John Powers

John Powers: Operations of the Marvelous
Many abstract sculptures after Minimalism have successfully fallen prey to the conundrum elaborated upon by the very movement whose lineage they seek to continue: the Minimalist articulation of the work of art as a fraught oscillation between the attempted autonomy of painterly culture and the spectacular assimilation of the aesthetic object has left its successors more often than not choosing between one or the other. The oeuvre of post-Minimalism’s most prominent member, Richard Serra, illustrates the movement’s development from a phenomenological-analytical investigation of the relation of self and cultural space to the reified theatricality Judd et al. had been accused of decades ago. Although deemed complex by many interpretations, Serra’s spirals, toruses, and spheres rely not on their ability to provide insight into the mechanisms of perception within a larger understanding of cultural production but merely depend on conditioned optical and haptic operations to achieve a sensational effect. The tensions provoked by the encounter between viewer and sculpture, its size and material, its forms and paths, its dichotomies between inside and outside are synthesized into the absolute effect of an overwhelming, near-sublime experience. The sculpture provides an awesome stand-in, a metaphorical reconciliation of the phenomenological and intellectual complexities of the formation of subjectivity in the face of a material and ideological opposite.

At first sight, John Powers’ new work CRASH, as well as the slightly earlier Rampart Division, evokes a similar experience of wonder and awe, triggered by the works’ size and sprawl, by their material and technical complexities. Yet this encounter is of a different order, maybe not so much sensational or grand as it is marvelous. Its effect rests less on an emotional and phenomenologically intimidating response than on a contingent intellectual conflict articulating the mechanisms of identity construction. The marvelous can be defined as a rupture of what is conceived of as the natural order of things, of how relations and things in the world are determined and how they function. But different from other disjunctures in a similar category, the marvelous is not necessarily divine or otherworldly, which might explain the concept’s most famous appropriation by the Surrealists. 1 The writers and artists of Surrealism employed the notion of the marvelous in a variety of often conflicting ways. And it is precisely this negotiation of the operations of the marvelous and of the marvelous as mechanism that in turn makes Powers’ work so compelling.

Surrealism defined the marvelous as the moment of wonder and rupture triggered by the encounter with that which was commonly not regarded as being part of reality and selfhood but those elements discarded into the depths of the unconscious, resurfacing as sexual fantasies, dreams and nightmares, compulsive behavior and insanity. The central question, though, was how to deal with the repressed and the uncanny, how to cope with the paradox that arises when the individual as psychosocial construct is confronted with the elements whose distance allowed for the formation and maintenance of a coherent subjectivity in the first place. André Breton aimed for reconciliation of opposites such as dream and reality in the Surreal, thereby healing or synthesizing the rupture of the marvelous. But this renewed homogenization of disparate elements drew heavy criticism from within Surrealism’s own ranks as well as Theodor Adorno’s retrospective dissatisfaction with the movement as avant-garde: the artwork itself had come to be a fetish, an affirmation but mainly a disavowal of the lack of critical inquiry and autonomy, making the separations and their resulting alienation that form the core of Surrealism easily consumable. Similar doubts were expressed by Louis Aragon as well as Georges Bataille: the former demanded of the marvelous in art that it serve to articulate the conflict of disparate elements that make up reality and not to relegate that conflict to an aesthetic sublimation of itself, turning once again into the comfort and ceremonial drama played out in the substitute arena that is art. The marvelous can’t be a metaphorical alternate for rupture but must be rupture and therefore Aragon advocated the use of collage instead of painting, since the former would reject the false unity of the latter, rearticulating relations and meanings between fragments, emphasizing and calling attention to the act of cultural and psychosocial production. Bataille finally demanded the suspension of all categories in favor of absolute and nonassimilable heterogeneity. In order to rid art of its cathartic function, which turns the museum or art gallery into a pharmacy that we consult “looking for remedies nicely packaged for admissable illnesses,” the marvelous as discussed here would need to exclude all idealism, any attempt to attain form. 2 It would be a metonymic operation endlessly repeating itself, denying any consistent meaning, subjectivity, or identity.

The marvelous is first and foremost an operation and procedure that comes in many variations and guises and is employed to multiple ends. The rupture that is the marvelous occurs when the stability and coherence of reality and identity, be it individual or social, is put into jeopardy. And, one could argue, all interesting art produces such a moment of suspension, in the form of shock or disorientation of various kinds. But the question then is how much of this marvel is mere effect and how much it serves to provide an analysis and understanding of the structure and mechanisms on which the possibility of this estrangement is based and that the experience of estrangement as sensation has come to reproduce. Rampart Division and CRASH rely on the fascination that is the exploration of their effect on the viewer. Made of four different sizes of styrofoam or stained wooden blocks, the sculptures display a number of inconsistencies that result in a tension between the work as entity and the viewing subject. As they stretch from one end to another, from the various corners and ends across the fissures and rifts created by the numerous spaces between individual blocks and their respective clusters, both sculptures oscillate between a state of coherence and one of incoherence, of a described and circumcised form and one that extends further and further into the spectator’s space. The branches of Double Negative and Rampart Division stick out as if exploring possibilities of extension; the blocks, whose increasingly diminishing size results in an imagined continuity, seem to effervesce into space. This probing of the boundaries of spatial definitions extends throughout the sculptures’ structure where the attempt to determine interior and exterior, depth and surface is continually suspended. The materiality of Rampart Division and Double Negative as well as the receding coloration in CRASH underline the porousness of the constructions. The spaces defined weave in and out of themselves, semipermeable objects defying their own notion of completeness through a continuous exchange of inside and outside. Maybe that is the reason these sculptures seem strangely animate at moments, not so much in the sense of arrested movement but like organisms in a state of suspension, in a moment just before or after further growth or decomposition. The rhetoric of Powers’ work is one of determined contingency. The elements and fragments that constitute the composition are arranged in continuous and evolving patterns without mathematical repetitions or prescriptions. The relations between the blocks are as much arbitrary as solidary: nothing is merely random just as no structural choice merely adheres to an a priori master plan. Between symmetry and asymmetry, both works allow for a constant readjustment of the viewer’s perspective and perception in relation to the structures as animated maps constantly reexamining distances and angles, approaches and possible rapproachments within and toward them. Another aspect contributing to the determined ambiguity of this work that is the marvelous is the compulsive rigidity continually displaying the process of production. While the particles of the sculptures are mass- and machine-produced, their arrangement is less than industrial. The process of making, in this case, is closely tied to notions of craft, itself suspended between the poles of the traditional qualitative concept of artistic production that is creation and the quantitative concept of artisanal manufacture that is repetition. Attempting neither to resurrect the ideal of the authentic producer nor to suspend the question of origin through the indefinite redundancy of the mass-produced and manufactured, Powers establishes a conflict between the two ends of this dichotomy, a tension that makes his work both mere object and aesthetic artifact. In a sense, the sculptures problematize the modernist dialectic between the reanimation of the partially autonomous or at least critical aesthetic experience to be re-experienced by the viewer and the reification of that experience that leads to the desire for the authentic and disinterested artistic moment in the first place.3>

In Powers’ work, the marvelous, the “eruptions of contradiction within the real,” articulated as formal and structural conflicts among the relations that define the viewer as subject, traditionally secured in a position of allegedly autonomous contemplation or passive consumption, extends to a momentary suspension of a stability that defines the viewing self as a social and political being. 4 Rampart Division and CRASH provide both an analysis of a psychosocial reality taken for granted and the demand to productively use the knowledge and energies gained through the intoxication from the rupture and renegotiation that is the operation of the marvelous.

Philip Glahn
Brooklyn, New York
April 2002

1 See Hal Foster, Compulsive Beauty, MIT Press, Cambridge and London, 1995, p. 19.
2 Georges Bataille, cited in Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss, Formless: A User’s Guide, Zone Books, New York, 1997, p. 52.
3 For a discussion of the dialectic of reification and reanimation, see Hal Foster, “Archives of Modern Art,” in October 99, Winter 202, pp. 81-95.
4 Louis Aragon, in Foster, Compulsive Beauty, p. 173.

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