooseum’s exhibition programme would probably remain backstage, I thought to myself...

1994/1995

In the summer of 1994, the plans for the group show Nutopi (Nowtopia) began to gain momentum. An exhibition about the spaces in between. “About art that seeks freedom in the zone where neither one thing nor the other reigns. Neither the ‘art world’ nor the ‘real world’. Neither utopia nor dystopia.” One by one, the pieces in the puzzle were put in place, one artist added to the next. The Japanese artist Yutaka Sone joined the artists Dan Peterman, Jeffrey Wisniewski, Rirkrit Tiravanija and Andrea Zittel who were active in the USA. And if these 30-35 year-old international stars, most of whom were represented by prestigious galleries and had been written up in major publications, were obvious participants, then Clay Ketter was just as obvious now, three years after my first visit to his studio in Lilla Uppåkra.

Not only did the works he was creating match the theme perfectly. Above all, I felt a total conviction that Clay Ketter’s oeuvre was developing into something great. That what he was working on – and how he was doing it – was as unique, distinct and complex as, say, his peers Tiravanija and Zittel. His works appeared to relate to art history, to wrestle with it in order to formulate something vital. Something concerning “both this and that”, rather than “neither one nor the other” – both the “art world” and the “real world”. And they did so with a sense of necessity that is central to good art, although this may sound like a romantic notion.

So what had happened in those three years? What was the difference between the “quite OK” at the first studio visit, and the totally convincing oeuvre I was now looking at in mid-1994?

1992

One crucial step was the exhibition at the established student gallery Pictura, high up in Helgo Zettervall’s Graeco-Classicist building at Lund University, where Clay Ketter showed sculptures that were a sort of elaboration on the assemblages I had seen earlier. I recall, for instance, a sand pit made not of planks but of sawn gypsum wallboards. Sand pit is perhaps a misleading description, despite the mould and the bucket and spade. Instead of sand, the pit was filled with lead shot, effectively ushering our interpretations away from the safe world of childhood. It was mainly his objects of this kind – rather witty and, despite the shifts in meaning, remarkably universal – that attracted the most attention. But the walls were hung with something completely different. Clay Ketter had moved into the gallery with his tools, gypsum wallboards, screws and spackle and – to put it plainly – built a number of paintings. Wall paintings. Two standard-sized gypsum boards joined together, with the join and screw holes taped over and spackled. Ready to be painted, but never painted. Unpainted paintings.
 
I recall that most guests at the opening – with a few important exceptions – were impressed mainly by the sculptures, belonging, as they did, to a long tradition. The paintings were regarded more as a joke, witticisms at the expense of modernism, or even at the expense of the house and exhibition-building artist himself. But this was more than a joke. Or at least, it would turn out to be.

1993 (again)

“Lars, this is it! This is my painting. My wall painting,” he says, and hands me the small Polaroid. “This is it! To be continued!

This was the moment. From that point on, Clay Ketter’s artistic project became clear. The somewhat quirky anecdotal character of his assemblages and sculptures was weeded out and replaced by the Swedish building standard guidelines for construction and surface treatment and the time-honoured work methods of the professional house painter. From this strictly regulated starting point, he consolidated his interest in art history and his own living experience. His job experience, his upbringing in New England pragmatism and his narrative urge. The work on Wall Paintings took off, eventually following a list, Sheetrock Variations. List of possibilities for gypsum wallboard works, which, in the final version from 1995, comprises 17 typewritten pages and 262 possible paintings – without any claims of being complete. The list reverberates of 1970s conceptualism, but Clay Ketter is far from being a purist.

1994

He proved this, ultimately, in late spring 1994, when he resumed his tools in an exhibition situation, this time in an empty apartment in the Malmö suburb of Rosengård. Not to refurbish the bathroom or fit a new kitchen, as so many times before, but as one of the participants in an exhibition project taking place simultaneously in two suburbs in Gothenburg and Malmö respectively. Just as in Galleri Pictura, he entered as an artist, but with an entirely different approach. The most striking result of his work in the apartment – which sounds so incredibly trivial and yet pretentious when I try to formulate it – was to reveal the inside of the cleaning cupboard and some of the kitchen cabinets. He simply replaced some of the doors with glass. The cupboards were suddenly surprisingly abstract – behind the shiny surface are spatial divisions that appear enigmatic, irrational. Originally dimensioned to accommodate various jars and containers and a vacuum cleaner, they reveal a secret geometry to the viewer. So familiar and yet so alien. I sense that another outburst of “This is it! To be continued!” may have been heard behind the gabon front door in that Rosengård apartment. And one year later, just in time for the exhibition Newtopia at Rooseum, a new suite of works had seen the light of day, the so-called kitchen sculptures, or, as they are properly titled, Surface Composite.

1995

By the summer of 1995, Clay Ketter had established an oeuvre that was so entirely unique – and so entirely rooted in art history. It left him free to paint the most astonishingly beautiful minimalist paintings (1) and build enigmatic sculptures with a painting-like surface quality and an ambivalent position in between painting and sculpture that allows them to slip in alongside the historic minimalist objects – only to unfold their own logic, with one foot in art and the other in reality.

He now embarked on building an oeuvre where each step was startling both in its unpredictability and in how naturally it related to earlier works. I don’t know if this is his method, but as a viewer you get a feeling that he has discovered a number of fundamental key words or pillars that support and sort out the process. Constructing. House. Wall. Everyday life. And so on. It is totally logical – and yet open-ended – sort of like that list of all the varieties of how a wall painting of gypsum board could be made. Nearly all...

With the experiences from the apartment in Rosengård under his belt, he built Surface Composite #1 (prototype), which was shown in the Nowtopia exhibition. It was built from scratch, using meticulously sawn-out melamine boards, but he soon discovered it was much cheaper to by flat-packed kitchen units from IKEA rather than making the units himself out of material from the lumberyard. He made a practical/financial decision, but it was also a decision that associated the works more closely, both practically and conceptually, with everyday life. His many years as an assemblage artist had trained him in the creative opportunism needed to elegantly exploit this potential to further heighten the tension between the two protagonists in his art – the IKEA connection fitted the concept like a glove, a facet that was elaborated on a few years later by, for instance, Daniel Birnbaum in the exhibition Lebensraum – or IKEA at the End of Metaphysics (1998).

2009

So, what happened to Clay Ketter in those years between 1991 and 1994? I’m afraid this text is approaching a real anticlimax – because the answer is that I have no idea, even though we met practically every day during that time. But what I think happened is that life – both in the “art world” and the “real world” – presented him with a number of options, where he simply had to make choices – sometimes with a slight delay, and probably with the aid of those pillars and key words I mentioned earlier. And the choices formed a pattern of systematic openness, with equal emphasis on both words. Somewhere in that process, he has adopted the method of the assemblage, not for the individual works or suites, but for constructing his entire oeuvre. Methodically and intuitively. Perhaps those years of practice with all those possible and impossible combinations of found objects meant that, in the midst of the building rubble in the great turbine hall of Rooseum, in August 1993, he suddenly saw his artistic calling:

“Lars, this is it! This is my painting. My wall painting,” he says, and hands me the small Polaroid. “This is it! To be continued!


Notes

1. I am aware that the beauty I refer to is strictly subjective. It is unlikely that Ketter has ever striven to make “beautiful wall paintings” – on the contrary, he seeks a professional quality in how, for instance, the spackle and base coat are applied. Many authors have stressed the “lowbrow” aspect of Ketter’s works – in terms of class and his choice of materials – and, possibly in an attempt to tie it all together, played down the beauty of the wall paintings – not to say the veritable ruin romanticism that he has developed in several of his series of works from the 2000s.