Magnus af Petersens

"Signs of Life" from Clay Ketter. Moderna Museet ( 2009

This presentation of Clay Ketter – the exhibition and this text – is based on his recent work: the photographic series Gulf Coast Slabs, the dolls’ house assemblages and a few additional works on related themes. I have followed Clay Ketter’s work since the mid-1990s, and have, on some occasions, been involved in various projects with him. With each new exhibition I have marvelled at the natural evolution of his art and how it nevertheless always delivers new surprises. These later works in particular have revealed to me new aspects of his oeuvre that were discernible, in hindsight, even in his earlier production. Since his breakthrough, Clay Ketter’s works have oscillated between utopian artistic vision and the hands-on reality of the building site. In his later work, however, the socio-political and existential dimension has become more pronounced. It is easy to perceive the conceptually terse yet distinctly beautiful Wall Paintings (that first led to his recognition) as the origin of all his subsequent works, which could be interpreted as variations on a set of strong artistic concepts. This kinship has occasionally made it harder to see the new works in their own right, to see not only how they emerged from the earlier works, but also how they differ from them. To clarify their specific nature I have chosen to start here in the present. Earlier works will be shown in the exhibition and discussed here, but Ketter’s recent works will set the tone.

Fragile abodes

The background story of this series of photographs is telling. Ketter found a photo in Time magazine, taken from a helicopter by the photographer Smiley N. Pool, showing the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina along the Mississippi Gulf coast: rubble, car wrecks, fragments of buildings. With their floor plans and various flooring materials, the remains of house foundations formed geometric compositions. On closer scrutiny, he discovered that the foundations resembled his Trace Paintings (1) The natural disaster that befallen the people in the Mississippi delta and destroyed their homes left traces that looked like Clay Ketter’s paintings and sculptures – reality appeared to imitate art. The fact that he recognised the pictures of the demolished houses visually as “Ketter works” is one thing, but that he also chose to elaborate on the theme indicates their intimate link with the central themes and methods in his oeuvre. Clay Ketter decided to visit the area, together with the photographer Nils Bergendal, to document the house foundations. The result was a series of photos, most in a very large format (several of them measuring about 2x3 metres). The foundations were depicted frontally from above using a liftcage and a large-format camera he made himself. The right angle to the subject matter gives a flatness to the images, enhancing their character of abstract paintings. The photos are exceedingly sharp but so monumental that it feels more natural to regard them from a distance, with the effect that we do not discover the details immediately. The viewer can choose how close to approach this human catastrophe, by either focusing on the aesthetically appealing and fascinating surfaces, or going into the revealing and violent details, such as the shattered tiled bathroom floors.

The house foundations are photographed one by one, separately, not in a context, not as a neighbourhood. Most of them fill the entire pictorial surface so that the outer walls of the house also form the edges of the photo. Ketter documents the foundations factually and unsentimentally – not to say brutally – thereby amplifying the sense of tragedy. The pictures are not least a testimony to man’s exposure and vulnerability. The foundations Ketter chose to photograph are middle-class homes that represent many people’s dreams of a secure and organised life. (2) The pictures 111 Hayden Ave. (2007) and 113 Hayden Ave. (2007) show the remains of two homes: one inhabited by an older couple, and the other, almost identical with the first, by their son and his family. Holiday Drive Detail (2007) depicts a swimming pool filled with earth and rubble. The colours are ashen, and the symmetrical shape of the pool gives an abstract quality to the work. The grey cavity in the earth is easily associated with a grave. It is probably the matter-of-factness of the pictures that gives such poignancy to the stories and lives. The terse composition and the aesthetic qualities raise the oft-debated issue of the difficulty of portraying human suffering. Is it immoral to see beauty in these ruins, when we know that the pictures are from a disaster?

Unlike accidents caused by people themselves, one easily feels fatalistic faced with natural disasters – and believers may even see them as the wrath of God. There is evidence that natural disasters are a consequence of man’s influence on the climate, but despite this reservation, natural disasters seem incomprehensible and absurd. Even if we work and strive to bring order into our lives, it can all be swept away in a storm. Thus, there is a profoundly existential and tragic dimension to these images. (3)

Insular communities. Houses without windows.

Thematically, Gulf Coast Slabs has vital elements in common with the series of assemblages Clay Ketter created with old dolls’ houses. Again, our fragile abode is the focus. The dolls’ houses have been deconstructed; the walls are folded down so the houses are flattened and can be seen as floor plans without perspective. This two-dimensionality is another aspect that links the two series of works. If we study the dolls’ houses more closely, we soon discover that Ketter does not adhere to any specific logic in the way he folds back the walls. They are arranged aesthetically, and the different parts have been shifted in relation to one another. In Anywhereville (2008), the largest dolls’ house work to date (completed in time for this exhibition), we see a row of houses along what could be a suburban street. The dolls’ houses are a kind of model, in two senses: firstly, in terms of scale, and secondly because they are a form of ideal houses made for children.(4) There is something naive and innocent about them, and Anywhereville could lead one’s thoughts to Walt Disney’s Duckburg. But the innocence is brutally interrupted by the fact that four of the fourteen houses are burned down. A tragedy, perhaps a heinous crime, appears to have hit the suburban idyll. The fire that destroys the home and devastates the personal sphere. Could it happen anywhere, as the title suggests? Like the photographs from the Gulf coastline, the disaster has already taken place. The method of burning surfaces was used by Ketter also for Through, a sculpture consisting of a kitchen counter and wall-hung cabinets like a relief. Clay Ketter has also covered some of his dolls’ house works with a thick sheet of transparent polyester with entrapped air bubbles, giving the impression of a house standing under water, submerged. The difference in status between the houses in Anywhereville is more subtly manifested in the varying shades of green in the lawns and the walled-up windows of two houses, indicating that they have become unmarketable.

Another dolls’ house work is Dead End (2005), in which the houses are standing around a cul-de-sac and thus appear isolated from the world. The situation is both claustrophobic and nightmarish. The work portrays a phenomenon that is not merely a dystopian fantasy: the world is full of communities huddled behind encircling walls for fear of real or imaginary threats. The term “gated community” is just a contemporary version of this fear of the unknown that runs through history. The Garden (2008) is a work in the same spirit. The title is an ironic reference to the Garden of Eden. It is an aerial shot of the suburb Chantilly in Virginia, USA, that has been folded out and mirrored both horizontally and vertically to form a perfect symmetrical pattern, like a French Baroque garden. At a distance, it looks like a Rorschach test or a fractal. With digital manipulation Ketter has caused the roads to run circularly and inwardly in a complex pattern, and none of the roads lead out. With this double duplication of the image, this introverted reflection of a community, he has driven the utopian social construction to an absurd level. The excluding tendency of these communities, where everyone is welcome as long as they don’t deviate from the norm, stands out when squared in this way. Although the individual is celebrated in the kind of society that Chantilly represents, everyone is expected to live in virtually identical, albeit enormous, houses.

The same insularity is found in the work Tomb (2009), created for this exhibition as an elaboration on Homestead (2004), made for Umeå Sculpture Park. It consists of a small white wooden house (some 6 x 3 metres) in the American east-coast style, like a cross between Thoreau’s cabin in Walden and the little house where Elvis Presley was born – two veritably mythical places tied to the American identity. But the fact that windows and doors are missing immediately signals that this is no ordinary cabin. The absence transforms the house into a sarcophagus, as the title also indicates. Its lack of functionality makes the house a sculpture more definitely than if Ketter had chosen to build a “real” house – a lack that is also found in his sculptures of kitchens, which retain their recognisable features but are robbed of the details that would make them serviceable. Ketter’s first kitchen sculptures, Surface Composites, are sterile and show no sign of those things we would normally associate with a kitchen – life, food, smells. Despite their palpable volume, the kitchen sculptures are so stripped and clean that they appear flat when regarded from the front. Commenting on this, Clay Ketter has said, “I decided to build flatness instead of paint flatness.” (5) The formal and aesthetic qualities of many of Clay Ketter’s works mean that the compositions can appear abstract even though they are highly material objects from real life or photographs. A sculpture of, say, a kitchen, can thus evoke an uncanny atmosphere, as though we were standing before a feverish hyper-reality.

Signs of life, painting as a process.

The theme of transience that has been identified in Gulf Coast Slabs by several writers is also found in the early series Trace Paintings. The vanitas theme is obvious again in Ketter’s Valencia suite, with a brilliant beauty verging on modern-day ruin romanticism. The suite was created in connection with an invitation to the Biennale in Valencia in 2003. The city was undergoing an extensive phase of demolishing and building. The demolished buildings left traces of levels, plumbing and ventilating shafts on the gables of the beautiful old houses left standing, bearing witness to the lives that had been lived there. Clay Ketter perceived them as large-scale Trace Paintings. Once the necessary permission had been obtained from the city, he devoted himself to a form of mural painting, but this time painting straight onto parts of the gables. His interference with the existing architecture – enhancing certain sections and thereby making the facade reflect the floor plan of the apartments behind it – became a public work of art. The spectators’ attention was often drawn to that which already existed there, but which a passerby would probably have overlooked.

After completing this process, Clay Ketter and Nils Bergendal photographed the painted walls, and these images are now an independent work. They include details that exude an abstract beauty. These photos, along with others taken by Ketter and Bergendal when they revisited the city in 2005, were the starting point for a series of paintings. Here, a layer-upon-layer relationship arises, since the paintings are paintings of photographs of paintings made on walls that bear traces of earlier paint and building work. Step by step, the works are abstracted and distanced from the house wall that was their origin. The next step was a series of works in a collage technique incorporating photography and, in the same image, trompe-l’œil-like paintings that imitate the photographed surfaces and rough sections of thickly applied stucco imitating facades covered with this material. Ketter calls them Grotesques, referring to the decorative architecture and embellishment that is characterised by romantic emulation of natural surfaces: “grottesco” literally means cave-like. But the title of course also alludes to a grotesque revelry in painterly effects and techniques that are lustily and lovingly parodied. Those who have previously only seen Clay Ketter’s austere kitchen sculptures or his grey-white minimalist spackle paintings will probably be astonished to learn that these works are by the same artist. And yet, they are a development of the same interest and work methods.

Work and works

Each work in the Valencia suite can thus be seen as part of a process, a work in progress that takes place during a time span where each separate painting is a step, a condition, phases of paintings that have been started and finished, or even destroyed – even though each individual work is also unquestionably a thoroughly composed and deliberate totality. This adds a temporal dimension to the works, that runs through his whole oeuvre, including the humorously titled Coffee Break (1995). This painting, he decided, was completed one morning at ten am, when hundreds of thousands of people in Sweden lay down work for a while to have a coffee break – an exotic ritual in the eyes of an American immigrant like Clay Ketter. The way that the paintings so distinctly display the process, their own genesis, also demonstrates Ketter’s interest in art as a job, as work, which he has expressed on several occasions.(6) Work is also a name for the art object – and in a physical sense a painting is also work.

Clay Ketter was first acknowledged as an artist for a series he called Wall Paintings. These are unpainted gypsum boards of the kind used to build walls, with tape and spackle over the joins and screw holes. (7) As both Lars Nittve and Sven-Olov Wallenstein write in this catalogue, the craftsmanship and expression of Wall Paintings is, in many ways, a concrete demystification of artistic work. We could see them partly as a Duchampean gesture (Åsa Nacking calls them “made ready-mades”) that draws the spectator’s attention to the roles of the art context and the viewer in transforming the gypsum wall into a work of art, a transformation that they also challenge. The bringing together of crafts and “high art” can, as mentioned, also be seen as a bringing together of life and art, or questioning the boundaries that separate them.

Although these paintings – in the minimalist spirit – are in the borderland between painting, sculpture and architecture, both the titles and the way in which they are presented signal that they are primarily paintings. To determine the genre of these works may appear unimportant, but against the background of the postmodern critique of Clement Greenberg’s ideal that each discipline should culitvate its unique character, it is essential to underline the radical hybrid form of these works. They may also seem to be a reduction driven to its utmost limit, not to say a phase preceding painting, as the critic and curator Daniel Birnbaum has pointed out. How do we proceed from (what may appear to be) a last stop, a ground zero? Clay Ketter’s awareness of the history of painting excludes the dystopian notion that we have really seen the last of painting – the final stop has been passed so many times since the beginning of the last century. (8) It is not surprising, therefore, that Clay Ketter has added to, rather than deducted from, the starting point. If Clay Ketter’s Wall Paintings are, in effect, built walls that have been left unpainted and thereby present a before painting, a later series, Trace Paintings, instead shows an after painting – when the wall has been worked on, painted, repainted and fitted with shelves, electric sockets, tiles and more, which have then been removed, leaving traces. Although Trace Paintings are as matter-of-fact as the results of a decorator’s work, they are also more intimate, more sensual and more poetic than most other paintings I have seen, which is not so surprising, perhaps, since they portray traces of human life. This aspect is obvious even in the exhibition Apartment (1994) that can be regarded as a predecessor of his Trace Paintings. For the Apartment exhibition, Clay Ketter used an existing setting, an apartment in the Rosengård housing estate. The last line in Bruce W. Ferguson’s book Clay Ketter, Labors of Love. Love’s labors lost is true of both Ketter’s Wall Paintings and his Trace Paintings: “It’s the presence of an absence.”

There are several similarities with minimalism: the fascination for seriality and for materials that are associated with industry rather than with art history, and a departure from art’s cult of the individual genius, with the work of art as an expression of the artist’s soul, an attitude that both pop art and minimalism distanced themselves from in different ways – pop art by using mass media images, minimalism through works based on series that conceptually could ultimately be produced by anyone. Clay Ketter has also made a list of 252 paintings that are possible to make using gypsum boards and spackle. This list can be regarded as an “instructional work” in the spirit of Fluxus or conceptual art. (9) Such works are often text-based and do not always need to be implemented, but Clay Ketter drew up the list more for himself, for the artist who is contemplating his work. In Clay Ketter’s works, the visual implementation of the idea is always important.

Wall of its Own Making (2009) is a wall made of gypsum boards, which, like the preceding Wall Paintings, has spackled joins and screw holes but is unpainted. Or practically unpainted – because Clay Ketter has screen-printed several motifs directly onto the gypsum board paper. The motifs are from an old handbook for engineers and builders, Basic Building Data, which Clay Ketter has used when building walls and cupboards – both as works of art and simply as walls and cupboards. Anyone familiar with Clay Ketter’s work or who takes a look round the exhibition where the wall is now on display will recognise the drawings for earlier works. The screen prints are repeated in reverse on the other side of the wall.

Architecture has always had a tangible presence in Clay Ketter’s art, ever since his first acknowledged gallery exhibition. Architecture without people, in a stark, constructivist style. The metaphorical, narrative potential of the built environments – those that lean towards architecture as an image of human culture in general, how we build and organise our communities – remains tacit but is no less present, as “the presence of an absence (10)”, to quote Ferguson once again. People have always been essential to Clay Ketter’s art, even though they are never depicted.


1. Trace Paintings (1995–) is a series of paintings that look like the wall sections of an apartment being refurbished or demolished, with traces of removed shelves, electric cables and sockets or tiles. The paintings are fabricated from scratch but initially give the impression of being retrieved from a derelict building. He has occasionally used genuin old walls from houses being renovated, as in Lars Erik Larsson and Persson, but these are not Trace Paintings.

2. The photographs can also be put in the context of a photographic conceptual tradition, so-called typological photography – represented by artists such as Bernd and Hilla Becher (who, thanks to their contribution as teachers at the Art Academy in Dusseldorf, have also been seminal to a generation of photographing artists, including Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth and Candida Höfer) and, in the USA, by Ed Ruscha (with works such as his book of photographs All the Buildings on Sunset Boulevard) and Dan Graham (with his newspaper project Houses for America, which is also based on minimalist serial repetition).

3. In a catalogue essay, Dan Jönsson highlights aspects of the series Gulf Coast Slabs that I refer to in my introduction, and which contribute towards a new perspective on Clay Ketter’s oeuvre works “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 the 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 theme of baroque art, as well as with current European ‘memorial art’ as practised by Christian Boltansky and others.” In the same essay, he also mentions that the Biblical Book of Job has been a vital reference for Ketter in his work on these images. Dan Jönsson, “Under the Volcano”, translated by Staffan Holmgren, in Clay Ketter, Gulf Coast Slabs, London/New York/Stockholm/Malmö: Bartha Contemporary/Sonnabend Gallery/Brändström & Stene/Galleri Magnus Åklundh, 2008.

4. This interest in scale and measurements permeates almost Clay Ketter’s entire production. This is partly a consequence of the units he uses for his works built out of gypsum board, for instance his Wall Paintings or kitchen modules made of material from IKEA. But it is also expressed in more playful shifts of scale, as in Real Wall, a photograph of a dolls’ house wall that is painted as a white brick wall and has been enlarged in the photo to the scale of a real brick wall.

5. “Labors of love. Love’s labors lost”, in Clay Ketter, Labors of love. Love’s labors lost, Lund: Propexus, 2000, unnumbered pages.

6. See, for instance, his essay in the catalogue for the exhibition at Lund Konsthall.

7. Practically all literature on Clay Ketter mentions that he was working as an exhibition technician at the time of his breakthrough, and that he has a thorough knowledge and experience of house-painting, wall-building, etc.

8. See, for instance, Sven-Olov Wallenstein’s essay in this catalogue, for a comparison with forerunners in art history. Clay Ketter’s approach to painting can be summed up by the title of one of his paintings: “Die Trying”.

9. “Instructional works” are instructions for works that can be carried out by someone other than the artist, similar to a musical score or choreography, to draw parallels to other disciplines. Examples of artists who have worked in this way are Yoko Ono, Lawrence Wiener and Paul McCarthy. .

10. The exhibition Do it, curated by Hans UIrich Obrist, consisted entirely of works of this kind. The Fluxus artist Georges Maciunas also published instructions for works. For a discussion on “instructional works”, see Liz Kotz, “Post-Cagean Aesthetics and the ‘Event score’”, October no. 95, 2001 and my own publication “Paul McCarthy: 40 years of hard work – an attempt at an overview”, in Paul McCarthy. Head Shop/Shop Head. Works 1966–2006, Moderna Museet exh. cat. no. 336, Stockholm: Moderna Museet, 2006