Expanding Criticality

By Laura FriedMay 16, 2014

Expanding Criticality

Take It or Leave It by Anne Ellegood and Johanna Burton

Take It or Leave It at the Hammer Museum.
Through May 18, 2014.
10899 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles 90024



STEPHEN PRINA’S 16mm film Vinyl II (2000) begins in tight focus on Gerrit van Honthorst’s Christ with Crown of Thorns (circa 1620) and the long drone of a French horn and strings. In a slow, liquid motion, the camera pans back as more of the painting is revealed. The drone continues — one hears a cough or two behind it –– and gradually, we see beyond the painting’s edge to a museum guard standing by, a wall text, musicians, microphones. With the full frame in view, the musicians perform a brisk and ephemeral score, and the camera gradually begins to slide left. The painting and players fall out of frame as the lens slowly passes through a doorway to focus on a new set of musicians, and an empty music stand behind them. Dressed in a red jumpsuit, Prina walks to the stand and begins to sing a lilting pop song, his voice rising and falling: A musette, fiddle, and a flute / A hurdy-gurdy player who seems blinded / A fine bunch, yes, I love them all [] I’m out of my head / Where is the hand?/ When is the mind body and flame? At song’s end, the music transitions back into its uninterrupted drone, and the camera turns and moves toward Georges de la Tour’s The Musician’s Brawl (1625–30). Prina’s lens draws closer and closer to the painted figures crowed in the shallow space of the frame, almost as if to penetrate the canvas, and the film fades to black.

Prina has described Vinyl II as a love letter to Georges de la Tour; a romantic response to a curator’s invitation to intervene in the Getty’s collection. On the one hand, the film is a conceptual exercise, conceived with what one might consider the typical trappings of a work of institutional critique: it tracks the spatial, social, and institutional frameworks in which the paintings are embedded, and how those structures are revealed or disrupted by Prina, the performer and filmmaker. On the other hand, Prina the fan delivers an affectionate homage to these Baroque paintings with a richly textured film, score, and song that betrays a deep subjectivity and longing.In the last decade and a half Vinyl II has appeared alongside many of his exhibitions and performances, and, as evidenced by both the subject and circulation of this film, for Prina, the past is often made present. Prina deploys appropriative tactics throughout his practice, which warps and wefts through the spaces of music, language, and painting, threading visual and vocal quotations in perpetual, contextual flux.

In addition to his career as an artist, Prina has maintained an active parallel practice as musician and composer. These tandem enterprises converge in Vinyl II, but come together perhaps most plainly in a series of room-sized installations given the umbrella title The Second Sentence of Everything I Read Is You. Typically made of three walls, FLOR carpet tiles, a sound system, wall text, and open crates topped by sitting cushions, each room carries with it the residue of traffic (both foot and freight) accrued over time. The rooms play out a kind of rehearsal of monochrome painting, where the monochrome is stamped in the floor, the furniture, and the walls; one often hears Prina’s voice, or his scores, emanating from this space. Notable among this series is a pale blue room that pays tribute to artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, titled The Second Sentence of Everything I Read is You: Mourning Sex (2005–7). Prina takes his contextual cues from Gonzalez-Torres’ 2006 monograph: the pastel blue, the text on the wall reading “things Felix forgot to tell us,” even the lyrics one hears Prina sing; all are borrowed elements from the catalog of the late artist’s work. Here Prina constructs a critical space to examine the conventions of display and of historiography, to consider the circulation and reception of art. Simultaneously, Mourning Sex is undeniably brimming with affect, an elegy for Gonzalez-Torres –– an artist lost to AIDS in 1996 –– whose presence is marked in a system of quotations by those who have since inscribed his work into art history.

Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology. Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. February 9-May 18, 2014. Photography by Brian Forrest
Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology.
Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. February 9-May 18, 2014. Photography by Brian Forrest

The remarkable and lasting influence of Felix Gonzalez-Torres is deeply felt in the current exhibition Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, and Ideology at the Hammer Museum, and both Gonzalez-Torres and Stephen Prina are figured prominently in the show and its catalog. Not only is Mourning Sex one of the largest works in the show, but one hears Prina’s voice before encountering the installation in the final gallery. His soft lilt weaves through the other rooms of the exhibition: a dense confluence of objects, installation, and painting –– including Cady Noland’s Frame Device (1989), a tangle of pipes and walkers cumboxing ring; Jimmy Durham’s totemic assemblages; and John Miller’s abject paintings old and new. For an exhibition overflowing with such iconic, arresting works, where nearly each room reaches its own kind of crescendo, there’s a subdued poetry in approaching Mourning Sex several galleries beyond Gonzalez-Torres’ own, ever diminishing and replenished pile of red, silver, and blue candies in his Untitled (USA Today) from1990. It’s fitting in this context that Gonzalez-Torres’ presence is bookended by two works by otherartists that allow his absence to be more profoundly felt. In the gallery that just precedes it, a large photograph by Louise Lawler, Bulbs (2005–6), frames the view of the candies through the doorway. A seemingly banal picture of a museum storage space, a moving blanket atop a worktable, and a tangled string of lights, the photograph is, in fact, a touching portrait of a well known but here uninstalled, deactivated, work in a series by Torres, with whom Lawler was once friends.

Louise Lawler. Bulbs, 2005–6. Laminated Fujiflex on museum box. 39 3/4 x 39 3/4 in. (101 x 101 cm). Collection of Leonard and Nancy Amoroso. Image Courtesy of Metro Pictures.
Louise Lawler. Bulbs, 2005–6. Laminated Fujiflex on museum box. 39 3/4 x 39 3/4 in. (101 x 101 cm). Collection of Leonard and Nancy Amoroso. Image Courtesy of Metro Pictures.

Such quiet but poignant nods weave throughout this rigorously organized, intricate, and at times entangled show. On its face, Take It or Leave It is described as the first large-scale exhibition to take on the convergence of two critical terms well known in the field of postmodern and contemporary art: appropriation and institutional critique. Curated by Johanna Burton and Anne Ellegood, the exhibition centers on 36 artists whose primary and foundational work emerged between the late 1970s and the early 1990s. With an ambitious look to the aesthetics and politics of the “culture industry” at large –– including television, film, museums, and media –– Take It or Leave It offers a staggering collection of works to provoke questions about identity and representation, in a broad range of artistic practices that are both socially and politically engaged.

In his keynote address at the Hammer, artist Gregg Bordowitz mapped out a moment in which he and a small cohort in 1980s New York –– which included Andrea Fraser, Mark Dion, and Tom Burr –– questioned what it was to be an artist at a time of real political crisis. Indeed, this era’s geo-political climate –– with the growing AIDS epidemic, the Cold War, and Reagan’s trickle down economics and moral majority imperatives at the forefront –– had a profound effect on the art world and artistic production. Sloughing off the mantle of their conceptualist forebears who, as Bordowitz put it, seemed to be answering their own questions, this new generation of artists rejected a tautological experience of art in favor of a practice that was deeply invested in the contexts in which their art was made and received. With this political charge came a desire to position new ways of thinking not only about how to operate critically within institutional frameworks, but how to address questions of representation, the body, and the self. Describing the natural elision of appropriative tactics with the methodology of institutional critique that emerged in response to these concerns, Ellegood remarks in her catalog essay that “For all these artists, it was critical to bring questions of representation into art and to make evident that knowledge can never be acquired apart from the circumstances of its production and sites of consumption or display.”

In their introduction to the catalog, the curators describe foregrounding their thinking towards appropriation, in which a leading generation of artists (notably many of whom were women) engaged in the “decontextualizion” and subsequent “recontextualization” of existing cultural objects. While tracking this lineage through multiple generations of practice, though, Burton and Ellegood turn their lens beyond it, to what Burton calls an articulation of institutional critique, broadly defined as an interrogation of the site and status of art within cultural, political or social contexts. In what seems a natural elision of overlapping gestures –– and one so surprisingly fitting it’s hard to imagine why until now this hasn’t been the focus of major scholarship –– Burton and Ellegood link those appropriative tactics with the charge of institutional critique among a generation of artists whose work they believe held (and still can hold) radical potential. If institutional critique has defined a largely exclusive group of artists who engaged the systems and structures of the art world, the curators argue that those driven by strategies of appropriation were operating under a very similar mandate to disrupt the same systems and hierarchies of art. With these gestures continually overlapping, Burton and Ellegood maintain, perhaps for the first time in the space of an exhibition, that these same artists were themselves in fact deeply engaged in strategies of institutional critique — and that this term has until now been only narrowly deployed to describe what should be a much broader critical practice in our recent history. Moreover, the curators are keen to illustrate that for the artists in this exhibition, the notion of the “institution” extends beyond the frame of the art world to comprise a host of organizational bodies that make up our society.

The curators outline plainly that their aim for the exhibition is not to produce an inclusive retrospective of a period or movement. Indeed, the show excludes those artists most commonly identified as the founding framers of institutional critique: Marcel Broodthaers, Michael Asher, Daniel Buren, and Hans Haacke. For those familiar with this genre, this absence is notable in an exhibition that begins with Mark Dion’s weathered taxonomic collections abutting Renée Green’s wallpapered parlour, Mise-en-Scène: Commemorative Toile (1992–94), whose decorative vignettes figure scenes from Antebellum America and colonial Europe. (These are followed by well-known works such as Mary Kelly’s Post Partum Document,Martha Rosler’s Bowery photographs and Global Taste installation, and Adrian Piper’s This is Not the Documentation of a Performance.) Historically, Broodthaers, Haacke, Asher, and Buren have been so inscribed into the discourse of institutional critique that little has been written that considers this generation of artists more broadly. Johanna Burton addresses the problem in her essay, and together the curators claim that while the contributions of these four are critical to this history, it is the burden of narrowly focused scholarship that guided their decision to turn away from an all-male genealogy and, as they write, “to begin instead with an equally influential and relevant starting point that has nevertheless been insufficiently explored in the critical and art historical discourse around institutional critique: feminism.” Indeed (and happily), the curators privilege a feminist discourse at the outset of the show, and this continues throughout the exhibition with the inclusion of later, powerful works by women –– from Louise Lawler’s unambiguous photograph of a Gerhard Richter oil painting in No Drones (2010-11); to Barbara Kruger’s candid wall text that sprawls, distends, and fish-eyes across the Hammer’s lobby stairs and storefront windows; and especially to the late Gretchen Bender’s mesmerizing control room of monitors whose choreographed clips tuck and fold in a psychedelic vision of world violence and corporate power.

Renée Green. Mise-en-Scène: Commemorative Toile, 1992–94. Photograph, upholstered chair, wall treatment, wallpaper. Dimensions variable. Photograph courtesy of the artist and Free Agent Media; chair, collection of Eileen Harris Norton; wallpaper courtesy of the artist, Free Agent Media, and the Fabric Workshop.
Renée Green. Mise-en-Scène: Commemorative Toile, 1992–94. Photograph, upholstered chair, wall treatment, wallpaper. Dimensions variable. Photograph courtesy of the artist and Free Agent Media; chair, collection of Eileen Harris Norton; wallpaper courtesy of the artist, Free Agent Media, and the Fabric Workshop.

While the exhibition catalog is appropriately ambitious in scale –– and includes a fascinating essay by George Baker on a turn among painting practices of the period he coins “painting in disguise”–– it’s the exhibition’s curators (perhaps not surprisingly) who offer the most incisive takes on this complex, newly framed terrain. In her essay, “Cultural Interference: The Reunion of Appropriation and Institutional Critique,” Burton illustrates a real collective anxiety –– on the part of scholars, institutions, and the artists themselves –– surrounding the efficacy and sustainability of critical practice in the last four decades. Looking to museums as corporate entities (as Hans Haacke defined them) that at the same time feel compelled to display “extreme measures” (critical interventions) by artists through what Isabelle Graw once called “subversion for hire” (exemplified by Prina’s invitation to intervene in the Getty’s physical and ideological space of the painting galleries), Burton identifies the fragile position of criticality in an age when the autonomy of the art object is, as scholar Benjamin Bochloh wrote in 1982, mere pretense.

Burton argues that extant scholarship does little to reconcile the many overlapping tactics of appropriation and institutional critique, and thus fails to acknowledge the power and potential for more disparate approaches to criticality, which are so essentially tied to the broader social and political crises that have faced us in the last 40 years. For Burton, criticality reaches an impasse when the foundational impulses for appropriation and institutional critique go unquestioned. In response, she proposes that these genealogies and trajectory be “enlarged” and “complicated.” Reasonably, she asks,

For how would a history for appropriation and institutional critique unfold if it included not just the radical strides of conceptual practices opening up the space, place, and habitus of art and its support systems within the larger social field but also equally radical shifts in the wake of feminism, as well as civil and gay rights?

Further, what’s at stake for Burton is the essential instability of the term “criticality” itself: the artists in Take It or Leave It, she writes, refuse to embrace appropriation or institutional critique as “stable or invincible.” Rather, “[these artists] work at the pliable hinge between them, a fulcrum that posits the ways and means of critical practices as speculative and evolving, necessarily and always.” Refocusing her lens on these practices and their evolution over time, she continues:

A significant new emphasis on affect marks much contemporary critical practice, and artists are increasingly turning toward poetics, spirituality, the therapeutic, and even new tactics of essentialism and formalism in their pursuits. Yet, rather than representing a divergence from critical practice, these turns reveal significant and effective ways of reacting to a culture that is unilaterally different than it was a few decades ago. Such attentiveness on the part of artists who retain a commitment to a criticality that is perpetually understood to be at risk illustrates not cruel optimism but persistent belief—that there is always a way forward, and this usually only by making an unexpected turn.

Take It or Leave It rewards repeat visits –– its prodigious scope and dense presentation demands it — and yet the emotional and political stakes embedded in each work are clear at the outset. Despite a vast divergence of practice –– from David Wojnarowicz’s manifested outrage in The Death of American Spirituality (1987); Nayland Blake’s sweet-smelling, human-scaled gingerbread house; to Fred Wilson’s haunting, delicate black chandelier, To Die Upon a Kiss (2011)­­, to name a few –– these artists all share a commitment to claim the stakes for art. With the exception of Fred Wilson in this case, these artists are by and large rarely if ever associated with institutional critique. And yet the central tenet of the exhibition maintains that all of these artists engage the ubiquitous social and political bodies that have and continue to limit civil rights and equal opportunity, and offer a space in which works of art propose to upend those conventions and abrade those organizations of power. What Burton suggests gets to what is perhaps the most rewarding turn in the exhibition: that is, the repositioning of a critical history that remains equally committed to its present. In an aspiring attempt to resist the flattening of a expansive terrain — by including many artists who are still actively committed to some form of institutional critique today –– the show is quite equitable in its presentation of work that is both old and new.

Burton’s analysis is closely tied to Anne Ellegood’s writing on the role of affect in the critical field. In her essay “Mourning in America,” she examines how conditions of affect — particularly representations of loss — are imbricated in the political dynamics of disparate practices. She begins her essay with a lucid description of The Second Sentence of Everything I Read is You: Mourning Sex, describing this work, as the title suggests, as a site of grief. “Gonzalez-Torres’s work is both everywhere and nowhere in the installation,” she writes. For Prina, who constructs a network of interrelated texts, memories, music, and gesture, the work is also deeply emotional. Ellegood continues, “it is as if he is simply calling attention to what is already there, using the strategy of appropriation, the naming of names, and the crediting of voices to suggest that these feelings have of course been circulating all along — and that, moreover, they originate in the works of Gonzalez-Torres themselves.” Ellegood describes a site of both mourning and celebration for an artist who so profoundly impacted the landscape of art. Like Burton, Ellegood crafts a vivid description of artists “compelled by their desire to critically address facets of our society, including how identity is constructed, who has access to the power of self-representation, and the signification of images beyond their surfaces.”

Ellegood eloquently describes the idea of “coming after” as essential to the curators’ conception of Take It or Leave It: “after modernism, after the death of the author, after conceptualism.” For her this notion is manifest in the work that resulted after Gonzalez-Torres’ death, the condition of after in Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document, and Glenn Ligon’s Notes on the Margin of the “Black Book” in the wake of Mapplethorpe’s Black Book. This “afterness,” claims Ellegood, reveals an inherent desire “to rescue the past for the present”; to allow works “to be read through another [...] to complicate meaning, embrace fragmentation, and detach from origin.” Just as Burton argues for criticality to remain unstable — to create a space for an ever evolving, speculative condition — the notion of “after” seems entirely fitting to this condition. The commitment to examining the self and the place of art within the social, political, and cultural institutions that frame our lives, has been and remains a vulnerable, unstable undertaking, and a charge that remains as vital as ever.

Mary Kelly. Post Partum Document: Introduction, 1973. Perspex units, white card, wool vests, pencil, ink 15 units: 10 x 8 in. (25.4 x 20.3 cm), each. Collection of Eileen Harris Norton. Image Courtesy of the artist and Postmasters Gallery, New York.
Mary Kelly. Post Partum Document: Introduction, 1973. Perspex units, white card, wool vests, pencil, ink
15 units: 10 x 8 in. (25.4 x 20.3 cm), each. Collection of Eileen Harris Norton. Image Courtesy of the artist and Postmasters Gallery, New York.

There is much history to mine in Take It Or Leave It—especially when one considers the complex teleologies presented therein. But perhaps nowhere is the imbrication of past and present –– coupled with the affective turn in these critical exercises –– more straightforward than in the program of performances organized in concert with the show. Alongside his screening of Vinyl II, Stephen Prina performed afterwards, alternating between playing a Steinway installed on the stage and a classical guitar, crooning a set of his own pop songs (such as the unequaled “Trevor”), new covers, and old classics (Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You”among them). A week before, Ron Athey performed Sebastiane a work whose original staging and surrounding controversy I wrote about for this publication last year — marking the first time an American institution has ever hosted this piece within its own walls. (When the Walker originally commissioned Athey in 1994, the performance was staged off site at a Minneapolis punk club.) In what was a truly haunting, bloodied and yet vulnerable, gentle performance, the traces of past collaborations –– between Athey, Divinity Fudge and his partner Jon John–– were powerfully registered in the actual physical scars that each actor in the scene carried with him. When Andrea Fraser restaged her classic work May I Help You?­­ in the Hammer’s galleries (alongside the same Allen McCullum Surrogate Paintings she engaged in the original performance in 1991), little (if any) of the substantial scholarship that engages this important work would seem to prepare you for the strange permutations that occur in Fraser’s uncanny and confrontational looped address on taste and social class. It was a compelling performance that seemed entirely apropos of the present.


Laura Fried is a curator and writer based in Los Angeles.  

LARB Contributor

Laura Fried is a curator and writer based in Los Angeles. Before her move west, Fried was a curator at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, where she produced artist projects, performances, and new commissions, and organized major monographic exhibitions with Carey Young, Stephen Prina, Elad Lassry, Manon de Boer, and Richard Aldrich among others. Fried is a regular contributor to museum catalogs as well as art publications and blogs, including Flash Art International, Mousse Magazine, and Frieze.


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