Here’s a recipe for sexy art: find panes of glass and stack them. Glass is transparent, which makes it like empty space but not, and sometimes it reflects things, which means you can “implicate the viewer” so that they meditate on themes of selfhood and identity (or, more likely, fix their hair). Worked for Dan Graham. If the reflections are all pointing so the viewer can’t see them, like in Robert Smithson’s “Gravel Mirrors with Cracks and Dust” (1968), that’s “disruptive”; “disruptive” is an additional adjective that can be applied to your work, so that’s a net plus, too.
The very best thing about a pane of glass is that it’s absolute. It’s inorganic, brittle, sharp at the edges, and probably rectangular. If you juxtapose it with an organic, squishy, soft, or round thing, viewers will notice how different these things are, and hasten to translate “DAMN THAT’S SEXY” into something smart to say in front of their friends. Anyone who’s been to Dia:Beacon understands this: its collection of Robert Smithson glass-plus-dirt works is second-to-none, and even sandwiched between the Donald Judds and the Joseph Beuyses, it’s a clear standout.
Smithson had a good reason for dirtying up all that perfectly good glass, too. He was working in the early 60s, when Formalists like Judd and Robert Morris were beginning to dominate the scene with their hard edges, strict dimensions, and industrial fabrication, and art needed to be reminded of the messy aesthetic potential of nature. He managed to make something not only sexy, but edgy besides, and even without the context, the works themselves remain appealing.
If you’re an artist working today, though, Smithson outranks you. He juxtaposed his glass with dirt, and also with rocks (as in the exceptionally stack-y “Untitled (Micra and Glass)” (1968-9)), and that means dirt and rocks are off-limits to sculptors today. If you want to stick with the material interplay thing—if you don’t, we’ll come back to you—you’ll need to find something else dirty and earthy to put next to your glass. Here’s a hint at one obvious answer: it should be the material with the most soul, because glass has no soul. Juxtaposition.
If you’re thinking wood, you’re well on your way to an art career. Wood is super organic, comes in cylinders—the opposite of rectangles—and has a ton of soul. Plop a log on some shiny panes of glass, and you’ll be making sexy sculpture like Rochelle Goldberg’s “Access” (2012), now up at Joe Sheftel Gallery, in no time. In fact, you’ll pretty much have already made it. Get ready for a lawsuit.
Are trees too nature-y for you? Want to tap into some of the messiness of the urban jungle? Go find some dirty old soft things on the street to stack on top of your glass, so that people go like whoa that glass is pure but then like whoa that other material is from the street. Then apologize to Dave Hardy, because he already did it better than you can in works like “Chinook” (2012), which everybody saw at the Dependent and then at Regina Rex.
You don’t have to make your materials fight, though. Since glass is shiny and clean and Web 2.0, you can put it next to other “classy” materials, and let the viewer compare and contrast. They’ll know these things go together in a Design Within Reach catalogue, but they won’t know they go together in an art gallery; you’ll be subverting their expectations of design, by playing directly into their expectations of design while in an art gallery (because art galleries make everything the opposite). Maybe you even feel like all the fancy sexy glass around us is a little tacky, so you can put the stacked glass next to something slightly tacky. How about rhinestones? Kayode Ojo did that in SVA’s BFA show this spring.
If you’ve got real skills, like new Bortolami recruit Ben Schumacher, you’ll notice glass is so absolute that what you put on it doesn’t even matter; anything, up to and including another pane of glass (like in Gerhard Richter’s “11 Scheiben” (2004)) will work. A tie? Totally works. A picture of a pen? Why not! Even the supports you use the hold the glass up will somehow look like important features of the work.
Glass panes plus crap plus more glass panes is a formula that works, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, good artmaking almost requires a formula. Think of process as a machine that you push creativity into and get art out of: if you’re like the artists I know, you can’t much control the impulses you’re putting in, but you can control the process-machine and that means you can control the results. Calculators are similar: I can shove anything from pi to Four Loko into a calculator, and all I’ll get out if it are the numbers zero through nine, a decimal, and the occasional beep. That’s order from chaos right there.
All I’m saying is, don’t go overboard with this stuff. It’s super sexy; we know. It’s “now,” whatever that means; we know. But nobody gets to be the next Robert Smithson until somebody comes up with a real reason—a reason you can write down—to stack glass panes on top of crap. Hmm. Are there political undertones to fixing your hair?