Photos courtesy of Monica Orozco.
In Wired For Story, a book that links research in neuroscience to the production and consumption of stories, Lisa Cron writes that our brains are hardwired to try to make sense of stories and, by extension, art. Although we can survive 40 days without food and three days without water, we apparently can't go but 35 seconds before we need to make sense of something (threats, social interactions, things in a museum) around us. That's the problem with Michael Queenland's "Rudy's Ramp of Remainders," guest-curated by Jeffrey Uslip for the Santa Monica Museum of Art. For the first 34 seconds, it's a surprising, interesting, and evocative show. Ultimately, though, not only does it fail to engross us, its ROI (Return On Investment) is subpar.
The exhibition's inspiration comes from Rudis Resterampe. Translated from the German as Rudy's Ramp of Remainders (nice alliteration, that -- it sounds like a vaudeville song), it's the name of a discount store, stocked, stacked, and strewn with unsold textile and other items. Queenland saw it when he was a 2009 Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. The installation includes plasticized balloons, industrial bread racks, dollies, foam rubber, cereal, and a boxed kiddie pool, placed, if not messily then ad-hoc-ly, around a gallery space meant to resemble a superstore, a warehouse, or both. The Wheaties boxes feature photographs of Muhammad Ali, Mary Lou Retton and a pre-Kardashianized Bruce Jenner. Many of the items are placed on pages from The New York Times. It looks like the late afternoon of a Black Friday sale; objects tossed about, shelves empty; it bustles with just-completed activity. It's a quirky show to navigate, both because of its contents but also because of its installation.
The show raises many questions (here's our hardwired 35-second will-to-meaning kicking in) though, for the most part, they remain unanswered. You wonder if the dates of the New York Times newspapers, on which many items rest, have any significance; ditto for the carpets that show maps of Afghanistan and images of weapons; if, composition-wise, there's a meant to be correlation between the grid shape of the overhead lights and the grid structure of the mostly empty horizontal bread racks; if there's a darker meaning in that little room off in the back, which seems more like a storeroom, with a bunch of neatly arrayed cereal boxes from which to replenish the empty racks in the front space.
The deeper you crawl down the rabbit hole of commodification this installation so nicely burrows, the less relevant the questions become. The installation seems to want to critique marketing, with its aesthetics of product design and placement, and macroeconomics, with its description of over-production and consumption. The problem is, if it's meant to be a critique of commodification, putting this consumer detritus forward as elements of an art exhibition elevates them, inadvertently or not, to the status of desired fetish objects.
The installation also offers a serviceable and accurate depiction of the contemporary art market: art as a commodity; the exhibition space as an emporium; and the viewer as a consumer of the commodity. Having said that, it's hard to work backwards to the idea of art as part of a tradition; of art as something with visual -- and not just cerebral -- qualities meant to be pondered and say about the human condition. Once this show broaches the concept of the convergence of art and consumerization, there's no escaping the extension of the concept: product placement in lieu of composition; branding in lieu of style; and, for purposes of evaluation, the concept of quality control.
Cron cites Jorge Luis Borges's magnificent quote, Art is fire plus algebra, which suggests that art begins (hopefully, it continues as well) with creativity, originality, and innovation. For it to work, though, there has to be some framework to communicate whatever it's going to communicate to the viewer. There's fire to the idea of Queenland's installation. But if you want a show that raises and then answers the questions it poses; that rewards contemplation (we owe nothing to the artist, by the way); that addresses and fulfills viewer's expectations as to insight into the human condition; that, finally, resonates long after you leave the space, then this is not the one you want to see.
The exhibition runs until December 22, 2012. Museum hours are 11 AM - 6 PM, Tuesday through Saturday. The Museum is located at Bergamot Station, Building G1, 2525 Michigan Avenue. Suggested donation is $5; $3 for seniors and students. For more information call (310) 586-6488 or visit www.smmoa.org.