It is not our eccentricities, pointedly marking our imagined singularity, that make us unique, but how we stake a claim on what is shared and relentlessly sharable. This is what Gertrude Stein coyly asserts in her recurrent account of herself and, consequently, everyone, in her 1937 book Everybody’s Autobiography – her “sequel” to the unexpectedly popular and complexly parroted (and non-autobiographical) account of her lover, the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. In both works, as in all of her poetry, the fabric of common life – food, objects, rooms – takes precedence over the altering life event or agonized utterance of an I. And, as food, objects and rooms are iterated in the circuitous and incantatory repetition that characterizes Stein’s writing, we see these familiar things anew, like a phrase made strange if said again and again, regardless of its content. In that repetition, an equilibrium is reached – a plateau on which any person can stand and feel the absolute strangeness of the fabled common lot, as both a figurative state of mind and real place to assume firm footing.
Like Stein, Robert Gober has focused in acute detail on the otherwise unexceptional stuff that populates and quietly dominates our daily lives. Sinks, drains, twin beds, cat litter – the rectangular slab of uncut butter – are recreated in hand-wrought detail, yielding objects that are at once ersatz ready-mades and exquisitely mundane art. Dwelling on a single form for several years, a sink, for example, is made to exist in every possible scale and variety – hanging fixtureless and upright, or angled, dramatically split, or halved and submerged, like a grave marker. In extracting this single, common object from the cacophony of nameless things, its significance swells, evoking its emblematic meaning, magnifying its unsettling formality, and transforming it both into a noun in a new, personal grammar and a fluidly poetic symbol.
That Gober would produce wallpaper, then, is no surprise, as wallpaper itself inhabits the same lowly status as other seemingly banal domestic accents and is, furthermore, characterized by repeated design motifs. The two images in Highway, depicting a two-lane road splitting a forest, create an insistent pattern of snap-shot familiarity much like the encapsulating flash of a vivid memory. Drawn in wavering, child-like lines, the imagery bears all the freight of childhood itself – overwhelmed by the unknowable, awestruck by what may soon come to be known as dull, and glassy-eyed in the face of the eerily portentous. The scene could go anywhere: the Great American Road trip, the tragic Noir get-away, the idyllic or Gothic road to the rural unknown.
Kerry James Marshall’s prints dedicate themselves to similarly common forms, objects and scenes, but as a way of redressing precisely what the dominant tradition has unconscionably excluded. That the history of art proliferates with portraits of persons of both modest and noble status is a kind of truth. Marshall sees the significance of revising this tradition as well as the conception of what is deemed “common” by creating portraits and scenes of black subjects; in doing so, he emphasizes the significant failure of the dominant strain of assumed reason. What has been shared has in fact not been shared in full; it is the very existence of a banality that includes a black identity that, in Marshall’s work, becomes radical.
But to see Marshall’s work as a purely political gesture is to stray from its full complexity and primary import. The experience of his portraits and vignettes speaks to the fundamental qualities of the art historical movements they quote – reflective of beauty, the human form, the tragic and the romantic. Their appeal is, essentially, a transcendent one – not bound by race or history – and in such bears a resemblance to Gober’s practice: they transmogrify the everyday and render traditional practices into ones of startling conceptual rigor.
The art of the everyday has not been a creative strain quickly admitted into institutional acceptance. Lumped into the Civil Rights movement and the flotsam of assorted mid-Century uprisings long preceding and following it, printmaking has been a medium closely associated with the distraught and quotidian, the news-bearing, and social unrest. At its heart is the ability to produce multiples – a quality reflective of Stein’s verse, Gober’s hand-made Americana, and Marshall’s historical reprisals. Multiples, like wallpaper patterns, have the ability to create ubiquity; what was once novel suddenly becomes a new norm. And as Marshall’s work attests, “normal” is never to be dismissed. This additional dimension of these artists’ practices – that is, their use of printmaking – adds a subtle texture to their work, an unspoken comment on their material identities and affinity with alternative histories.
“Cloudiness what is cloudiness, it is a lining, it is a roll, it is a melting.” Cloudiness can even-out an image, make it appear balanced. Breezy and almost glib, the peripheral roads, bundles of newspapers, bags of donuts, and carpeted living rooms unscroll as the backdrops to our grander narratives, all the while moving a strong hand in dictating our even grander perception of base-line experience. Perhaps with a finer trained eye – one schooled on patterns – the subtler marks can be seen in a given face, as if suddenly primed for a portrait, and certain invisibilities can be unmasked as the monstrous, deficient, or sublime truths that they are.
This was the exhibition essay for "Everybody's Autobiography: Robert Gober and Kerry James Marshall," SGC International Curated Exhibition at the Center for Creative Arts, St. Louis, March 17-April 24, 2011. The essay (and exhibition's) title is from Everybody’s Autobiography, 1937, by Gertrude Stein; the quote in last paragraph is from Tender Buttons, 1914, by Gertrude Stein.