Friday, February 20, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "Expression, Discovery, and Invention" (on Apparitions: Frottages and Rubbings from 1860 to Now"

expression, discovery, and invention
by Douglas Messerli  

Allegra Pesenti, curator “Apparitions: Frottages and Rubbings from 1860 to Now” / Hammer Museum, February 7 – May 31, 2015, I saw the show with Pablo on February 17, 2015.

Ignoring all the sexual conations that have grown up around the word, The Hammer museum has gathered a series of art works created by “rubbing,” beginning with the Surrealist-focused works of frottage—individuals who did not “invent” the age old artistic tradition, but claimed it was a another way to peak into the unconscious mind—to the present day. This small show reveals not only the wealth of images that have arisen from the technique, but suggest two or three directions in which its artisans have used that technique in order to express their visions.

     Certainly the Surrealists seem most fascinated by rubbings not as a way in which to reveal the actual world around but as a method of reading into that world, for creating other images that could be read through the striations applied to everyday objects. One might easily argue that for figures such as André Breton, Max Ernst, and Henri Michaux, the importance of brushing again and again across the apparent world was to glimpse visions of another, more real world, a world the artists read into and upon the one we encountered every day. The  cadaver exquis of André Breton, the monsters and other figures of Max Ernst, the incredible fantasy-like figures of Roland Penrose, and the variations of lines and other geometric objects of Henri Michaux were represented more as “discoveries,” I would argue, than as mere “revelations.” For these artists the lines and shapes that appeared upon their papers served as a stimulus to a recreation of the world as is as opposed to a representation of that world.

     What is equally interesting, however, about these artists is that, with the exception of Michaux, just how realistically-oriented they remain; Ernst’s figure obviously reminds one of a strange Trojan-like horse, Breton’s of a besuited man. Similarly, Roland Penrose’s figures remind us of the fantastical conceptions of someone like Lewis Carroll.

     Since the Surrealists, however, it appears from this show that rubbings have moved increasingly in the direction of revealing nature, of re-representing the world rather than even an attempt of discovering another reality in it. If, indeed, the floor and wall rubbings of artists such as Sam Falls, whose “Studio Floor” of 2012 suggests a series of phantasms hidden in the ordinary floor of an art studio, there remain precisely things of the imagination—representing the way we might look deeply, on a daily basis, into the patterns of the linoleum of our bathroom and kitchen floors, delighting in their momentary transformations into intimate scenes, yet knowing that, in another wink, they will once again become unrecognizable to us, other works such as South Korean Do Ho Suh’s spectacular “Rubbing/Loving: Metal Jacket” of 2014 truly transform hundreds of individual rubbings of dog tags into a truly unrecognizable landscape that is based less on “rediscovery” than upon “rearrangement” and “re-contextualizing” the thing itself.

      Similarly impressive is Romanian artist Geta Brătescu’s “Worker’s Hand,” which transforms the hands of an ordinary worker into a kind of abstract portrait of the subject. Nonetheless, we recognize the signature of the raised imprint, and the work is never quite able—or desires to—release its hold on the “real.”

    Indeed, works such as Roy Lichtenstein’s “Foot Medication” of 1962 might be nearly impossible to distinguish from his paintings and drawings. Indeed it is difficult in such a work to even determine how it was achieved as a work of frottage.

     Perhaps the most evocative of these works are those dealing purely with signs and patterns that make little or no attempt to reiterate the connection to their source in the real world, that obfuscate their connection with actually rubbing against the world in which we exist. The show has several such representative works, most notably Ruben Ochea’s 2009 “Untitled” and Matt Mullican’s large brooding, “Untitled (Cosmology over Material)” of 1984. In fact, this last group of works actually pursue what the Surrealists were seeking, a world that favors invention over revelation, that pursues signs of significance, over the thing in itself.

     Obviously, in the very process of putting graphite pencil to or applying other tools against real objects, the revelation of the “real” might be the expected result. And certainly there is no preferable expression of the process. Indeed, the most ancient of artists who “rubbed” where perhaps attempting to save the past, in an age before photography to recapture gravesites, the images of tombs and holy icons that might otherwise have been lost. Yet, for my taste, it is when artists directly intercede with what they discover in the “actual,” so to speak, that allows the process to become something that transcends its very limitations.

Los Angeles, February 20, 2015