Monday, August 22, 2016

Shannon Goff: The Work of Art After the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

In fall 2015, Shannon Goff had a solo exhibition of recent work at Susanne Hilberry Gallery. In November of that year, I wrote an essay about the work for a publication Shannon is putting together. Thought I would publish it here in the meantime, though certainly buy the book when it comes out.

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Shannon Goff, Miles to Empty, 2015, cut cardboard (all photos: PD Rearick; courtesy of the artist).
In what many believe is his most important work, the posthumously published Aesthetic Theory, the Marxist philosopher and critical theorist Theodor W. Adorno takes note of what he terms "Art's double character as both autonomous and fait social [social fact]." Art—that is, human expression worthy of being so designated—is autonomous, Adorno holds, in that it stands apart from the system of means-end rationality characteristic of modernity, especially under capitalism. And yet, he goes on to say in a brain pretzel that is typical of his thought, art is marked by the "sedimentation" of the sociohistorical conditions from which it arises. It is "the melancholy of art," Adorno concludes, to bear witness to truth it is powerless to do anything about. I can't help thinking about Adorno and his dialectical approach to art as I ponder Shannon Goff's recent work.

Dualities permeate Goff's exhibition at Susanne Hilberry Gallery. At the most elemental level is the gallery space itself, which is bisected through the center by a wall creating two separate rooms housing two seemingly different bodies of work. The southern gallery is empty save for a full-size, highly detailed construction of a 1979 Lincoln Continental Mark V fabricated entirely out of white cardboard. The northern gallery is filled with three simple unpainted wooden tables upon which are set 19 abstract ceramic sculptures, most of which are glazed in a riot of color.

Shannon Goff, ceramic sculptures at Susanne Hilberry Gallery, installation view.
On the one hand, there is the austere minimalism of the Mark V installation, titled Miles to Empty (all works 2015). On the other is the maximalism of the ceramic tabletop sculptures, each constructed of short clay coils that are bent, twisted, and connected to form various complex accumulations of shape, volume, and space. Where the Mark V articulates the industrial, the ceramic sculptures convey a sense of the organic; taken together they form the two sides of what Adorno understands as the dialectic of Enlightenment, the split between the objective and the subjective that has sent Western civilization down the road to perdition.

In another apparent twist of logic, Adorno asserts that although art is completely embedded within the sociohistorical, the way in which that is disclosed is not so simple (alas, with Adorno nothing ever is) as to be conveyed denotatively, that is, in the form of illustration. Instead, Adorno asserts, the mimetic in art "wants to make facts eloquent by letting them speak for themselves." This is the dialectic of form and content, or as Adorno has it, "semblance" and "expression."

The flimsy cardboard structure of Miles to Empty reflects the ephemeral nature of technology in the creation of value under capitalism. As Marx writes in Volume I of Capital, value creation is connected to the amount of human labor involved in production. What he terms "absolute" surplus value is a result of labor directly applied to the transformation of matter into use. "Relative" surplus value is derived from technological innovation that multiplies labor power exponentially. Craft production is primarily absolute whereas mechanical production (and more importantly, reproduction) is in essence relative.

The moving assembly line pioneered under auto baron, and owner of the Lincoln Motor Company, Henry Ford is a prime example of relative surplus value. The technological innovation of bringing work to the worker via a system of conveyors enabled Ford to increase productivity by a factor of ten. As a result, he could cut car prices in half and at the same time double the wages of his workers, and still become one of the richest men in world history. The unprecedented largesse of the production process bearing his name, Fordism, also laid the foundation for the social and political system that drove mass consumption and the welfare state for most of the twentieth century, allowing, among other things, Detroit workers to enjoy a standard of living that was the envy of the world.

One of those workers was Goff's grandfather, a Sicilian immigrant who in 1979 purchased the Lincoln Continental Mark V upon which Miles to Empty is based as a reward for a lifetime of work under the Fordist regime. Ironically, at the very moment Goff's grandfather was enjoying the fruits of his labor from that regime, it was collapsing, taking the city of Detroit and its residents, down along with it. As Marx further notes with respect to the value of labor, relative surplus value provides only temporary productivity gains until competitors catch up. Capitalism must then revert to absolute surplus value in order to continue the ever-more accumulation of capital. In the 1970s in response to diminishing returns and the pressures of foreign competition, the Detroit auto industry reclaimed absolute surplus value in part by outsourcing production to the lower-cost labor pools of the southern United States and the maquiladoras of Mexico. The bone-white cardboard hulk of Miles to Empty is a manifestation of all that was once solid which has now melted into air with the failure of the Fordist utopia; it is a specter, a ghost of what was, haunting the social imaginary of the erstwhile Motor City.

Miles to Empty, detail.
"Art is the ever broken promise of happiness," Adorno writes. And so it is that the melancholy of the art in Miles to Empty is the "unreal reconciliation" in registering the loss of relative surplus value and the sedimented residue of Goff's own many hours of labor in making, the absolute surplus value inherent in the modeling, cutting, and assembling by hand of the phantom installed in the Susanne Hilberry Gallery. The virtuosity with a knife blade, straight edge, and other modeling implements on display in Miles to Empty is a true tour-de-force, which as Adorno notes is essential to art in its quest, paradoxically of course (this is Adorno after all), to realize the unrealizable.

Treasure Island, ceramic.

Majesty, ceramic.

The notion of tour-de-force connects Goff's ceramic sculptures on view in the other gallery with Miles to Empty. In their prodigious exploration of the other of mechanical reproduction, the dialectical obverse of relative surplus value, the ceramic sculptures are equally virtuosic. Where the Mark V renders the universal stamping process of mechanical reproduction particular, the ceramic sculptures extend their particulars to a universal, in this case a narrative of assembly made palpable by the accretion of elements used in their manufacture. (The dialectic of universal and particular is another key element of Adorno's aesthetic theory.) Each ceramic sculpture conjures up associations in the signifying play between their form and their title, the denotation of the object and connotation of its referent. Treasure Island contains an orange "X" marking the spot on a green ceramic latticework that from a distance resembles a mountainscape, the whole in turn supported by an irregularly cut pedestal that when viewed from above is shaped like an island. Majesty is a web of purple pyramidal structures, which resolve at the top in another mountainscape, in this case "majestic mountains" from "America the Beautiful."

Doyenne, ceramic, installation view.
In the alcove at the back of the gallery connecting the two larger spaces that house Miles to Empty and the tabletop sculptures, is the tour-de-force of the ceramic works, Doyenne. Constructed in situ, the work is an assembly of bone-dry greenware that stands nearly seven-feet tall and three-and-a-half feet in diameter at its base. It is a miracle of production, an assembly of hundreds, maybe thousands, of clay coils, which builds up from the earth—the ground from which the material originally came—to reach toward the heavens, representing four full days of the artist's labor and thus absolute surplus value. How it has stood up to its own weight is a wonder. Given the fragility of the unfired clay, it is fated in the end to be reduced to a broken pile of shards, a potlatch of creative destruction. Originally intended as an homage to Goff's grandfather, over the course of its construction it came to represent the doyenne who for just short of four decades presided over the space, first in Birmingham and later in its present location, that bears her name.