text > Brian Jungen’s Exhibition at the Casey Kaplan Gallery

Let’s discuss one common experience that we contemporary men and women all share. For example, what do we do when we attend an art exhibition – thinking in particular of the role in this experience of art critical or journalistic writing, how it serves us, and what might be the purpose of writing about art.

Let’s say you have been planning for some time to see Brian Jungen's artworks (for instance, the ones which are now on display at Casey Kaplan Gallery). We will presume that you belong to that category of refined metropolitans who likes first to “research,” to gather some useful information or ideas about this artist before visiting his exhibition. After reading Timeout, or any other listing of local cultural news, you might link to the gallery's website and read the gallery’s press release. Here you will probably learn that Brian Jungen is a Canadian artist of mixed descent (Dane-zaa on his mother's side and Canadian/Swiss on his father's), that he has received wide critical recognition (the Gershon Iskowitz Prize and Sobey Art Award) and that he has enjoyed commercial success and exposure, showing his work in major international art venues (Sydney, Lyon, the Gwangju Biennale, the Tate Modern, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian). From various other sources you may also learn that his “signature” work is considered to be a series of masks that the artist made – not, though, out of wood, once used for this purpose by his First Nations ancestors in today’s British Columbia – but from dismantled Nike sneakers. The gallery will tell you in their press release that this artist is known for “deconstructing Westernized, mass-produced commodities such as leather goods, sports paraphernalia, plastic lawn chairs, and reforming them into sculptures.”

Intrigued by such an artistic strategy – by the “deconstruction” (or to put it more simply) the literal taking apart of a few pairs of perfectly good Nike Air Jordan sneakers, for which you might be ready to put down a hundred bucks or more – you will go on and dig deeper, reading perhaps his biography or CV, or looking at other texts and works. By the time that you are ready to go and see the show you will have gathered a bouquet of useful interpretations and conclusions, some of which may enlighten while others may sadden you, for you will be reminded again of the distressing issues with which artists are struggling today. Many of these judgments and critical interpretations will most likely preserve traces of those tools that produced them, that is of those theoretical systems or methodologies that the critic has used. Thus you may learn: that his work deals with hybrid third spaces, and the impact of the European colonial project on native communities in North America (the postcolonial perspective); that the artist attempts to restore, using contemporary artificial materials, archetypes from his people's collective unconscious (the psychoanalytic perspective); that he exposes the ongoing commodification and reification of everyday experience, as well as the cultural exploitation of “native” stereotypes (social art criticism); that the artist struggles to find his place in today's multicultural and hybrid world, which in spite of so many claims still remains very unjust and discriminatory (identity politics); that in his work the sculptor arranges and re-arranges ready-made products, bringing to perfection a tradition initiated by a Frenchman by the name of Marcel Duchamp (art history); or that he recycles and gives new meanings to disposable plastic products and information which has flooded our contemporary global village (visual culture).

You will then put on your best pair of sneakers and go to see Brian Jungen’s exhibition, carrying in your smartphone, tablet, or head all those scraps and pieces of meanings carefully collected from various resources. (Of course, I do not exclude that you may turn out to be more easy-going or Zen-minded, and simply step into the gallery with a totally empty consciousness, with a blank and unmarked mind ready to absorb unadulterated impressions and experiences). In any case, once you are in the gallery you will run into a few strange objects that the gallery people call “drums.” Seeing your mystified face, someone may take pity on you and whisper into your ear: Situated in the galleries are five iconic Mid-Century Modern chairs designed by Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, and Verner Panton that have been bound and enveloped in circles cut from commercially farmed, American elk hides… The corporeal quality of the chairs’ form and function, the skins of the elk, and the communal process of hand sewing the elements together is compounded further by the resulting object – the drum – which inherently implies ceremonial and social contexts, movement and sound*

Isn’t this the way – for many if not for most of us – in which our artistic experiences unfold and our art opinions form: for every art object there is an available interpretation? We get these interpretations in the same way in which we buy any product or service (we might even outsource these art judgments one day). I am not going to give away my own interpretation of Brian Jungen’s work, not because I am stingy, but because I have always believed that such an approach does us no good at all. I always agreed with those German Marxists (all dead by now) who believed that an authentic artwork is like an enigma, a question mark, and when all the mysteries have been “solved” (or believed to be so) the artwork withers like a flower in a vase (to use an old-fashioned metaphor); it loses its social relevance, becoming an abandoned shell, a totally demystified object that serves profane purposes and interests (think of the most extreme cases: Leonardo’s Mona Lisa at the Louvre or many other emptied “masterpieces” that entertain the crowds). Within this aesthetic tradition it was also believed that a truly authentic artwork does not reveal its truth in one stroke, but opens itself up gradually through our laborious mediations, and in order to get at its complex meaning one would have to deploy all available tools: the history of this work’s genre, world history, aesthetics, philosophy, politics, psychoanalysis, and so forth. It is only then that the meanings may stand a chance not to look like multicolored bumper stickers. It is we the viewers, and not the critics, who are supposed to labor and harvest its meanings and senses – many of which remain unknown even to the artist who made the work. And when we manage to rescue this sense ourselves, instead of receiving it ready-made on a plate, then we may be rewarded, we may catch a glimpse of that promise of happiness that Stendhal once believed to lie hidden in the beauty or truth of the work of art. And believe me, I want you to be happy.


Octavian Esanu, 2011
Published in Art Experience NYC Vol. I, No. 4


*Casey Kaplan Gallery Press Release