DESCRIPTIONS OF AARON CURRY’S WORK TEND TO INVOLVE LONG LISTS. ART HISTORICAL MOVEMENTS ARE CITED—MODERNISM, SURREALISM, PRIMITIVISM, CUBISM—AND SPECIFIC ARTISTS ARE INVOKED. THE LATTER LIST USUALLY BEGINS WITH CLASSIC FORMALISTS—JOAN MIRÓ, PABLO PICASSO, ALEXANDER CALDER, HENRY MOORE, ISAMU NOGUCHI—AND MOVES TO THEIR MORE NARRATIVELY INCLINED CONTEMPORARIES—SALVADOR DALĺ, PETER SAUL, BASIL WOLVERTON. FINALLY, POP CULTURAL REFERENCES ARE MADE, AGAIN RANGING FROM THE CATEGORICALLY BROAD—ADVERTISING, TABLOIDS, SCIENCE FICTION—TO THE SPECIFIC—H.P. LOVECRAFT, DISNEY, STAR TREK. THE EFFECT IS EXHAUSTING, TO SAY THE LEAST.
Curry is not alone in having his work presented in such a fashion. This way of treating contemporary art as a sort of information smoothie, with the defining characteristics of one artist as opposed to another merely a result of which references serve as their ingredients, is practiced by artists and critics alike. The model for such thinking can be found in studies of consumption by the likes of Daniel Miller, an anthropologist who made the argument in Material Culture and Mass Consumption that people consume objects in order to express their individual or group identity, and that this form of ingenuity contradicts the criticism of capitalism and globalization as homogenizing forces. In this narrative, consumption is a creative act, making it easy to imagine the artist in these terms, as well, with the choice of which sources to use or imagery to appropriate the primary artistic act.
There is an appealing populism in such ideas, with their leveling of distinctions not only between high and low, but also between producer and consumer. This is the way Unmonumental, the wildly successful 2007-08 exhibition that christened the New Museum’s brand new space, is often characterized. A three-part exhibition, each cycle of Unmonumental was added to the next, with the first and most talked about phase of the show dedicated to sculpture and given the sweeping, less-than-humble subtitle The Object in the 21st Century. The objects thus burdened with emblematic status “juxtaposed disparate elements for suggestive effect,” coming out of the history of assemblage. Curry was the youngest artist in this first part of the exhibition, and as such, is easily made representative of a younger generation’s approach to this practice, one in which the artist is seen as bricoleur, endlessly remixing in the present the “crumbling symbols and broken icons” of the past.
Curry’s contribution to Unmonumental, “Fragments from a Collective Unity (Reclining),” was comprised of a wooden cutout that moved from block form to blob form with wiggly ease (and yes, clearly resembled shapes characteristic of Miró, Calder, and the like), on top of a poster for the children’s movie The Shaggy Dog. To ignore the juxtaposition of Modernist art object with pop cultural throwaway would be to clearly miss the point. But the problem with seeing a work of art as the culmination of a shopping trip through history and culture, appealing populism aside, is that consumption as a metaphor is pretty one-directional. Goths consume The Cure and sorority girls Juicy Couture, just as Aaron Curry references Modernism and Disney, and Carol Bove, Modernism and Playboy — but what next? For Miller’s consumer, the answer is inevitably to consume more, a pattern that is nothing if not homogenizing, and for contemporary artists, the answer can just as easily be to reference more. Think of Justin Faunce in this regard, a young artist whose first solo show in New York consisted of flashy tape paintings of various pop icons, from Jennifer Lopez to ketchup, and whose second solo show in New York consisted of flashy tape paintings of various pop icons, all of which reached a crescendo in “Pictophilia”, a ten-by-eighteen foot canvas that was such a clusterfuck, it seemed possible that it contained two of everything that has ever appeared on TV.
The solution to this mess is to understand people not in terms of the objects they surround themselves with, but what they do with them, and to see artists as not merely pointing at cultural signifiers, but using them. The nature of the question changes from “what” to “how.” Taking for granted that the “what” of Aaron Curry’s work is an amalgamation of the snippets of high and low culture everywhere available to any artist around his generation and rough geographic placement, the “how” becomes a matter of assembly.
What is at first most striking about the assembly of Curry’s sculptures is the ease with which they could be flat packed. Working with wood or metal, Curry builds largely vertical, vaguely figural three-dimensional forms that are made of a series of two-dimensional shapes fitted together at right angles by means of interlocking slots, much in the manner that a paper doll is slid into the groove of her paper stand. Sometimes this layering is forgone in favor of leaning a single shape against the wall. These isolated shapes are prone to less quavering contours than those that gather together to comprise the freestanding works, giving the impression that they were what was left over when all the pieces needed for the other sculptures were punched out of a single sheet. The collaged works on paper use similar forms, as if they were created by flattening one of the sculptures against the wall—or conversely, the sculptures are just collages made of heftier materials and stacked to occupy more space.
This sense that one work might have served as a model for another, or that some pieces are cast off from others, creates a shifty sense of scale. By placing a sculpture on top of a movie poster, Curry not only couples an object from the elite culture of the art world with an object from the popular culture of the entertainment industry, he also creates a situation in which the movie posters come to resemble coffee tables, making it easy to imagine the large-scale structures that rest on top of them as tchotchkes from a museum gift shop grown large. The silhouettes of the sculptural works continue this shifting as the viewer moves around the work, with an amorphous shape suddenly turning into a gaping mouth or a funny bird’s head. This playful sensibility and chameleon-like mutability also typify Curry’s palette. Here the shifts are extreme. Wood and rope—left bare in parts and festooned with wood varnish in others—lend an earthy tone to several works; black-and-white checks, a cool graphic grisaille to others. Still other works utilize a third and equally extreme chromatic sensibility, and are coated in a neon hue, then covered with bright spray-painted lines and shapes, and various collaged imagery. But if his most recent solo exhibition—The Colour Out of Space, at Michael Werner Gallery in New York—is any indication, the sources for Curry’s work are becoming more selective rather than more frenzied. Some works, like the violet-hued “Danny Skullface Sky Boat (Reclining),” are left un-adorned, and one, “Ohnedaruth,” remains unpainted steel. When the surface of a sculpture is embellished, like in “Boy with Horns (with Mountains in his Pocket),” the pattern is within one color range and specific to each shape, rather than scrawled across their surface. The leaning works are simpler, as well, many just one shape and one mark, and when there is a material shift in the work—for example, in the move from painted wood structure to steel base in “Deft Composition (Deft Composition)”— the move is hardly as disjunctive as painted wood structure to movie poster base.
Of course, the “how” of Curry’s work still includes prankish gestures, like spray painting his oversized initials across the surface of one sculpture or covering another in carefully painted trompe-l’oeil drips that have been described as both tears and beads of sweat, but could just as easily be cum—yet another form of marking the work. These outbursts of impish deviancy recall the early work of Ruth Root, in which otherwise placid geometric paintings were interrupted by little smoking cigarettes wedged between rectangles or dotted with tiny eyes. The joke in Root’s work was clearly on the attempt to position abstraction as a universal and depersonalized super-form. Her later work, however, does away with these satirical quips and goes about the business of making geometric abstraction with tongue gone from cheek.
Does Curry’s paring down point to a similar move? Perhaps. Like Root, he certainly wouldn’t be the first artist to become seduced by ways of making art that in earlier works were only used quotationally. Retreating into formalism doesn’t mean progress in an artist’s trajectory, but sometimes admitting that the work knows more than you do, does. Important to the “how” of Curry’s work is that the sculptures are usually pretty sexy. In such a scenario, allowing a little space for both artist and viewer to be seduced is welcome.