There is vomit art. There is garage-sale art. And there is the work of Richard Tuttle. Neither one nor the other, Tuttle's art doesn't so much split the difference down the middle as it ignores the two extremes altogether. It is subtler than the wink-wink, nudge-nudge though critically important shark-in-tank high jinks of Damien Hirst and more conceptually anarchic than the painting chic that is all the rage among this decade's stable of Saatchi Gallery artists in London. The work of Richard Tuttle is protean, his productivity prolific, and each thing he crafts is distinct from the last. The pale-colored cloth pieces hanging droopily on the wall are distinct from his misshapen hobby-horse-like floor drawings; the hodgepodge form of his found-matter assemblages, made from cardboard, wire and paint, stand wholly apart from the delicate balance of light, shadow and line in his wire drawings; and then there are the trapezoidal pieces of plywood mounted high here and low there that seem at first blush like patchwork wall covers left by museum maintenance.
Though neither vomit nor garage-sale art, garbage art it may be. During the installation of The Art of Richard Tuttle, an expansive retrospective of Tuttle's work at the Dallas Museum of Art, museum curators had to label certain pieces "art not trash" in order to keep the nighttime cleaning crew from discarding them. Do not fault the artist; producing ambiguity is his goal, his trademark. Tuttle reveals the peculiar if not informal beauty of the thrown-away. He makes art out of the crinkly, wiry, languid form of detritus.
There is a circus play of form orchestrated by Tuttle under the barrel vault at the DMA, and Tuttle's intention is to accustom us to difference rather than similarity, to deftly nudge us out of a comfort zone of likeness and homogeneity into a realm where all is unforeseen. The significance of his work is not just that no two objects are alike: It is in the difference that it affects. For Tuttle these two elements are connected: The motley play of form brings forth a powerful idea of foreignness and what philosophers describe in terms of alterity. His goal is to deploy what Julia Kristeva calls "the prickly passions aroused by the intrusion of the 'other' in the homogeneity of...a group."
For Tuttle, difference--openness to the alien and other--is a vehicle for freedom. As he puts it, it is the duty of the artist to bring such difference to light--to "bring freedom to society. The job of the artist is to give health to society" by introducing new ideas and things that are unusual, forms that do not conform. In explaining this responsibility, Tuttle gives body to a much-welcomed ideology of unrestraint, an idea of freedom directed toward deliberative deference rather than reckless authority: "Artists go outside of society to find freedom and bring it back." Sounding like the lawyer Jack Nicholson plays in Easy Rider, Tuttle explains, "people are afraid of freedom. That's why there are so many autocratic regimes in the world." His abstract form-making is a warrant against xenophobia: His small watercolor and paper low-reliefs, hand-framed and mindful doodles, and fastidiously jerry-built floor drawings softly acclimatize one to the possibilities of the atypical.
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At the same time, his work bears a deadpan pragmatism. As the writer Madeleine Grynsztejn puts it, "these objects present themselves to us fully...they are structurally transparent, willfully legible." There is no mimetic reference to a world outside. They are what they are: They do not represent "virtue" or "truth" but just matter shaped, misshapen and stuck together. When asked whether the platform underneath the blue-grey asterisk-shaped floor piece, "Fountain," was meant as protection for the work or if it was part of the piece, Tuttle answered with a veiled critique of the museum as an institution. He said, "Most art is geared to the domestic sphere. I'd much rather look at a Monet in someone's house than in a museum." He continued as we approached the piece in the corner, "there's much more art out there," pointing to the downtown streets beyond the white walls of the DMA, "than in here." In other words, he'd rather have the piece directly on the floor.
Tuttle's critique is part of an overall democratic approach to medium and materials. He is known for his will to revalorize "drawing," to show how it is primary rather than secondary to other media. Following from his kaleidoscopic imagination, "drawing" takes on many different shapes, forms and media. Tuttle's more literal experimentations with drawing include his "Wire Pieces" from the 1970s. In "14th Wire Piece," for example, the artist draws a faint graphite line on the wall, mounts a thin wire following the pencil mark and then either attaches the opposite end or allows it to distend unsteadily from the wall according to gravity. The result is a trifecta of linear effect, lines made from pencil lead, wire and shadows on the wall.
He ratchets up the drawing metaphor in "Peace and Time (XII)," a wall-mounted sculpture made from copper and plastic pipes, chicken wire, roof shingle, foam rubber and graphite. At first, the colorful mixed media make it seem a precious exercise in painterly, abstract form-making based on the brawnier work of Anthony Caro. Upon scrutiny--and a reprimand from the gallery guard--you realize that under your feet there's an almost-invisible pencil-drawn grid at its base rendered directly on the floor that distinguishes the piece from the work of Caro, or anybody else's for that matter. In drawing faint graphite lines on the floor, Tuttle tells us that art is not delimited by the frame. It is on the wall, on the floor and sometimes in the toilet. Be careful: That crack in the sidewalk is a work of art.
Tuttle's work is generous, blithe and comical without being ironic, and that's about as close as one comes to categorizing the many-headedness of his art. Such categorization is difficult and, as Tuttle explains, the necessary work of art historians. "There is the artist and art historian," Tuttle says, "and the two don't think alike. The critic thinks more like an artist."
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