The expository tires piled on top of each other in James Carl’s latest show at Galerie Clark look natural but are not. Each has been handcrafted out of coroplast, a synthetic material, and the seemingly accidental nature of their presentation is actually pre-arranged. Carl’s attitude to the role of the artist in the creative process recalls Walter de Maria’s Meaningless Work manifesto from 1960, wherein he wrote: “Meaningless work is potentially the most…important art-action experience one can undertake today.”1
For some time now James Carl has made a career of making disposable mass-produced items. In a previous show at Galerie Clark in 1993, Carl presented a myriad of consumer appliances—“disposable art”—that called into question art’s position in the chain of production/consumption. Meticulously pieced together from cardboard in a real-life scale, these constructions were indeed “lifelike” reproductions of functional consumer objects. Refrigerators, stoves, radios, record players, toasters, a television, and a washer and dryer littered the gallery space. The process they engendered, the craft of construction and contemplation they entailed, presented a mask of consumerism—the “artlike” design of the assembly line. The care and time taken to make these pieces from the discarded containers of exactly the products they represented—in fact a kind of creative employment without consumer value—was a comment on the value placed on dehumanized work in an age of mass production. As such this 1993 installation became a place where Henry Ford meets Gautama Buddha somewhere between the assembly line and the recycling depot. Two philosophical points of view also intersect here: that of the East—religiously astute and in a state of being consumed; and that of the West—spiritually vacuous and overloaded with the products of an ephemeraculture of materialism. E.F. Schumacher in Small is Beautiful comments on the Buddhist view of work, one that is presently being challenged throughout Asia by an emergent consumerism and loss of permanence:
The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give a man a chance to utilize and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centeredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed…the consequences that flow from this view are endless. To organize work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-wracking for the worker would be nothing short of criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people…Equally, to strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be considered a complete misunderstanding of one of the truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.2
Carl inserts this concept into the context of artmaking and takes it one step further. Each week, during the Galerie Clark installation, he placed several of these “appliances” out in the street as garbage. Often, they would disappear, having been picked up by passersby. Alternatively, the discards were taken to a garbage dump—another kind of site—thus bringing the process of production full circle. By not using actual appliances and by incorporating the element of work into the equation, Carl broached questions no longer standard to current artistic practice. Carl’s crafted objects are made to appear like consumer items—but they are every bit as ephemeral, changing, and short-lived as elements in nature and in the art world. The 2% Show, held at P.S.122 in New York’s East Village in 1997, took the same approach. A pile of cardboard replicas and containers was installed inside the gallery while outside about 50 plastic milk cartons were left for gallery visitors and pedestrians to collect and take home after the show. While the cartons looked the same whether made of synthetic plastic or more natural cardboard, they became a facade, a mask of the product metaphors they represented. The whole question of appearance or beauty in art became a side issue. James Carl mimics the production process if only to suggest a more timely and coherent sense of self and community, one that is ultimately humorous and poetic.
Carl took irony a step further with his “Public Works” show held at the Grunt Gallery in Vancouver in April 1993, which explored the artist’s intimidation by the “disintegrated sense of community that characterizes our urban environment, and the alienated sense of art and the artist within that non-community.” Carl attempted to “focus on issues and materials that form a sort of common currency within these fractured, polycentric social environments. Searching for the wider disunity that we have come to accept as (post)modern life.”3 In Public Works: Cardboard Only, he reconstructed a full-scale garbage dumpster. Scaled and detailed down to the nuts and bolts and made out of cardboard, the work was placed in the alleyway beside a “real” dumpster after the show. Carl’s “maquette” of the real thing challenged the waste disposal function of the original container by building the same purpose into a material that itself was judged as mere waste. The work was then taken away by a real garbage truck. Redemption (1993), another work in the show, consisted of a crucifix made of returnable beer cans, a symbol that Carl towed around Vancouver while collecting more “found” beer cans. Carl commented: “If there is no salvation in emptying the bottle, at least there’s redemption for the empty bottle.”4 An attempt to re-establish a meaningful dialogue between artist and public outside the usual context for art, Carl’s Redemption was a performance piece that, like the replicated dumpster, became a tongue-in-cheek caricature of the sacred or mystic side of the ecological movement.
In a solo show held at the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing, China, in 1995, after studying with stone carver Sui Jin Guo, Carl exhibited a body of work that played on and with notions of the ephemeral and throw-away in modern consumer society. Included were a microphone made of jade and Empty Orchestra (1995), a disc-man made of black jade complete with a light jade laser disk, whose empty center resembled an ancient Chinese coin. A sense of humor and an understanding of Chinese attitudes about art merge in the “products” Carl made, not with throw-away but with permanent materials associated with ancient Chinese carving.
In a show at Scotiabank Plaza in Toronto in 1996 Carl displayed a cardboard replica of a Chevy Caprice detailed right down to the tires. The car was prominently displayed on a platform usually assigned to BMWs or Jaguars, amid all the postmodern affluence of the Plaza. The piece was only partially three-dimensional: the car’s facade was propped up by a structure like those used to support promotional display presentations in banks, business conventions, and movie theaters. To bring the message home, Carl placed various replicas of disposable consumer objects, again assembled out of found cardboard, in a pile of cardboard garbage beside Caprice (1996) and in the showroom window for passersby to see.
It was not just the disposable object per se that Carl addressed with his Scotiabank Plaza installation, but the nature of symbolic and structural design in built environments as well. The marble, steel, and tiled surfaces of the typical Venturi-type building disguise rather than embody the underlying structure of a building. Applied over the interior pillars, walls, ceilings, and floor of the Scotiabank Plaza, a skin-deep veneer of opulent materials creates a delusion of surface sensation. Empirical (1996) expressed these contradictions in the simplest of ways. The three cardboard replicas of banking machines Carl built in one-to-one scale and displayed behind a glass wall on the Plaza mezzanine were as abstract and unreal as the experience of withdrawing money from the real ones. The tabula rasa look of Carl’s “dummy” machines evoked the same feeling of disconnectedness that one experiences when watching TV, staring at a computer screen, or reading a newspaper. Piles of blank newspapers placed in stands in the public space of the building commented further on media overload.
For an installation titled fountain (1997), held at the Toronto Sculpture Garden, Carl assembled nine soft-drink dispensers in a curve on the grounds of the sculpture garden; their fronts were emblazoned with a stock image of Niagara Falls from a panoramic photo house in Chicago, which extended across all nine dispensers. The curve mirrored the curve of the falls themselves. Long a subject for artists, Niagara Falls, called the “Well of the World” in the colonial era and once a sublime example of nature’s majesty and grandeur for artists such as Albert Bierstadt and others, became a comment on water itself. A resource once thought of as infinite, the water presented in this photo of Niagara Falls is, like the scene, presented as a purist image, perhaps even more idealized than 19th-century images of it, for its Modernist, ad-like presentation. The sense that image culture rebuilds the real world, altering our perception and understanding of real physical environments, was furthered by the bottles dispensed from the machines at a price of one dollar. Six brands emerged from the dispenser at random including Perrier, Valvert, Montclair, and James Carl’s own brand. The gesture created an ironic comment on the artist’s relation to production systems in mass consumer society. Carl’s fountain, like The Spring Collection (1991), a performance/event that included a five-by-eleven-foot igloo assembled out of discarded anti-freeze containers left lying around on the streets after winter in Montreal, encouraged public interaction with the art. The Spring Collection had Carl serving drinking water tinted bright blue that looked more like Prestone windshield wiper fluid than “naturally pure” drinking water.
While Marcel Duchamp’s signed readymades sought to broaden our definition of what art could be, they were also a dispassionate endorsement of the manufactured product as art. The syntax of production in the form of actual manufactured products had unambiguously entered the arena of material expression. Symbols of art’s deferral to the forces of production, Duchamp’s readymades abandoned the creative element of discovery that comes from working and transforming materials to incorporate what had not until then been art—the manufactured product—into art. Carl uses the language of the mass-produced consumer object and recreates it not to extend the language of mass production into the realm of art, but instead to draw parallels between artistic production and mass production. The props the objects rest on, the objects, the blackboard, the canopy wall icon on the Buren-like painted wall section, and the gallery space are presented as part of some ongoing and continuous simulacrum. Everything is equalized: the art, the environment, the people in it. The meaning of material is expressed at its most essential—as matter and energy. The switch in James Carl’s latest show at Galerie Clark has been from objects and events (the ephemeral flotsam and jetsam of today’s society) to information, imagery, and communication.
The codes and signifiers of our postmodern paradigm are so pervasive that they create a web where the real and the artificial meanings of art and life become intertwined and confused. For the current show, Carl has included a series of children’s blackboards each with a brightly colored, hybridized logo adhered to them (distant echoes of General Idea’s logos and crests). Hand drawn on a computer by Carl and then produced by a commercial sign writer for the show, they blend craft and technology, alluding as an aside to Joseph Beuys’s blackboard drawings. The didactic yet universal blackboard found in every classroom now becomes an aphorism for the way technology has affected the very process of learning. The symbols Carl created—the option key logo from computer keyboards, the top of a dish detergent bottle, a generic flag and flag pole, a scroll symbol, a laurel leaf—are all found-object symbols. As symbols of the hybridization of meaning, of the storage and transmission of knowledge where ideas, words, and images have become digitized, losing some of their meaning in the process, Carl’s logos captured the ambiguity of the image/ object as metaphor for production most succinctly.
As Carl comments:
In this show I have adopted the tools of the contemporary sign-maker—corrugated plastic, adhesive vinyl, Exacto knife, and computer—in the fabrication of a more or less hypothetical collection of compound, cross-bred signs. While embracing the absurd and the self-contradictory, the intent is yet distinct from the tiny surrealist “mysteries” in that I’m fundamentally concerned with the possible.5
Surrealism claimed to draw from a vast array of visual metaphors and object-oriented representations culled from the unconscious. Salvador Dali’s paranormal paintings of the Arcadian landscape of the supposed unconscious mind were ultimately as conscious and premeditated as art can be; Dali’s melting clocks, crutches, and ants ultimately used the conventional metaphors of Freudian psychology and religion for their effect. One wonders if, for all the material manifestations of the unconscious that now permeate our physical reality whether humanity has abandoned any dialogue with functional reality in favor of an image-based reality. For all its weaknesses, functional reality still allows the individual to make his or her own associations within a neutral backdrop of relatedness. Meaning is thus simplified, evolved within an inner space of reflection.
Carl states that:
Over the last year, my work has shifted from an engagement with the street-side trash of consumer culture to the cerebral compost of…“popular intelligence.” I’ve begun to excavate the vast heaps of collectively stored mental images and visual ideas; from the remnant icons of atrophied belief systems (national identity) to the regurgitated, in-bred imagery of promotional strategies. I’m fascinated by our ability to process, internalize, and endure, the constant traffic of this information.6
The series of 24 images of Rasta Fries (1998), each a variation on the one next to it in the four Rasta colors, is re-fabricated and self-construed symbolism. Graphic, commercial, even corporate, they are brought into a world where so many images and forms present themselves daily—each of them potentially symbolic yet reduced in impact or meaning by the volume of imagery we deal with. Carl’s creations make an equally important point about the role artmaking plays in society, for these symbols have no other function than as art. In an adjoining room at the gallery, one sees The Original Six (1998), a collection of oversized, three-foot-high disposable Bic lighters, placed on circular and square presentational platforms, handcrafted from the same materials as the Bic lighters. In the center, a gray and black trophy (a mimetic recreation of the Stanley Cup as art) occupies a central place. The colors of the original six National Hockey League teams make up the colors of the Bic lighters. Carl comments: “It occurred to me that the forced union of disposable fire source and ice hockey insignia suggested by these found Bic lighters was at least as perplexing, not to say surreal, as a fur-lined tea cup.”7
While the Surrealists created images that suggested the human unconscious, we now live in a world that is truly surreal and physically incongruous, an environment where images and objects are spatially and materially dislocated. Carl’s The Original Six explores this notion by choosing the disposable icon of a Bic lighter as the central subject for his show. Scale is subverted by pure design and the forms could as readily be taken from a CAD-designed building as a Bic lighter. Indeed, the oversize logo of a canopy awning placed on an adjacent light blue wall further blurred the boundaries between Carl’s art and its surrounding environment. (Stylistically Carl’s logos are reminiscent of Patrick Caufield’s Pop paintings but Carl’s are computer crafted and machine printed.)
James Carl’s work, in all its labor-intensive permutations, continues to demonstrate what the performance artist Allan Kaprow, in his essay “The Real Experiment,” has called “lifelike” art, which remains connected to everything else, as opposed to “artlike” art, which remains separate from life and everything else.8 As the latter performs a function in relation to mainstream Western historical traditions because galleries, museums, and professionals need artists whose art is “artlike,” so “lifelike” art is said to remain outside these traditions, to perform a more generic social and ethnological function. The question now becomes: “Is Carl ultimately re-fabricating the meaning of avant-gardism itself?” If so, how long before Carl’s post-Pop hybrid of ’60s Conceptualism is itself incorporated into mainstream institutions. The answer can be found in the lobby of the Art Gallery of Ontario, where Empirical, the bank machines Carl originally set up in the non-space of Scotiabank Plaza can now be seen. The answer to the ultimate meaning of artistic production, however, will never be found there, for like James Carl’s art it is never stated, instead ironic, and often palpable, ever so slightly cheeky.
1 Walter de Maria cited in The Reenchantment of Art, pp. 135–136.
2 E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, (London: Abacus, 1977), p.45.
3 James Carl cited in Meditations at the Foot of the Great Wall, Ming Pao Yue Kan, Hong Kong, May 1991.
4 James Carl cited in “Public Works,” (Vancouver, B.C.: Grunt Gallery, 1993), n.p.
5 James Carl, Artist’s Statement, Galerie Clark, Montreal, 1998.
8 Allan Kaprow, “The Real Experiment,” in Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), pp. 201–218.
John K. Grande is a writer living in Montreal. His recent books include Natural Disguise (Vehicule Press), Art, nature et societé (Ecosociété), and Intertwining: Landscape, Technology, Issues, Artists (Black Rose Press).