And, not Or: Kim Schoenstadt’s Composition for a Large Room in Three Parts

During the proverbial elementary field trip to the county museum, at some point we were most likely told: Touch with your eyes, not with your hands. This dictum immediately describes the relationship between spectator and art object, and elicits conflicting responses. On the one hand, it makes the art seem so exciting. If touching is taboo, the work must be really special, or at least, made by someone really special. And surely it’s fragile, and important. On the other hand, there is the implication that the viewer is not worthy or authorized to touch such sacred artifacts, for fear he might corrupt the aura or tarnish the object’s historicity. The very Modernist dichotomy of author and viewer is implicit in this simple imperative.

But the Modern era is long past and we have enjoyed the wry antics of Postmodernism for a while now. The role of the artist has shifted to one of ‘director’ and the role of the art object has been redefined through duchampian and warholian readymades and beyond. It’s still generally taboo to touch the art in museums, but sometimes we can interact with it, and the more installations immerse us in an artsy environment, the more we come to look for and even expect non-traditional modes of display, viewing, and phenomenological experience. And the more we come to expect to play a role in the viewer as author paradigm that Barthes introduces in Death of the Author (1).

Kim Schoenstadt’s series of works in Composition for a Large Room in Three Movements for the Harris Gallery the University of La Verne coolly provokes and investigates the interplay between artist and viewer, as well as the mechanisms by which the artist makes choices, and therefore make art. Art has been a byproduct of subjectivity for as long as we can remember, but it is the site of that subjectivity that shifts through time. Through a series of collaged processes and materials, Schoenstadt hands the reins over to the viewers, at least for a while, transgressing the do not touch mandate and perverting the traditional location of authorship. Though at times understated, the choices that Schoenstadt makes are significant every step of the way as she leads the viewer/author to consider three canonical components of artmaking: materials, process, and subject matter.

One of Schoenstadt’s most significant choices as the artist is the one to have others make choices for her. For this series, she invites the viewers to decide what is art, and what is not. She invites them to tell her what to do to make the art, and finally, she uses computer programs to automate aesthetic choices regarding form and color. The whole show is affected by the culture of Web 2.0 that has lead to a society of wiki-logic (2) , in which it is expected that the viewers and consumers will at all times have the ability and option to apply alterations, commentary, and determinations to the ‘product’.

The aesthetics of the exhibition recall a plurality of modernist utopias. The delineated architectural forms incised throughout the surfaces of each piece describe architectural structures from past world’s fairs; buildings intended to herald all of the optimism and newness of the modern era. The formal elements of the collage, graffiti, and photography in the show are fittingly rooted in the alluring nostalgia of the 60s and 70s, an era that saw mass public protests, families living on communes, and the fear that socialist – I mean ‘communist’ – thinking might invade the American consciousness. The model of practice promoted in Schoenstadt’s artworks fuses elements from several different generations: the feelings of empowerment that triumphed in the economically strong early 80s; the ‘me culture’ engendered by the Gen-X-ers; and the neo-commune society of today’s wiki-culture in which the individual is enabled to participate remotely in the creation of a collective action. In Composition for a Large Room in Three Movements, Schoenstadt conducts participants to act as viewers, artists, and critics simultaneously.

The exhibition is introduced with Discussion Wall, which does indeed start things off with a conversation. Schoenstadt sets up a brick and mortar wiki in which the members of the LaVerne community were asked to collect examples of things in their environment that were and were not art. Participants placed their selections accordingly in one of two “contribution” boxes, and Schoenstadt later pinned them to the gallery wall in a random, sprawling patchwork entitled Discussion Wall. The resulting collage engenders a discussion-not so much about what is art and not art, but about artistic judgment and taste. What is the role of the artist? Is it, as Duchamp famously posited, to simply declare, by appellation or recontextualization. that something is or is not art? Is it to exhibit taste and beauty? Is it the recognition and representation of meritorious things in one’s environment? Perhaps, the role of the artist is to stimulate a discussion.

Discussion Wall also addresses the “art practice” as one composed of curatorial endeavors. Schoenstadt curates the participants and their choices as her objets d’art. The community members in turn curate from their environment, and Schoenstadt returns to contextualize their choices. She then added labels that declare which findings were categorized as ‘art’ and which were ‘not art’. There is no discernible system to decipher these choices otherwise, reiterating the absolute subjectivity that is inextricable from the artistic experience(s). It becomes clear that the subsequent display of all of these choices, as ‘art’ and ‘not art’, is in its entirety, art itself, and that Schoenstadt’s own position as artist is ironically reified through the exhibition overall.

As a coda to Discussion Wall, Schoenstadt signs the collage by drawing a biomorphic string of contours of modernist architectural buildings The architecture seems to have an uncharacteristically organic evolution as one building merges with the next, as it grows with a crystalline algorithm across the posted papers. The architectural contours are derived from world fair pavilion architecture. While some of the other participants’ submissions to Discussion Wall may have been arbitrary, this choice is decidedly deliberate. Schoenstadt chooses the linear contours of architecture for their many metaphorical associations. Buildings are finite, solid and vertical – antithetical to the ephemeral, amorphous and horizontal plane of paper that has been mounted to the wall. Architecture is constructed, an organization of space that rearranges the landscape in which it occurs and alters the social use of that space, as Schoenstadt has done in Composition for a Large Room in Three Movements. The mutating chain of forms in this string of architectural contours mimics the progressive emergence of questions evoked by Schoenstadt’s process. She also chooses these buildings because they are the epitome of modernist optimism, in that they once showcased utopian ideas of forging ahead into a future that was to be better than the present or the past. There seems to be a concordant analogy in the contemporary art world as Biennial culture has exploded over the last 5 years, and the idea of pavilions are again a prominent and structuring force in the display of objects of wonder. Modernist architecture and style is again in vogue in western culture at large, as we are once again redefining ourselves at the advent of a new century.

The interrogation of the interplay between artist and viewer continues in Can Control, an enormous graffiti-covered canvas with a white spiral of architectural contours swirling into the center. Schoenstadt has asked the staff and faculty of the university to email her instructions as to what she should do to the canvas. Before she executed any of the instructions, she taped off a spiral-shaped drawing of architectural forms, with line quality similar to that of the buildings on the Discussion Wall. The spiral is seen as a fundamental form in nature, but it is also emblematic of that which is infinite and entropic. It has a plurality of references in (art) history – from the golden mean, to da Vinci, Bentham, Spiral Jetty, and George Crumb. In this piece one could also think of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, 1920 which was, appropriately, designed to be the quintessential utopian monument.

Schoenstadt uses the spiral in Can Control to mirror the similarly shaped musical score for Makrokosmos (3) by George Crumb, the American avant-garde composer. Crumb created scores that were atonal and antiphonic, and his pieces often interrogated the role of the performer, the composer, the instrument, and the 12-tone scale. In one piece Crumb asked the audience members to leave the auditorium. Schoenstadt similarly challenges notions of the artist’s authorship, the boundaries of medium, and the notion of giving direction in a work of art. As a composition, Can Control is an orchestrated symphony of indeterminacy. The Can of the title refers to the can of spray paint, but also offers permission, enabling the artist and viewer alike to ‘do’. Control redirects us to the public’s sense of intervention or imperative, but also to the artist’s own ultimate control in the decision to make the work in this manner in the first place. The viewer can control the artist, while the artist has literal control of the spray can.

The canvas in Can Control serves as an indexical record of each e-mailed command, and with each instruction that is enacted upon the canvas the previous marks are obliterated or obscured. The participants who offer commands hold their position as author of the piece only until someone else gives another command and Schoenstadt executes that one on top of the last. The decision to ‘end’ the piece comes when Schoenstadt stops obliging the viewers’ directives, and pulls off the masking tape that she had laid down before any spray paint was applied. The tape is removed to reveal a sort of inverse graffiti and white lines emerge through and on top of the myriad layers of spray paint, like the Spiral Jetty emerging from the fog.

The last movement, Lake Powell Series features three large color prints of family vacation photos taken by Schoenstadt’s father-in-law at Lake Powell in the 1970s. More architectural forms are overlaid on the photos: perched atop a butte, clinging to a shore, or simply floating above the ground. The images act as proposals, enticing brochures for your imagination: “Your modernist utopia here”. A third component – a solid colored, amorphous topography – is overlaid and interjected between the drawings of buildings and the landscape. The forms are complex enough to imply a specific derivation, but too complex to evidence the source. Using the ‘magic wand’ tool in Photoshop, Schoenstadt has digitally selected all of the pixels of an anomalous color in one of the other photos and digitally painted in the selected area that resulted. She has once again relinquished choice, but this time she hands it over to the algorithms of Photoshop rather than the subjectivity of a student or colleague. The resulting images contain visual layering that functions as a neat analog for the layers of meaning, process and contemplation inherent in the act of superimposing ‘a’ and ‘not a’. In these postmodern landscapes, culture (architecture) invades nature, digital invades the photographic, and the present is entangled with the past. Schoenstadt amicably obliterates the neat canons that have traditionally allowed for those classic binaries of art criticism and theory – avant-garde and kitsch, author and viewer, etc. She is creating an imaginary topography that engages elements of desire, aesthetics, history and culture that are culled simultaneously from the fin-de-sicle avant-garde, mid-century modernism, and contemporary post-post modern sensibility.

Each of the movements in Schoenstadt’s exhibition is rife with playful and intelligent double or triple entendres. With architecture and line, she evokes polysemous notions of construction and composition. Her Composition for a Large Room…addresses composition in terms of artistic arrangement, musical scores, as well as written missives. Lines appear as drawn or written, throughout each of the Three Parts and the notion of siting is also recurring. As a component of architectural constructions, siting helps establish a building in its particular location. Schoenstadt includes websites as an integral part of her process (with images of the show on Flickr, and calls for viewer participation catalogued in email) and in so doing, parallels the physical or geographic site with the simulated site(s) of cyberspace. She promotes an entropic collapse of the stodgily modernist mandates for purity of process, material, and thought.

Schoenstadt sets out to break the rules, but does so through a process that acknowledges that revolution is a collaborative and collective process. In a discussion with the artist about what art is and what it means to discuss work, Schoenstadt referred to the myriad references in her work saying ‘why does it have to be one thing or another, why do we have to choose, why can’t it be all of those things?’ She proposes that art-making doesn’t have to succumb to the ‘either/or’ mandate, but can be ‘and/and’: modern and postmodern, individual and communal, certain and uncertain. In her willingness to promote such optimistic inquiry and heterologous practice, Schoenstadt herself furthers a new utopia.

-Micol Hebron Los Angeles, 2007

  1. Barthes, Roland, Image-Music-Text, USA, Hill and Wang, 1983
  2. A wiki is a website that any member of the public can contribute to and modify via the internet
  3. This score was the artist’s soundtrack while conceiving of and producing the exhibition, and it played in the gallery during the show.
All Images © Micol Hebron, 2016