Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Dana DeGiulio at The Suburban

By Nick Bastis
Guest Editor: Luke Fidler

A new work by Dana DeGiulio at The Suburban might not be finished. Of this, we can’t yet be sure, so let’s first deal with what we do know.

We know that in this work DeGiulio, a practicing painter, plies the economy of the discipline, exploiting its network of materials, exchanges, curators, friendships, and gallery spaces. Generally, a narrative of the work might run like this: After an exchange with artist and curator Michelle Grabner, DeGiulio ended up with a reasonably valuable painting. She then sold this painting with the help of James Cohan Gallery in New York (which represents Grabner) and used that money to purchase a white Buick sedan. DeGiulio then backed this car into the side of The Suburban (a gallery run by Grabner) as a piece for her show, totalling the Buick and dislodging the small concrete gallery from its foundation.

While the latter part of the work is visible at The Suburban in the form of the crashed car and damaged building, the beginning of the narrative is sketched out in a pamphlet distributed by the artist at the opening. The document outlines the process by which the work was produced along with some text concerning more uncertain scenarios, like what might happen if a sedan was driven into a small building. The information in the pamphlet not only suggests that the networked narrative matters, but, given the open-ended questions it includes surrounding the collision, it asks the audience to consider materials ranging from the physical to the economic and social, and from the safely deliberate to the risky, chance-based, and potentially dangerous. And therein lie some of my own questions.

There is no doubt that this work is smart. It is formally, both its narrative and its physical manifestation, tight and to the artist’s, the car’s, and the building’s credit, handsome. But what I do not actually yet know is if it is doing work outside of a closed-loop. Is this a painterly gesture, embedded in a network of producers, buyers, curators, and friends, employed to literally make a large chance-based mark? [1] Or, other than the collision between the car and the building, are other kinds of debris produced?

The crux of the question has to do with the location of chance itself within the work, and for that matter, the mark. It would be difficult to argue with the idea that the mark made on the building from the impact of the car could not be entirely predicted, nor the way the car would handle being driven backwards into a concrete wall. The crumpling of the rear hood, the cracking of the wall, and even DeGiulio’s own body are all mark-making/receiving devices in this piece that are genuinely aleatoric. If that is the end of that, we might still be dealing with a sharp, funny, and beautiful looking work, affirmatively positioned as a kind of literalized Standard Stoppage (1913-14) produced through a Krauss-meets-Latour expanded field. [2]

Yet, as George Brecht said, “Of course, in the real world, causes are also effects, and effects causes.” [3] So, what if this chance-based thing or the question of risk were applied to the network with which this piece is obviously dealing? We know what series of actions produced the crash, but what does the crash produce? As partially described in the pamphlet, The Suburban may have inadvertently funded the work through DeGiulio’s selling of Grabner’s painting, and as suggested by the fact that there was an opening, Grabner allowed the stunt to occur. The premeditation and approval is not necessarily the work’s weakness and I do not think DeGiulio is interested in passing it off as an act of vandalism. However, I am wondering if there is something other than the building that the collision may destabilize.

As mentioned, the artist spends a portion of the pamphlet referencing the properties of physics, wherein a set of rules are known, causing something to nearly collapse when a body, a car, and a building meet at about 10 mph. But what are the rules of the social materials the artist is dealing with, and when put into this function, what falls apart? Maybe nothing. Given that Grabner, who as we know runs the gallery and is also an artist, has literally presented works that involve her hanging other people’s art on the back of her own paintings (My Oyster, 2012), I am uncomfortable with the potential that the noise around this work is less like Shawshank (United States, 1994) and more like The Blob (United States, 1958). Like a painting hung on the back of a painting, I would hope that the car embedded in the side of Grabner’s curatorial project is not another object sacrificially subsumed into the construction of something else (in this case, the gallery itself as a project). Further is that the emphasis the pamphlet places on the network of exchanges leading to the crash both begins with and returns us to the person that everyone in Chicago is already talking about: Grabner. [4] The gallery and its owners get to flaunt the spectacle that they furnished, and if edgy enough, simply feeds back into the beast, prompting another question: When the cat finally eats its own tail, does it shit out a tail? Again, I don’t know the answer to this question because as far as I’m concerned the work is still chewing on it. The answer, in part, lies in whether or not DeGiulio is rebuilding that little gallery in a month, or if she leaves the consequences of a polite but stern insistence on a refusal to do so up to, well, chance.

In other words, within this painting hung on the back of a painting analogy, the car can’t exactly be unhung and it matters whether that is DeGiulio’s problem or The Suburban’s. If the car continues to do work and DeGiulio just leaves it there, the Buick becomes a strange obstacle for The Suburban to traverse, like a houseguest that just won’t leave, arriving at the sort of debris that has the capacity to produce. While DeGiulio’s own piece could have been served by a component of the work that made no sense at all, something dumb that dislodged us from the work’s logic in order to land somewhere else, the continued presence of the car could have this effect on The Suburban itself and the work shown there the future.

In the interest of full disclosure, I did not “see” this work except through photographs and the aforementioned pamphlet circulated by those that were there. I didn’t go to The Suburban, and I’m obviously not convinced that you have to in order to talk about it. This isn’t because there isn’t something worth seeing, but because I am uncertain as to where the work is exactly. This is a strength of the work, one that has the capacity to raise questions across languages of painting, performance, economics, actors and networks. To add more forms to the list, the action produced by the artist, the narrative that preceded the event, and the characters involved, gives this thing a feel of a kind of theater. Maybe, then, it doesn’t matter if the risks involved in the act of crashing the car extend into the network of relationships and exchanges the work was built upon, because, in the end, the story is formalized and well-performed. [5] Also like a play, it is possible that reading the script is just as interesting as seeing it performed, or in this case, the artifact of the gesture. [6] With the story that precedes the crash being so outwardly shared through the artist’s own literature, the narrative itself becomes an object up for discussion. But, if this bears some relationship to a script, maybe a more important question to leave with is, “who is writing it?”

DeGiulio? I’m not so sure. Given my interest in relating this piece to chance-based works that had a foundational interest in agency reduction, this might not be a bad thing. Spectacles themselves are a form in demand, produced as much by an audience as by their orchestrators, pressuring the perceptible limits of so-called static work. The crowd’s desire for the artist to make a scene is one that can either be stubbornly ignored, passively accepted, or in the case of this work, actively submitted to as “a way of transcending your capacities by embracing your incapacities and therefore a way to interrupt the brute assertiveness of the I Can through the performance of an I Can’t performed in the key of the I Can.” [7] This is to say, “I can’t just hang paintings at this gallery but I can make the gallery impossible to hang paintings in by nearly knocking it down,” or even, “I can’t resist the pressure to perform but I can perform something (driving)? badly.” Taken in this tone, the crash could be seen less a failed subversion of a network of actors than a poetic submission to the crowd’s desire and the limits of an artist when placed on stage.

Dana DeGiulio at The Suburban, 125 North Harvey Avenue, Oak Park, Illinois 60302. Hours by appointment, (708) 305-2657. All photos courtesy the artist.

[1] Given the one-and-done nature of this piece (you can’t retry the crash or adjust the car if you don’t like how it looks), I am interested in the collision’s relationship to chance-based operations, ranging from Brecht’s Chance-Imagery to Duchamp’s 3 Standard Stoppages (1913-14).
[2] These works by Duchamp were produced by dropping a piece of string onto a horizontal surface and adhering it in place.
[3] Brecht, “Chance Imagery.”
[4] Grabner is one of the curators for the 2014 Whitney Biennial.
[5] A position discussed at length in Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London: Verso, 2012).

[6] Eugène Ionesco had much say about this, most notably in Notes and Counter Notes: Writings on the Theater, trans. Donald Watson (London: Calder, 1964).

[7] The passage, in the original essay, is also offered as a way to resist acts of grand resistance: “What would it mean to resist the need to perform? Is “resistance” even a useful concept to evoke in this context? Are the forms of agency that we commonly associate with resistance not modes of high performance themselves? Grand gestures of revolt tend to be overpoweringly assertive. They thrive on the rush of the moment when things really start happening (the crowd surges forwards, the water cannons start shooting). In this sense they actually exemplify the core momentum of high performance itself: they make something happen and deliver an event.” Jan Verwoert, “Exhaustion and Exuberance: Ways to Defy the Pressure to Perform,” Dot Dot Dot (April 2008).

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