Zombie Formalism

Responding to Banality in Contemporary Art

By: - May 23, 2015

For a recently curated show I attempted to write an essay about the paintings in terms of topology. I came across the more than geographic use of it in a book by Jeff Malpas, which deals with its role in understanding Heidegger’s philosophy. I didn’t want to give the impression of co-opting the artists work for my own intellectual purposes, so I wrote about the work in the context of contemporary art. However, not a day goes by without experiencing astonishment at the power of word topos to unlock the mysteries of how the world functions. So now with the show over, I will proceed to explore the topic of topos beyond the constraints of relating it to the artists in the show.

Leibniz asked:” Why is there something rather than nothing?” Which was similar to Heidegger marveling that “things function”. Both express awe in the face of the amazing phenomena of life on earth. And both are questions meant to generate a meditation on our being in the world. Heidegger prefaced any understanding of functioning by insisting we are already in a world shared with other people and any functioning takes place within a certain economy (Reiner Schurmann’s word for topos) i.e. there is an overall shape to how we interact in the world and with people, an ongoing back and forth and a moving forward. Most often that configuration is given or imposed on us. For example we work in a certain place where our activities are highly structured. It has its hierarchy, its obligations: it may be funded by state taxes or it may be capitalist and depend on profits. The shock of the unforeseen may be softened by the purchase of insurance. All this gives a workplace a certain appearance and predictability over time. The way things look is the purview of art and each economy will have a certain appearance. The Soviet Union for example looked a certain way that perfectly reflected its top down management of the economy. I read recently how the dour feel of Moscow during the Soviet Era that I witnessed in the early Seventies while touring Eastern Europe, quickly became energized with the fall of the Iron Curtain and the concurrent influx of western capital. I recall during that tour through the Soviet Bloc how the absence of a market economy resulted in strange local markets such as one that only sold locally produced cherries. Tasty and fresh but I was not interested in having them for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

In a search for the use of the term Zombie Formalism on the Internet, I came across a site that rambled on about what they thought was the capitalist origin of the white cube, i.e. the gallery space. The Marxist tilt of the language implied that galleries provide a certain topos of indifference so as to let the object appear to be more valuable and significant as a commodity than it really is. I wrote a comment on the site invoking another Heideggerian concept of “letting be”. How far do we have to deconstruct things? Does every capitalist structure have to be analyzed as a power game that reduces everything to commodification? I recalled the efforts of a Marxist friend to do his own dental work with store bought epoxy so as to avoid participating in the capitalist system by going to a dentist. However, this article nonetheless helped me understand the topos of the gallery, when it became an issue in the show at Kimball Jenkins whose exhibition space was funky to say the least. Some viewers complained about its lack of neutrality and the compromising of the work of several artists, whose work would have been better showcased by white walls. Whether it is a captitalist conspiracy or not the topography of a gallery does have a say in how we interact with the exhibited object.

“Hyperallergic” recently published a review of a book on Thomas Kinkade and his demise. It appears that he was a simple sort of guy who tried to peddle his work at country art fairs until he fell into the hands of shysters who turned him into a nationwide purveyor of schlock. Sort of like Koons’s kitsch but without the irony. (Koons has yet to open up franchises selling his work or put little koonsies in a McDonald Happy Meal). I started thinking of his scenery of quaint country cottages as a notion of the topos of family and security. The smoke rising from the chimney, the calm of a setting sun bathing the scene in a warmish light. This was a mood that mattered to him. And those who bought the work needed that story and sentiment as well. When I drive to Concord NH from Portsmouth on Route 4 there is a stretch of road midway that goes through a state forest. A mountain stream and white pines and hemlocks sidle up to the road to create a very bucolic setting. Just before this environment comes to an end and the sprawl that typifies the rest of the road recommences there is the view of a lone antique farmhouse across the river. It is as idyllic as a Thomas Kinkade or a Claude Lorrain for that matter. For a moment it seems that to live there would be to live happily ever after.

The topoi of our modern world have long left that sentiment far behind, ever since the Enclosure Acts abolished the yeomanry of England sending the poor to work in “the dark satanic mills”. The appearance of the past lingers on in New England where you can jump back several centuries surrounded by the rural past of countless New England villages. I once worked on a conservation commission with a woman who bemoaned the disintegration of the Maine town where we lived into urban sprawl using the word yeomanry to describe the people who lived in those majestic Maine farmhouses that still dotted the landscape. Even a place as close to Boston as Marblehead is a time warp of epoch proportions where the rest of the world could easily drop away as you lose yourself in the time of Nathanael Hawthorne. To continue my thesis, these topologies are the remnants of once lived realities that historically minded people have succeeded in preserving. But the topoi of the present awaits us on the highways engineered to allow cars to drive at incredible speeds and surrounded by malls and fast food outlets. Woe to the person who is sentimental about their world as it is soon to be gone with the wind.

The first job I had teaching was at a private prep school where I taught among other classes a course in architecture. I had no training at all in the subject but my interest in perceptual issues allowed me to discuss reasonably well how architecture constructed space and time. It helped that the textbook we used by Charles Moore discussed those issues as well. Once I took the students on a field trip to Boston to visit several buildings of interest to the course. The students seemed intent on making a pit stop at McDonald’s. I agreed to do it only if they did a space/time analysis of the experience. In our discussion we observed that the reality of Mac Do’s was totally dependent on the car and a notion of time, which was rapid. Lots of customers out on errands in their cars with no time to sit down for a meal consuming factory produced food that could be prepared and consumed in the twinkling of an eye. It is a very tight feedback loop. The goal was to squeeze as many customers into the shortest time span possible. The interaction of parts created a topology that went far beyond the moment of the purchase of the food. Factory farms for the sandwich contents, factory production to process it and factory distribution within the restaurant. All consumed sitting in your factory made car. Here again Heidegger provides the wonderful notion of enframement, i.e. you are trapped!

I was perusing the catalog of the “Forever Now”, (Painting in an atemporal world) show at MoMA at a bookstore in New York on a Sunday before I had to head home to the New Hampshire woods. The first thought that came to my mind upon reading it was something that Peter Schjeldahl picked up on in his “New Yorker “ article on the show: much of the work is derivative of the Neo-Expressionism of the 80’s. There is a shallow attempt in the catalog article to put the burden of the work’s meaning on the influence of the internet and its sense of the atemporal by resurrecting the writer William Gibson who wrote about the early days of the web, when the novelty of cyberspace still reigned. Putting aside the references to the internet, I tried to get my head around the notion of almost forty years of painting stylistically the same. For me the title and the work evoked existential nausea as it proclaims: there is no escape from this art (to use the title of Sartre’s play) which will linger on forever and ever. Amen! The notion of the atemporal once evoked a sense of eternal values worthy of surviving the flux of the human condition. The strategy of these artists is to engage in a notion of time that is eternally uniform. It reminds me of something I recall in philosophy of a negative notion of time made up of a repetition of “nows”. Lived time is full of tragic reversals and magical overcomings. In this work there is no agonic attempt to surpass the masters: just abstract gesture that is endlessly deconstructed tongue in cheek.

Sharon Butler once quoted Beckett to me after a lecture she gave at MECA: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better” in order to explain the intellectual underpinnings of Provisional/Casualist painting. From Beckett’s point of view the self that imagines that its constructs of reality can shape the real is a false self. An authentic self is one that accepts the distance between self-construct and the real. One that is set up for failure a priori. The romantic whose self -image expands to engulf the real is embodied in the sadist Pozzo in Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” who tortures the not so lucky, Lucky. Pozzo is the image of Western man created in the Baroque that imposed an economy of slavery and exploitation upon the world based on a metaphysical confidence grounded in an eternal God. Didi and Gogo are the embodiment of contemporary man who is not sure of his goals and bereft of the metaphysical underpinnings of the past. We are always going to fall short or fall bad. But it is one thing to attempt meaning and fail; it is totally different to assume failure and couch your work in a feigned sense of futility. Or not to allow any meaning at all as the Zombie Formalists assert. But what kind of meaning do you want? The work of the modernist has a positive meaning with its faith in science and a clear sense of the subject/self or its reversion to the chthonic symbolism of the pagan. But isn’t the irony of this irony that somewhere once upon a time there was a kind of painting that was authoritative for this new eternity of weak painting to exist at all. In its insistence on irony it keeps blocking any chance of a new language of time and space. It is a kind of negative religion, a negative eternity from which we can’t escape with its own rituals that any good MFA student can learn.

It seems that history is divided into periods that are transformative of human nature and those where the transformations are digested or put in question. Without a doubt the 20thc was an era where the Human was transformed into a rational animal disabused of any notion of the individual as a separate entity with his or her own space and time. So what are we to do with it? I know the post-modernist goal is to abandon the scientific/rational self that creates experimental events on canvas that reveal the mechanical shape of reality as a tight part/whole rule based relationship. Its practice can be seen in the work of Mondrian, Stella, Judd and Serra among others that populate the modernist pantheon. As its rules penetrate deeper and deeper into the fabric of society it is no longer the hard nuts and bolts of the factory that Chaplin mocked in Modern Times but the technological precision of the Internet that infiltrates our very reality. Maybe this is the domain of the Zombie Formalists. It is no longer an issue of creating the rational man but of dissolving mankind altogether into rationality. The Provisional painters try to humanize abstraction, make it vulnerable therefore corroborating Butler’s contention of having its roots in Beckett.

It is no surprise to me that abstraction has had a revival. The avant-garde seems ever confident that every new critique of society will have a welcoming audience. The latest Koons’ extravaganza I believe left a bad taste in the collective unconscious of the public. My response was pretty much: So what! Warhol already covered that territory with sharper nihilistic wit. The need to jump over years of pop, concept and installation art back to abstraction seems akin to someone who has had a schizophrenic break and tries desperately to regain the world before the split, when things were whole. Is the attempt to return to the garden also generated by a fear of the unknown, which is now so great that we feel apprehensive about turning our back on the pinnacle of American art (AbEx promoted by the CIA as the best America had to offer during the Cold War) lest we no longer recognize who we are? But we can’t recreate its greatness, as we no longer have our parent’s self- assuredness. We are neither the mothers nor fathers who built the modern industrial state for which modernism was the topos. Either we use abstraction ironically or pathetically (with pathos), or expunge any remnant of the self and let art blend into technology by destroying the boundaries of the human and the machine. Any hermeneutic to go back is doomed to miss the essence of the past. Contemporary abstraction is caught in a twisted embrace with Modernism which ever escapes its hold and retreats further and further into the past. How much longer will we will limp along in this contorted topology, that knows vaguely where it came from but for sure does not know where it is going. A new utopia by definition is always unattainable!

Reposted courtesy of  Martin Mugar.