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Arts Magazine, 1/86

MARC BLANE AND SUBALTERN ART FORMS

Marc Blane's recent work is a dynamic locus for the uneasy intersections of merely diverse, as well as markedly divergent, artistic concerns.

"A work of art is not so much good or bad, as it is more or less limited."
– Novalis

Notable artworks have increasingly and ever more incisively engaged the tense conjuncture of competing cultural traditions. These works, which resonate with the multiple signification of high art, also reverberate with the contradictory nexus of administered mass culture and organic popular culture. Although hardly without precedent, this new creative impetus involving various formal vocabularies has now assumed added intensity and greater cultural import. Significantly, it is with this development in mind that we should approach the art of Marc Blane. Above all, his recent work is a dynamic locus for the uneasy intersection of merely diverse, as well as markedly divergent, artistic concerns. In discussing Blane's art, several avenues of criticism will be used: (1) an explication of both the formal and conceptual traditions of Western art from which his own work partially arises, yet in relation to which his own art has acquired an acutely contentious edge; (2) an examination of the paradoxical dialogue intrinsic to his artwork, which involves the antagonistic conterminous of a dominant mass culture engineered from above with subaltern art forms emanating from below (the issue of cultural self-determination); and (3) a critique of the aforementioned issues that have led Blane to reconsider the relationship of public art to the private sphere.

Dice – 1985 – 14" x 14" x 14" – bottle caps, asphalt

HIGH ART
An excellent example of Blane's multivalent art is Dice, a piece in his recent show at the 55 Mercer Gallery. This work features a synthesis of Conceptual art's subtle intellectual engagement with its assumed opposite, the flamboyantly forceful imagery of neo-expressionism. As such, the mediating agent between those generally incongruous directions is an attentiveness to formal refinement in keeping with the Bauhaus and Minimalism that effectively counterbalances the deft, but disordering use of mass cultural residue. In a certain sense, Dice is a minimalist cube that has graduated from the reductionist purism of the 1960's to the expansive street-wise aesthetics of the 1980's.

Superficially, of course, the bottle-cap-encrusted surface of this work, and others by Blane, evokes immediate association with the plate-mounted paintings of Julian Schnabel. As is well known, the neo-expressionist style, with its grounding in a brash inner-city sensibility, is a way of upping the formal ante to high attention-getting levels. While Blane's use of simulated street tar as the bonding agent for his clearly loaded dice seems neoexpressionist, his calculated avoidance of the cultivated "spontaneous" look of neo-expressionism undermines this stylistic classification. Thus, the absence here of the conventional signifier for "personal expressivity" intimates a fundamental distinction between his visually brazen, but stringently orchestrated piece (with its close artisanal execution) and the work of, say, Schnabel, where a visual tour-de-force supposedly results from pristine individual expression.

As Blane himself has noted, the formal affinity with Schnabel and neoexpressionism is inconsequential in comparison to a much deeper and far more profound connection to Antoni Gaudi, whose masterful Guell Park (1903-14) in Barcelona features broken pieces of indigenous tile and traditional ceramic embedded in a meticulously crafted, if fancifully formed extension of Classical Greek, Catalan Gothic, and Art Nouveau traditions. Like Gaudi, who used fragments from Catalan popular culture in a reunited high art whole, Blane has created a mosaic-like surface in a fine arts context, which nonetheless vibrates with strident mass cultural signification (to which we will return later). Furthermore, Gaudi did not use the broken tile and ceramic either for its sheer visual panache (a neo-expressionist mannerism) nor for reasons of "pure" personal expression (a neo-expressionist myth), but rather as part of a comprehensive formal strategy expressing multiple concerns (about Catalan cultural autonomy, about the role of architecture within such a movement, etc.). Likewise, Blane's use of what seems to be a sheer neo-expressionist surface is intended to address larger conceptual aims, albeit in a visually provocative manner. (It is, of course, precisely the naive involution and utter autoreferentiality of much "rawly personal" neoexpressionist painting that makes it not only conceptually hollow but, also emotionally shallow.)

Blane's Dice, then, was conceived to be as reasonant with ideas as its surface is formally aggressive. The image of bottle caps pushed into sun-softened tar does, on the first level of signification, conjure up intense, even unpleasant physical sensation, whether one has known August in New York or ventured to a hot Third World country. Further study of Dice, however, causes this sensate response to recede before more intellectual recognitions. Just as chance bottle caps embedded in tar signify the random or the arbitrary, so their conscious use here engenders a subtle double-entendre about earlier ideas in art, specifically, some seminal maneuvers of Duchamp. Blane's fusion of unaltered bottle caps objets trouve with an enlarged Dice and all that this implies in the way of "canned chance" constitutes an amplitudinous ready made assisted. Indeed, Blane's use of the bottle caps functions as an oblique reference to Duchamp's famous Bottle Rack, which was perhaps to hold the bottles whose caps are here metaphorically displayed.

As was the case with Duchamp's work and that of later Conceptual artists, there has been an emphatic shift in Blane's piece from artistic expression as manifested in form to artistic intention as conveyed by the ideas attesting to it, from an art of personal traces to one of more generic tropes. Similarly, the reuse of painfully banal, even "transparent" images is a formal tactic for leading you beyond them to the ideas which triggered their use and which sustain our interest. As such, the artist as personal producer of cultured forms has given way to the artist as interventionist in the cultural production of standardized contemplation concerning their coexistence in the conception of this artwork.

Abandoned Buildings – 1980 – glass wine bottles, burned photographs, cardboard

These bottle-cap-inflected mosaics follow significantly from Blane's earlier, yet equally engaging period of using discarded Thunderbird wine bottles (1980-82). When shown in a group exhibition a few years ago, Blane's work rightly elicited this observation from the critic of the Soho News: One of the more durable and poignant icons of last year's "Times Square Show" is Marc Blane's green pint wine-bottle with a picture of a crumbling tenement inside. Far from being simply a topical rejoinder to present events, Blane's tactical recycling of cheap wine bottles provided a stimulating new inflection to and enduring theme addressed by major artists since the inception of industrial capitalism.

But how, one might ask, does mass-produced rotgut, that lowest of drinks, have any connection to high art? The answer is resounding, if also surprising: through the artworks of Hogarth, Degas, Picasso, and, among others, Marc Blane. (It needs to be underscored at the start that the Dionysian debauchery depicted in Classical Greece and by Renaissance Baroque artists, e.g., Titian and Velasquez, as well as the tendentious presentation of inebriated peasants in Northern European art, as in the work of Brueghel the Elder, dealt with religious or mythological themes purporting to "universal" validity. These artworks did not, indeed could not, address the relatively recent historical issue of drunkenness and cheap drink as structurally induced consequences of bourgeois mass production.)

In 1751, for example, William Hogarth completed Beer Street and Gin Lane, two of his more widely disseminated works. These engravings specifically championed middle-class beer drinking (a custom to which Hogarth unabashedly subscribed) as socially beneficial, while denouncing the workingclass consumption of cheap gin as socially debilitating. Significantly, Hogarth's Gin Lane, which features a building literally falling down, as a backdrop for emaciated and clearly stupefied gin drinkers, was part of a movement led by Daniel Defoe and Henry Fielding that resulted in the Tippling Act (1751), which banned rotgut gin. Later, but no less explicit images in this vein were painted by Degas and Picasso. The drink in question here was, of course, absinthe, the green wormwood-based alcohol that haunted the lower classes (and Bohemians) of nineteenth-century France and was made illegal, both to produce and consume, in 1915. Degas' masterful Absinthe Drinkers (1876) is as penetrating in psychological tones as it is sharply angled in spatial terms, while Picasso's Absinthe Drinker (1903) of the Blue Period is even more unremittingly melancholic tonally, with its stark ambiance of social marginality.

Nor should it be forgotten that one of Picasso's examples of Cubist sculpture, Absinthe Glass of 1914 (there are six versions in all), is a multi-perspectival, as well as multi-signifying, work that is partially about what would be entirely prohibited the next year, by French law. Furthermore, and this has gone unacknowledged by art historians until now, Absinthe Glass involves a dynamic interchange of Cubism, mass culture, and popular cultural forms, the latter being represented by the field of dots covering the surface in a manner very analogous to the use of this same schema for traditional ceramics in Spain (this is, of course, not to deny the added influence of pointillism in reawakening Picasso's knowledge here of Spanish popular culture). As such, Picasso's sculpture is a paradoxical conjuncture of progressive vanguard form, of regressive mass culture, and of a still vitalistic popular culture capable of being used in either direction. It should perhaps also be noted that Picasso later designed a special print to serve as a wine label for one of the very greatest French reds from Bordeaux, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, thus creating an elevated, hence entirely inverted, pendant to his own low-life renditions of absinthe. Ironically, Mouton-Rothschild, like the other Premiers Crus of the Medoc, remains a notable relic of pre-capitalist artisanal standards in an age dominated by the market dictates of mass production.

To this dense interplay of traditions within art, Marc Blane has contributed work which is chiasmatic rather than just metaphoric. Far from being a sculptural representation of this theme, Blane's bottles, as archaeological artifacts of an often forgotten present, literally re-present (or present anew as opposed to simply represent) the objects whereby a particular cycle is itself signified. Every bottle he incorporates into his work has been decanted by a wino from the South Bronx or the Lower East Side, as anonymous as each of these pint-size green bottles now filling in sculpturally both for those who emptied them and for the economic system that produced them. A grim sense of repeatability (central as well to Blane's use of bottle caps) emerges from the dulling sense of repetition conveyed by the "endless" supply ruins. Thus, the cycle of social embeddedness circumscribed by this work is further encapsulated by the contents of the bottle: a photograph of the original context of the bottle, a context that in turn is emblematic of an historical dynamic unseen but far from absent.

When exhibited most effectively, these bottles are strewn around the gallery in a post-minimalist sprawl reminiscent, say, of work by Barry Le Va. Yet ultimately, formal location aside, this artwork occupies the same conceptual space as that of Haacke's Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, Real Time Social System and that of recent factographic work by Allan Sekula or Fred Lonidier. Confirming an observation of Walter Benjamin, from The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, while created in opposition to the circumstances that make it correct, Blane's work reminds us that "Mass reproduction is advanced, above all, by the reproduction of the masses."

SUBALTERN CULTURE
A tendency to either social amnesia or historical relativism characterizes most post-modernist architecture and much neo-expressionist art. The amnesiac view features a pastiche disingenuously plucked from other historical moments in order to serve "free" personal expression or "raw" instinct. Conversely, the historicist view is composed of an eclectic m lange of various historical references that, devoid of both critical tension and conceptual cohesion, simply dissolve into an eviscerated equivalence. However different in intent, these antipodal directions of ahistoricism and historicism are clearly symptomatic of the same problem, namely, an inability to locate oneself historically with any profundity. As such, this failing reminds us of how deeply high art is now fueled by the dynamic intrinsic to mass culture, which was instituted precisely to eliminate working-class cultural differences, as well as long-standing indigenous traditions (popular culture), in the name of a "universal" consumerism and an "international" cultural homogeneity. With post-modernism, as with mass culture, there is a perpetual flattening of history in order to generate "time-hallowed" signifiers of a dislocated present endemic to the dynamic of displacement within multinational capitalism. It is this dynamic that Frederic Jameson aptly described when he wrote of post-modernism as involving "the disappearance of a sense of history, the way in which our entire contemporary social system has little by little begun to lose its capacity to retain its own past, has begun to live in a perpetual present."

Pillar Park (detail) Rubble Sundial – 1981 – ink on film

Significantly, Marc Blane's Pillar Park is, before anything else, a challenge to remember the past, even as that past is made the basis for meaningful future change. By formulating a proposal for using clearly recognizable low cultural references (rubble from abandoned buildings in the South Bronx as building material) in conjunction with a high cultural tradition (the Doric column), Blane is demonstrating that to recall, then to rework, the past is an effective way of progressing beyond a tyranny of the decentered present. Central to his proposal (funded in part by the N.E.A., but yet to be realized as a public project) is a placement of the brick clusters so that their former existence as rubble has not been erased but rather self-consciously transformed into a signifier for what subaltern culture could otherwise be. As such, time itself goes from being a cyclical repetition of the present to being a periodic revitalization of the past in light of more advanced contemporary developments. In this regard, it is hardly surprising that Blane's Pillar Park also functions as a sundial which, in his own words, "effectively symbolizes the intent of the program restoration of the age-old balance between people and nature in everyday life." (It bears noting that for the Classical Greeks, as remarks by Aeschylus and Socrates demonstrate, the correct solar orientation of all buildings within a city was considered a sine qua non for advanced civilization.)

Another lesson would be registered as well were Blane's public park proposal located in the context of a prefabricated mass culture. By refusing to resort to new and largely neuter material, his work would foster a sense of cultural continuity and community identity even in the midst of formerly devastated circumstances (it is hardly by chance that two of the greatest achievements in modern sculpture, Zadkines Rotterdam War Monument and Smithson's Broken Circle in Emmen, Holland, deal with massive destruction collectively overcome). In this case, as in others, a sense of shared public experience would provide a grounding for cultural self-determination and social rejuvenation. We have forgotten, Blane has pointed out, that Babylon was rebuilt from its own ruins not once but numerous times; that Cairo was constructed in part out of stone reused from the pyramids. Consequently, Blane's park proposal is the perfect response of the New York City Housing Commission's use of colored vinyl window covers to hide the devastation of the South Bronx (although clearly not from the locals), thus assuring its continuation.

In addition, a public structure with illuminating traces of the culture surrounding it is also a monument to the community effort necessary to sustain it, to the workforce that has made it. Such a well-rooted artwork would be an example of what has been termed "critical regionalism", as opposed to the shiftless populism (and groundless nationalism) intrinsic both to post-modernism and to mass culture, with their concomitant connections to shifting markets and homogenized clienteles. Historicism, or the casual equation of divergent historical periods so expressive of post-modernism, becomes transparently untenable to a community or class that has experienced the utter asymmetry of historical development a development perceptively embodied by the uneven formal make-up of Pillar Park, with its provocative synthesis of high and low culture. Similarly, the cohesion of conflicting cultural traditions within the structure of a work whose meaning is resolutely part of its popular context debunks the ahistorical pastiche characteristic of the rootless mass cultural references in much East Village neo-expressionism. Thus, Adorno's observation that mass culture entails a substitution of mythic repetition for definable historical development is also an incisive way of distinguishing Marc Blane's historically acute artwork from that of those who use mass culture uncritically.

The problem of modern public sculpture is related to what Roslind Krauss has labeled the fading of the logic for monuments within Western society. Such a memorial has become outdated because of its connection to the exclusionary "Great Man" concept of history, while becoming embattled because of its continued dependence on a public sphere that is often excluded from the public by the present social structure (a genuine democratization of political access to this space would carry, as a necessary corollary, public progression beyond existing educational deprivations and prejudices concerning art). In other words, public sculpture is in a paradoxical position because of abstract gains in a historical sense, yet the concrete denial of these gains in a social sense. As such, old historical concepts of narrativity, with their basis in personal anecdote, should, but cannot, be replaced by new structural signification of a more rigorously historical nature.

Flag – 1984 – 19' x 16' x 16' – steel, bronze, granite – Seward Park, Manhattan

One of Blane's recent projects, Flag, is a proposal to replace the missing nineteenth-century bronze sculpture formerly located in the fountain at Seward Park. This work has forced him to address the dilemma of modern sculpture. On the one hand, he is interested in replacing a monument to an important figure (Jacob Schiff) of the last century with a contemporary work that evokes an anonymous urban experience, which is nonetheless deeply personal to people in the community. On the other hand, Blane must confront the inaccessibility of the space to the public it supposedly serves. This latter issue is underscored, above all, by governmental indifference to the broad community support he has won through numerous presentations (such groups as the United Jewish Council of the East Side and the Educational Alliance for new immigrants on the Lower East Side) and the strong backing among artworld institutions he has received (the New York State Council on the Arts, Creative Time, and the Institute for Art and Urban Resources). Placement of the sculpture has been slowed by the institutional inertia or perhaps technocratic wariness of a city bureaucracy (in this case the Department of Parks of New York City) which apparently wants instead the original monument restored, in spite of what has already been conveyed from various sectors about its lack of historical pertinence. In light of the fact that the City representatives here seem indifferent to the majority of people in a community, which they claim to represent "democratically", very pressing issues emerge about the democratization of society to a greater degree as a precondition for any further resurgence in public sculpture.

Aware that simply replacing the original bronze removed by vandals (a street-form of "outvoting" any monument simply implanted from above) would mean relearning history at the community's expense, Blane has designed a work (for temporary display at first, depending on its reception) to foster a new historical dialogue about public art. Simultaneously minimalist in form (hence in opposition to the spectator passivity engendered by aggressive mass cultural images) yet resonant with inner-city associations generally accessible, Blane has attempted to create a work that would also defamiliarize viewers with an experience they know, but not in this context, with a form that triggers associations, but not exactly these. As such, Flag would be the inception of a dialogical experience necessitating critical reflection as much as quotidian recognition. Certainly, the basketball goal as inner-city image does signify contradictory things: an inadequate compensation for those who are literally "left on the streets" and an arena for an attenuated from of personal realization through flashy moves, etc., on the court. Thus, one can only hope that the Seward Park project is not withheld from the public any longer by city officials, because Marc Blane is fast establishing himself as an artist the public should take into account.

  1. 1. William Zimmer, "Marc Blane", Soho News, January 21, 1981, p.21
  2. 2. There are very old examples of traditional ceramic vases and plates from Talaverra, in the Museo Arte Decorativas of Madrid, that are remarkably close in their all-over dot schema to Picasso's Absinthe Glass.
  3. 3. Frederic Jameson, "Postmodernism and Consumer Society", in the Anti-Aesthetic, edited by Hal Foster (Port Townsend, Washington, 1982)
  4. 4. Kenneth Frampton, "Towards a Critical Regionalism", in the Anti-Aesthetic.