This essay was written in conjunction with Mike Metz on view at CUE Art Foundation December 8, 2012 - January 26, 2013.
Marcel Duchamp explained
that when creating a work of art, "the artist goes from intention to
realization through a chain of totally subjective reactions." (1) However,
it is the viewer, who, when observing the work of art, brings it in
"contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner
qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act."(2) That
is, the viewer, along with the artist, is responsible for an artwork’s success.
Duchamp's words were widely influential on a generation of conceptual artists
coming of age in the shadow of Abstract Expressionism, as their work
investigated how participation altered an art object's meaning and context.
Mike Metz is one of those artists. In 1979, he produced "end products," which, according to the art historian and critic Joseph Masheck, are best understood as a series of "visual analogues." (3) Each work offers "a single thingly shape that can stand for several things precisely as a shape." (4) The sculptures, crudely constructed of cement, plywood, and metal lath, are an arrangement of angular shapes made into seemingly ambiguous forms. The titles—such as rocking horse/ watering can/ helmet or barge/ truck/ cash register—hint at what their "thingly shape" might represent, while simultaneously eluding decipherment. These “visual-verbal puzzles,” as Metz explains, "emphasize the mechanisms of meaning in everyday life," where language is used to avoid conclusive definition of a given object. (5)
In an iconographic (or formalist) study of rocking horse/ watering can/ helmet, one would draw comparisons to an actual rocking horse, watering can, or helmet. Metz’s approach, however, derives meaning from the use of language. Viewers take part in a semiotic game where the identification of an object as one thing or another is called into question by way of a visual-verbal pun, which has precedent in Duchamp's LHOOQ and Fresh Window, as well as René Magritte's The Betrayal of Images. The reading of Jacques Lacan’s theory of real and symbolic forms, Metz has noted, influences the creative potential of language. The analyst famously established that whereas “symbolic opposition between presence and absence implies the permanent possibility that something may be missing,” the real "always in its place: it carries it glued to its heel, ignorant of what might exile it from there." (6) The symbolic, on the other hand, is "a cut in the real," in the process of signification "it is the world of words that creates the world of things." (7) In this Lacanian context, rocking horse/ watering can/ helmet structures language as continuously in flux.
The retrospective treatment of Metz’s work in this exhibition allows visitors to explore the many facets of his investigation into semantics. Especially remarkable is the constant experimentation with materials as varied as bronze, steel, and wood. The real outliers are a series of computer paintings from 1987. In a studio installation at the Mercer Street Gallery of that year, he applied layers of acrylic paint to images of abstract shapes made on a consumer grade Apple computer. The layering of gestural forms in neon hues—blues, yellows, and reds—is reminiscent of Wassily Kandinsky. But, similar to “end products,” titles like owl/bowl and gun/boat fail to point viewers in a direction that leads to any certain recognition. He struck a delicate balance between hand-made markings and computer generated imagery, while sustaining an interest in language and meaning—despite a dramatic shift in media.
In another digital series, Metz designed 53 PVC banners to surround a Renaissance style building on the island of San Servolo for the 2007 Venice Biennale. Each banner featured lines of translated text from Etel Adnan's essay To be in a Time of War in her book "In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country." The author contrasts banal American life, which is only occasionally perforated by a “consciousness of war,” with the suffering of Iraqis. (8) The banners were part of "Strategic Questions," a project organized by artist-curator Gavin Wade in which 40 art works were developed in response to 40 questions written by R. Buckminster Fuller. Each work in the series was had a different publication scenario, Wade explains, as a new mode of distribution was “developed in response to a specific site and context.” (9) Metz was responding to Fuller's "impossible" question, "What is intelligence?" In a sheer coincidence, a short distance away on the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, Joseph Kosuth, another conceptual artist inspired by Duchamp, lined the exterior walls of a monastery with neon words in a mix of languages. Both Kosuth and Metz consider verbal signification across varying cultures by using existing architectural and linguistic structures. (10)
When I first visited Metz's studio in Red Hook, he beamed with delight when telling the "two tents" joke. However, it took me a while to realize how important it was in locating the importance of play in his four decade long career. The joke relies on multiple meanings and associations, which is a theme that runs through the objects I have discussed here, and are on view at CUE. They are overflowing with referents, which is probably why Metz titled the exhibition “Referents.” Whether these objects are read as one thing or another, or something entirely different from what he refers to in the title, is of no consequence. Viewers should not feel disheartened if they don't see a rocking horse or a cash register, because what is important is not the recognition of a particular thing, but rather the playfulness in the act of decipherment. With every new viewer, each work becomes something different, something newly recognized and discovered.
(1) Marcel Duchamp quoted in The Writings of Marcel Duchamp (New York: De Capo Pre1973), 139 (2) Marcel Duchamp quoted in Dalia Judovitz’s Unpacking Duchamp: Art in Transit (Berkley: University of California Press, 1998), 149. (3) Joseph Masheck discussion on Metz was invaluable resource, see: “Mike Metz as a Brand of Sculpture” Arts Magazine (1991). Judovitz also uses the term “visual analogues” to explain Duchamp’s linguistic puns, especially in relation to how he titled his work. (4) Ibid. (5) Mike Metz as quoted on the Department of Cultural Affair’s website, see: http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcla/html/panyc/metz.shtml (6) Jaques Lacan quoted by Dylan Evans in An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 2002), 162. (7) Ibid. (8) Lynne Rogers writing on Etel Adnan “In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country,” Al Jadid (2005), http://www.aljadid.com/content/heart-heart-another-country (9) For more on Strategic Questions, see: http://www.strategicquestions.org.uk/about.html (10)For more on Kosuth’s project, see: http://www.e-flux.com/announcements/joseph-kosuth-at-the-52nd-international-art-exhibition-collateral-event/.
Harry J. Weil is a PhD candidate in the Department of Art at Stony Brook University, focusing in performance art and theory. His reviews have been published in Art Journal, Journal of Curatorial Studies, Art Papers, Afterimage and artUS.