Anticlimacticism as Artmaking Strategy: Matt Browning at Lawrimore Project
Yesterday afternoon, I attended the closing reception/artist talk for Tradition as Adaptive Strategy, Matt Browning’s first solo exhibition at Lawrimore Project. Thus, my review comes when the show is no longer available for viewing. Some artists might be frustrated by the posteriority of this gesture, but I don’t think Matt will be. At least not for this show, which is, in part, about confounding expectations.
“I want everyone who sees the show to be disappointed on some level.” This is what Matt told me before I had seen the work, in a conversation during the opening of Whiting Tennis’s Walleyed* at Greg Kucera, which also closed yesterday. Indeed, at first glance, perhaps the most salient feature of the exhibition is its relative unimpressiveness.
An artist whose work frequently incorporates deconstructed beer cans, baseballs, and other emblems of competition and masculinity, Browning’s choice of materials for the current show is curious. The exhibition consists of 34 hand-whittled pine wood “whimsies” consisting of a cone-shaped funnel, a three-legged stand, and sap collected from the same wood used to by the artist to carve the forms. (Don’t bother to look for significance in the number 34, we are told.) Why whittling? In addition to being a ‘masculine’ craft, “whittling is something that is usually only done by children or old people.” It is feeble by its nature, and its products fleeting. Upon completion, it is traditional to give a whittled object away as a gift, or throw it into the campfire.
Physically, the objects in the exhibition are almost as far from imposing as they could possibly be. Browning has removed all the furniture and covered over the fireplace in the gallery’s back room, creating an airy, naturally-lit echo-chamber for his sculptures to assume their unassumingness in.
During his artist talk, Matt discussed the relationship between his work and the economic notion of investment-to-gain ratios, as well as the collection of scientific data. His whittled forms are inspired, in part, by an ongoing and rather inconclusive experiment begun by Australian physicist Thomas Parnell in 1927 to demonstrate to his students that pitch, though appearing solid, is actually a highly viscous fluid. The Pitch Drop Experiment, which has produced just eight drops of pitch over the past eight decades, has earned its creators a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest running continuous experiment (and a satirical Ig Nobel Prize in 2005). However because it was not originally carried out under any controlled circumstances, it has yielded essentially no data.
It’s easy to see why Browning, an artist concerned with the deconstruction of masculine endeavors, would take an interest in an impotent science experiment. Like aggression and competitiveness, the pursuit of scientific inquiry is often read as a masculine activity in a psychosocial sense, insofar as it coaxes Nature to reveal her secrets in order to ensure her more effective subjugation. A gendered reading of the scientific impulse is, for instance, frequently cited in discussions of the symbolic content of Marcel Duchamp’s magnum opus of onanistic futility The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, a.k.a. The Large Glass.**
In a way, the Pitch Drop Experiment is to science what Duchamp’s post-Dada tableau is to art: it exemplifies the paradigm of scientific inquiry as an ultimately pointless act. Structurally, it even echoes the seven conical “sieves” of the lower, masculine panel of The Large Glass, part of the mechanical apparatus by which the Bachelors continually attempt to denude the ethereal Bride.
For most of American (indeed, Western) history, the scientific/industrializing trajectory has been unquestioningly heralded as ‘progress,’ however the last century has provided us with reason upon poisoned reason to erode our blind faith in the virtue of unbridled modernization. (In a post on Another Bouncing Ball, Regina Hackett astutely noted the formal similarities between Browning’s sap-soaked forms and images of oily wildlife affected by the Gulf Oil Spill; this is only one of the countless environmental disasters we have courted with our strange idea of progress.)
By producing work so steeped in its own anticlimacticism, I think Matt Browning is asserting—with wisdom beyond his years—the ultimate futility of progress, including his own. But because he has backed the objects into the corner of an empty room, we can be sure that the entire negative space of the room is in play as well. There is more to this room than the presence of artwork, just as there is much more to understanding nature than the ability (or inclination) to bend it to our will. I am of the opinion that this realization connotes another kind of progress altogether.
Tradition as Adaptive Strategy ran from May 13 through June 26 at Lawrimore Project. If you haven’t seen it, you missed it forever.
*Speaking of latecoming praise, Whiting’s new work is beautiful and I had hoped to write about it as well. Sorry, that show’s gone forever too!
**A detailed, insightful summarization of the psychosexual and philosophical symbolism of the individual elements in The Bride Stripped Bare may be found in Juan Antonio Ramirez’s Duchamp: Love and Death, Even.