"First There's Play, Then There's Trouble" by April Freely

Added on by Lilly Hern-Fondation.

This essay was produced in conjunction with the exhibition Cal Siegel: I am the box no roof can cover, curated by Sable Elyse Smith, on view at CUE Art Foundation from January 10 - February 13, 2019. This text is included in the free exhibition catalogue available at CUE.

Cal Siegel , coughin , 2016. Wood, dollhouse shingles, acrylic, plaster, 82 x 48.5 x 8 inches.

Cal Siegel, coughin, 2016. Wood, dollhouse shingles, acrylic, plaster, 82 x 48.5 x 8 inches.

As I approach Calvin Siegel’s untitled sculpture, roof shingles over the structure read like a congregation of dark clouds. The piece is 8 feet tall and towers above my head. As dense as the darkest New England forest, the matte brown-black color of the wood sucks up all light.

Uncanny, impenetrable, haunting is the work. The roofline continues forever. Where we might expect windows, key to easy personifications of home, no light is permitted. If a house is a body, this sculpture represents a form that is obscure even to itself. No one can look in, no one can see out. The form has no door, no mouth.

Siegel’s careful control of scale makes all the difference in my interaction with the work. The sculpture hugs the wall, like a secret performance between the gallery and the artwork—10 feet long, yet just 1 foot wide. In this way, the sculpture is a building that cannot be entered, a building that leaves the viewer exposed. I scan the surface of the artwork, both held and repelled by the repetition of the material.

This sculpture is just one of the pieces we are invited to view in this exhibition, I am the box no roof can cover. Siegel’s multi-disciplinary practice includes drawings, photographs, sculpture, and wall-hung objects that the artist refers to as paintings. The work brings to mind conceptions of home and the domestic, common archetypes of American colonial architecture, and the symbolic functions of maps and map-making.

The work is playful (the sculpture is covered in what appear to be dollhouse shingles), but beneath this lighthearted quality is a haunted sensibility. Siegel’s exploration of the domestic reflects themes of dominance and control, as filtered through the language of American colonial vernacular architecture.

First, there’s play, then there’s trouble.

 

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Each painting is barely larger than a sheet of copy paper. Made from wood that has been painted and/or stained with acrylic, the work ranges between 2 and 4 inches thick. Each work reads like a “portrait” of a common architectural form, as Siegel isolates each structural element from its application. A truss is the element that enables the walls of a structure to convey the weight of the roof to the ground below.  In Siegel’s trussed, the truss is cropped, an off-white silhouette against a dark ground. Walls and roofline are not depicted. Here, the truss of a building is reduced to the scale of any household object. Other paintings are representations in wood of vernacular masonry forms. stepping stoned, for example, is a painting of pavers with enough heft to hold up the weight of a real pedestrian. All are rough-hewn, gouged out with chisels the artist inherited from his grandfather, Thomas Bakewell—a reminder of Siegel’s New England craftsman heritage. Here, texture is at the fore; the artist’s mark-making suggests the mountain-and-valley creases of aged hands.

Many of these paintings feature several distinct layers of acrylic color. In stepping stoned, red washes sit on top of the brown, black and gray paint that otherwise ground the object. This tonal shift in hue is unsettling—perhaps the warm reds are a reference to the messiness of the body. Other paintings, however, are awash in non-local color—a pastel palette of light greens and pinks brings the symbolic language of the truss forward in trussed. The works approach the decorative, where Siegel’s terms and investment in the semiotics of form, shine through. The ground of each painting is composed of machine-cut cross-sections of wooden banisters. These cross-sections are lined up behind each structural symbol (behind the truss, for example) in a tight grid. The truss itself then acts as a viewfinder: at eye-level, wooden ovals common in tooled spindles become the “faces” of provisional figures. An army—or family—of humanoid forms is lined up, hidden beneath, or even imprisoned by each architectural form. Fences compose the literal body of the paintings. Pickets and porch balusters remind me how fundamental gatekeeping is to American ideals of domesticity. Siegel’s paintings impress upon me that such gatekeeping is diligent work. Every fence post in a community requires a hammering down. Taken together with the sculpture and drawings, these paintings transform the gallery into a neighborhood in the process of being formed. 

In the drawings shown here, each hatch mark represents a press of grease pencil onto graph paper. Many-gabled architectural forms seem to slowly emerge. The viewer participates in the completion of the form as the mind fills in every blind spot. The drawn forms extend to the outer edges of the paper and are cropped, so that the buildings are decontextualized. These works on paper are as fanciful—and ominous—as Siegel’s sculptural work. Siegel’s use of graph paper, and the way the human hand is highlighted in the line work, is reminiscent of the grid-based drawings of Agnes Martin and other Minimalist artists. The exhibition invites me to think of domestic space as a series of mimetic procedures in which contact with surfaces becomes a kind of communication.

We could also view photography as a mimetic communication, as light hits film. Witch house drive by is a series of twelve gelatin silver prints. On an unremarkable residential street, a shingled structure seems to float in front of a triple-gabled house, like an apparition. Mounted together and styled as a time-lapse sequence, these “snapshots” offer glimpses of context (human stakes and human participants) as the trick of the series is revealed: a man drives past the gabled house with one of the artist’s sculptures propped up on the hood. Again, Siegel’s attention to scale and visual perception is key.

 

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Cal Siegel and Sable Elyse Smith,  ...In That Empire , 2018. Instructions from artist book.

Cal Siegel and Sable Elyse Smith, ...In That Empire, 2018. Instructions from artist book.

Siegel becomes most animated when I ask about the development of his critical eye during his upbringing in small-town West Newbury, Massachusetts. His heritage is that local knowledge of craftsmanship that we have come to think of as central to what’s lasting about New England colonial architecture. The figurative work in this exhibition could be viewed as an abstraction of the artist’s criticality regarding his own place in this American story.

In Witch house drive by, the artist nods at the pedestrian violence of colonial America. I’d argue that Siegel’s work as a whole proposes a meta-language of violence through colonial vernacular architecture. This is perhaps one way to investigate personal/collective culpability in what Jorge Luis Borges calls “the deserts of the West” in the story that Siegel and Sable Elyse Smith use as the foundation for their artists’ book shown here. For Siegel, it seems that American colonial identity is an ongoing, active site of inquiry—while similar questions about national identity and belonging currently play out in the American republic at large.

 

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I spend a lot of my time thinking about fences. Chain-link, barricades—even the coleus plantings that are left to die in the devil strip play a role in the restriction of public space. Colonial columns and wrought-iron fencing are mere phrases in the language system that governs human movement in your average segregated American city. Border walls and ghettoization both have their own architectural semantics. How sweet America can seem before things get ugly.

Siegel’s work takes up a social commentary already in progress (in the work of installation artists such as Cady Noland and Robert Gober, for example), a discourse that explores the underlying violence inherent in American conceptions of the wholesome and the beautiful. We paper over such violence with tradition, regional identity, decorum, gentility, and nostalgia.

Robert Gober,  Hanging Man/Sleeping Man , 1989. Hand-printed silkscreen on paper. Photo credit: The Museum of Modern Art, Department of Imaging and Visual Resources, Thomas Griesel. Courtesy of the artist.

Robert Gober, Hanging Man/Sleeping Man, 1989. Hand-printed silkscreen on paper. Photo credit: The Museum of Modern Art, Department of Imaging and Visual Resources, Thomas Griesel. Courtesy of the artist.

Robert Gober’s work is made of materials flush with domestic association, such as wallpaper and household porcelain fixtures. In one such wallpaper titled Hanging Man/Sleeping Man (1989), Gober situates figures rendered in delicate lines on a pale yellow ground: a black man hangs, while a white man sleeps peacefully. Gober’s work is a reminder to viewers that we have too much to gain in looking away to claim innocence. Siegel’s exhibition offers a further complication of Gober’s sentiment: the very beauty of a form can also be an expression of brutality. What do we make of a presence like Siegel’s sculpture, a work that rejects all entry?

Another example of brutal assertion is Cady Noland’s untitled log cabin installation from 1990. The piece is made from a full-scale, pre-fab log cabin façade, its windows covered by American flags. As with Siegel’s work, the power of the installation is embedded in the American cultural imagination and the viewers’ history of encounters with monuments of and to “home” outside of the gallery space. Noland writes, “From the point at which I was making work out of objects, I became interested in how, actually, under which circumstances people treat other people like objects.”[1] Colonial American ideals of domesticity become more incriminating through sustained attention to Siegel’s work: I’m reminded that figures in a dollhouse do only what you want. This exhibition is an invitation for us to come in and consider our own positioning and power, through the gates we keep, the ties we break, and what we look away from most easily at this cultural moment in American life.

 
[1] Andrew Russeth, “This American Life: Cady Noland’s Art Feels More Prescient, Incisive, and Urgent Than Ever,” ARTnews, March 27, 2018, http://www.artnews.com/2018/03/27/icons-cady-noland/.


This essay was written as part of the Art Critic Mentoring Program, a partnership between AICA-USA (US section of International Association of Art Critics) and CUE, which pairs emerging writers with AICA-USA mentors to produce original essays on a specific exhibiting artist. Please visit aicausa.org for more information on AICA-USA, or cueartfoundation.org to learn how to participate in this program. Any quotes are from interviews with the author unless otherwise specified. No part of this essay may be reproduced without prior consent from the author. Lilly Wei is AICA’s Coordinator for the program this season. 

April Freely is a poet and essayist whose work has appeared in American Poetry Review, Forklift, OH, Ninth Letter, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. She earned a BA from Brown University and an MFA in Nonfiction from the University of Iowa. Her art writing has appeared in Kenyon Review Online, and she has contributed to texts published by the Renaissance Society and Rizzoli. She has received fellowships and awards from the Ohio Arts Council, Vermont Studio Center, Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the George Kaiser Family Foundation. She currently lives and works in New York City.

Mentor Sarah S. King is the cofounder and Editor-in-Chief of SNAP Editions, a publishing company based in New York that produces art books and exhibition catalogues for museums and art institutions worldwide. Prior to this position, she served on staff as Senior Editor and Picture Editor of Art in America magazine and then moved to Santa Fe where she was appointed its Santa Fe Correspondent, as well as Head and Editor-in-Chief of Publications for SITE Santa Fe, and Special Projects Editor for the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Over the past twenty-five years, she has contributed numerous articles and reviews to international magazines and journals as well as exhibition catalogue essays to art institutions and museums in the U.S. and abroad.