Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Yellow Brick Road..?

(Late Review No. 2; revised.)

Dorothy's Tornado by Ron Balser. An inscription reads: "The yellow brick road leads only to your self."

"Electronic prose" by Ronald Davis Balser at Fay Gold Gallery. The granite bench at left is also by Balser. (Images courtesy of the artist and Fay Gold Gallery.)
Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
- The Wizard of Oz

And in the case of the avant-garde, this was provided by an elite among the ruling class of that society from which it assumed itself to be cut off, but to which it has always remained attached by an umbilical cord of gold.
- Clement Greenberg, from “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”
Appropriating the vocabulary of finance, Ronald Davis Balser calls his new operation Balser Art Ventures. The name suggests, by phonetic similarity, a journey of “adventures.” His sculptures are functional; he makes marble benches engraved with motivational snippets of “fatherly advice.”
The clean lines and consistent typeset indicate the use of lasers. Although I’ll admit the craftsmanship in works such as See the World has improved, the sculptures are incredibly pedestrian overall. In an attempt at poetic aphorism, the inscriptions assume a surprisingly low level of literacy.

You can see a clear example of Ron Balser's electronic marquees on his website. The sample message reads:
Today’s rootstock is tomorrow’s harvest… sow with due care and deliberate haste.
Hoard from the spring vines the blossoms of love & life…
Even pessimist cannot deny possibilities.
Although Ron acknowledges inspiration from Jenny Holzer's famous truisms, he says her work is a little too "negative." Here's one of my favorites by Holzer:

Private Property Created Crime by Jenny Holzer. Yes, that is Times Square. This was a project completed in 1985.

Although the term "revolutionary" would be a bad pun, Holzer's work expanded the practical boundaries of public art.1 We all remember Daniel Canogar's Clandestinos... Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe Holzer innovated the practice of politicized projections on public buildings and monuments. Plus that installation at the Guggenheim was fabulous. Nothing says "Big Brother" more than 360 degrees of propaganda. I wish I had seen it in person.

Jenny Holzer, Truism Bench.

Surprise surprise. I had no idea Holzer also made benches..! One of these is currently located in Columbus Park in Brooklyn, NY. The message facing us reads:
I suppose I can understand Balser's apprehension. Considering his background, Jenny Holzer's confrontational message is probably wholly incompatible with his worldview. Balser is the founder of Balsor Companies, an insurance consultancy located in Atlanta. His aesthetic training is rather recent, and it shows.

Holzer, on the other hand, is a member of the art circle descending from Second-wave feminism. Although feminists were, and continue to be, women of all colors and beliefs, the bulk of Holzer's truisms intersect with Leftist ideology. "Private Property Created Crime" is a position of historical materialism.

I'll keep my political opinions to myself, but I know I have more than one feminist reader, so I'm curious: Are these ideas dated? How do you separate the question of gender liberation in these works from the question of general liberation?

Compared to Holzer's deliberately subversive aphorisms, Ron's message - in terms of attitude and political subtext - seems like a diametric opposite:

This sculpture, Bill & Bernie's, can be seen at the Georgia Aquarium. It was created in honor of Bernie Marcus, the renowned aquarium mogul and CEO of Home Depot.

The Successful.

Ron Balser, Go Forth 2. This is a copy of the bench placed on the campus of Emory University, located at the Goizueta Business School.

Allow me to use the language of the financial world: if I was an Emory alumnus, this would not inspire me to donate to the Alma Mater. Balser's truisms are, by design, drained of all political content. If you ask me, they read a lot like corporate slogans. An appropriate lawn decor for the American robber baron.

Aesthetically, I find these sculptures boring. However, this is a statement that - by logical extension - I'm willing to make towards Jenny Holzer's bench. Her benches weren't very interesting either. But the physical form isn't what gives her work value. As in her Times Square piece above, her success is due to a combination of her textual content, its spacial placement within the public sphere, and, above all, the professional bravado involved in getting it up there. Balser's benches have no such redeeming qualities.

And then there's the question of originality. Balser's work is an awful lot like that of a well-known, established artist. Although the industry, for some time now, has looked favorably on the practice of mimicry and appropriation, I wonder: do these works qualify as an appropriately "recontextualized" use of someone else's ideas?

I'll leave this to my readers to decide.

I will say that the green sculpture in the middle, See the World, did show promise. The red glow from left glinted on the marble surface as I walked by. The asking price on Balser's website is $90,000... I'm no sculptor and I certainly have little experience with public art. Could someone educate me please?

The two exhibitions, Balser and a photographer named Arno Minnkinen, overlapped in this corner. The experience was surreal. A few people around me were talking about corporate dinners... It reminded me of back when I worked in this building.


1 You can read more about public space and Jenny Holzer here.

* - *


Cinque said...

I saw one of those benches in the back there a while ago and for a second I thought it was a Jenny Holzer until I read the inscription, which was the first tip off.

These days I try not to assume too much about the artist's motives, meaning not everybody wants validation from art critical establishment snoots like you and me, bud. And See the World really does look quite beautiful.

Hell, I don't know, someone's got to make baubles for those who need reassurance that their vastly disproportionate power is not only socially justifiable, but morally good. Why the heck would you talk about liberation when you own all the slaves?

Jeremy said...

On "liberation when you own all the slaves" -

It's interesting, Ron is basically creating sculptures for, economically speaking, his peers. It turns on its head the formula laid out by Greenberg in that essay I quoted... Kitsch doesn't have to be created only for the masses to qualify as kitsch. It's consumed by the elite as well, and in this case, it's created by a member of their confraternity. Poetic, but not necessarily "poetic justice."

On "art critical establishment snoots" - Thanks for the solidarity there, Cinque. But are you saying that I'm a snoot? Are you saying I'm part of the "establishment?" I suppose my education puts me in that category, but, damn, I'm doing all this shit for free. Cut me a break! ; )


littlejoke said...

I know what most of the local publications pay for art criticism to the freelancers, and nobody who writes the stuff should quit their day job, though they do get other gigs in consequence.

Krzysztof Wodiczko is more noted for his pioneering poiticized projections on buildings when Holzer was first doing her multiple-media "truisms," of which one broadside was published on the front cover of Art Papers circa 1985, its text beginning with "REJOICE! OUR TIMES ARE INTOLERABLE."

Holzer later went for aphorisms midway between irony and genuine observation, such as the one on a bench owned by a Birmingham collector/patron: "In a dream you saw a way to survive and were filled with joy."

Anonymous said...

That 'observation' refers to AIDS, I believe.

roula said...

jeremy. i think this is brilliant. i have several responses.

1) "Kitsch doesn't have to be created only for the masses to qualify as kitsch"
indeed! in one of my favorite pieces on kitsch, the author asserts that after the french revolution, the new ruling class (the bourgeoisie!) needed art that told them stories of their own morality and worthiness, since they didn't have divine right to back them up and had to rely on the moral superiority of their relative austerity, yet wanted a shot at some of the ancien regime's sexy libertinage. solution: demand art that tells you that your pleasures are virtues -- e.g., the cult of romantic love: subsume lust into love, so that courtship and sex become godly and good. anyway, i don't feel kitsch is restricted to certain classes, at all. it's present in telling yourself what you want to hear just as much as it is in telling others what you want them to believe.

2) i don't feel socialist feminism, or whatever you want to call it, is necessarily dated. just different strokes for different folks, and maybe it seems too concrete or too "political" (in quotes because feminism is always political) for some people. and gender liberation is an integral part of liberation-in-general -- and vice versa. there are probably people who would disagree with me, but the way i see it the two are, must be, continuous. so i'm not sure what the point would be in "separating" them in a work. maybe i misunderstood your question?

3) absolutely agree with the critique portion of this. i cannot believe that's in my alma mater's b-school -- but then again, i totally, totally can. how fucking bland and uninspiring. substitution of crap faux-inspiration for something true and exciting. what's the point of making something new that only reinforces everything old?

4) related to that, absolutely agree with the strengths you identify in holzer's work -- "combination of her textual content, its spacial placement within the public sphere, and, above all, the professional bravado involved in getting it up there". from what i see here (and thank you for introducing me to her work), she seems to be engaged in something like performance art, some kind of public disruption, toying with a given physical space and its existing meanings. if indeed balser takes "inspiration" from her, it's appalling how badly he seems to have missed the point and merely picked up on the incidentals.

roula said...

yeah. balser's benches remind me of those "motivational" posters that are now so cliche nobody dares use them. (except i think i'm being overly optimistic in saying that.)

Jeremy said...

Wow, those comments were brilliant, actually. Thanks Roula!

The question I guess wasn't really thought out very well, and it was a tangent from the main topic. I guess I was trying to think about a visual appropriation, the marquees and benches, but one that didn't consciously translate or manipulate the political message of the original.

I was also trying to wrap my head around the different contexts of the works I wanted to compare. Reading into the biography of an artist (or an author or director, etc.) is something that I've trained myself out of... But now I wonder if it's a mistake to throw it away completely.

littlejoke said...

Formalism, a.k.a. the not-so-new criticism, is not deader than a fossilized metaphor, but it is no longer the only game in town.

Biography is relevant when it is relevant, and not when it is not. The social context of the gentleman's maxims is a highly relevant issue, but how he came by his admiration of Jenny Holzer's strategems may be just too complex to be worth pursuing. There are reasons for everything, but some reasons yield too few additional levels of comprehension to be worth investigating.

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