Like everyone else, the art world is obsessed with naming. In an age of finance capitalism, names brand; in an era of social media, they tag. They are sources of authority—of authorship—delimiting property, possession, and identity. What would it mean to remove one’s name, I have often wondered? What would it mean for proper names to be removed from a discourse about contemporary art?
Encountering Julie Ault’s Macho Man, Tell It To My Heart this past February at Artists Space, I was reminded of these questions. Upon entering the exhibition space, I was confronted by a video about the pianist-showman Liberace playing from a monitor. As I continued into the space, I faced a wall. One of the things I have always liked about Artists Space is its expansiveness. It is a large, open space with white columns and tall windows, reminiscent of a bygone SoHo loft culture. Different curators/artists do different things with the space, often altering it completely. Ault, of Group Material renown, produced a partial enclosure within the gallery, upon which much of the show was hung.
As I walked outside the enclosure with a friend, he and I recognized many of the works, which were by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Moyra Davey, Paul Thek, Andres Serrano, Nayland Blake… But here I go naming names, when what mattered most to us was the encounter with a semi-anonymous ensemble—the force of this encounter with namelessness. What also mattered, undoubtedly, was knowing that the works had been donated to Ault (or traded, or bartered) by her friends and loved ones. Michel Foucault once wrote that the history of homosexuality embodied a “politics of friendship.” Remembering Thek, Gonzalez-Torres, Liberace and others who have died from AIDS-related illnesses, I imagined Ault lovingly placing certain works next to each other, framing affinities, relationships, perhaps even conflicts. Mourning the dead, albeit belatedly. Fashioning a shrine by gathering their works together.
When Ault participated in Group Material, she and the other members would hang works by contemporary artists besides popular (i.e., ‘low’) cultural products and works by non-professional artists often from communities who the group wished to include, if not serve. A similar strategy is operative in Ault’s curatorship at Artists Space, only on a more personal scale. Whereas Group Material strategically took aim at the gentrification of the Lower East Side, and later such loaded political subjects as the history of US military involvement in Latin America and the AIDS pandemic, Macho Man is micro political as it investigates what it might mean to historicize through the trans/personal, inter-subjective, and communal. Furthermore, it demonstrates that when macro political processes fail (and they obviously continue to fail in countless ways) one can still express a political practice through the cultivation of certain habits of attention, behaviors, and gestures.
Rounding the corner, my friend and I dwelt on a bag of marbles pinned to the wall with a single playing card. Why can’t more artists do things like that?, he lamented. Rounding another corner, we marveled at the presence of the works brought into proximity with one another. There, did you see the light bulbs? So engrossed in the atmosphere—the mood of intimacy and delight established by Ault’s collection—the iconicity of autonomous works seemed to disappear—the sense of signature, or brand. But then there were pieces we also loved and couldn’t attribute. Like the painting of a girl washing a floor; all that water represented in bold, athletic strokes of green paint; the way her labor was desultory, joyous.
The current (art) world could learn a lot from Ault and the practices of Group Material, who continue to demonstrate a unique ability to inhabit curatorial modes and put forward models of exhibition which effectively resist art’s property value, if only at the level of a phenomenology—an experience of attending art—rather than through institutional critique or intervention per se. Of all the ways to level culture, and to critique its most entrenched practices, what better place to start than with the withdrawal of our society’s most common tool of exchange and valuation: the proper name?