Of all the nationwide changes that the terrorist attacks of September 11 have produced, perhaps none is more surprising or appropriate than the marked resurfacing of poetry in public forums. Internet memorial sites have become the anthologies for people spontaneously moved to pen elegiac remembrances for the lost and worthy praise for the heroes. W. H. Auden's "September 1, 1939" has probably been encountered via e-mail more than it's been read in colleges in the past 30 years. Others' immortal words--Whitman, Eliot--have appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Times. It seems that in this time of uncertainty, plain, old prose simply won't suffice. Poetry's lyrical blanket comes closest to comfort.
What's most perplexing about this poetic resurgence is the simultaneous public sounding of the death knell for irony, or at least what's called irony these days. At some point between the emergence of the modernist aesthetic and the rise of Jim Jarmusch, Jeff Koons and Dave Eggers, irony has become synonymous with sarcasm, cynicism and emotional detachment. Any mix of high and low culture is automatically labeled postmodern pastiche with all of its supposedly ironic disenfranchisement. The classically comedic and healthy skepticism that's infused in irony proper seems to have fallen with our buildings.
Let it be known that Floored, a group exhibition on view concurrently at the galleries at the University of Texas at Dallas in Richardson and the University of Dallas in Irving, is in no way a response or even comment on recent events. But it does provide a serendipitous example of what irony--in its poetic, Romantic sense--can offer intellectual debate. Curated by UTD's John Pomara and UD's Christine Bisetto, Floored mixes high and low literally: Every item in the exhibitions is "installed" on the ground even as they reach for the sky aesthetically. But the works assembled here aren't strictly sculpture per se, those art objects that you'd expect to find exhibited in such a manner. The pieces by the six artists--Jon Breazeale, Jessica Halonen, Meg Langhorne, Michele Monseau, Elizabeth McGrath and Brooke Stroud--mix media as freely as they mix ideas.
Whether they be Stroud's plastic container works, which most closely recall sculpture in the catholic sense, or Breazeale's simple stacked paper, Floored offers visual proof that looks can be deceiving. Though it may appear that the only thing the works have in common is the fact that they're sitting on the ground, the thematic thread they all share is the transforming possibility of the creative endeavor.
For his works "E-K1," "Train Landscape" and "Night Light," Stroud stacks the brightly colored, plastic boxes of Playtex Chubs Baby Wipes, allowing the eye-catching packaging to function like the giant-sized Lego blocks they're designed to emulate. It makes for a wry wink at consumable goods, recycling products not into functional accoutrements but into aesthetic accents arranged as color forms. It's a feeling that may have been more powerful if the pieces were a bit more imposing--most are 2 feet high, tops--but the suggestion is there. They bring to mind the exploration-qua-exploitation of what Donald Judd called "actual space," but they don't possess the ultimate aspiration of making you feel intellectually inferior; think more of what Judd may have tried if he had a sense of humor.
The San Antonio-based Monseau gets a little more mileage out of the so-called detritus of consumer culture with her pieces. "Orange" and "Boogie"--both use hot-color-keyed fabricated fuzz to absurdly boisterous ends--radiate an ebullient floridity, especially "Boogie," which boasts the color bouquet of wildflowers lining a Texas highway.
Langhorne's two Plexiglas-based pieces recall a far more obvious natural phenomenon, but that doesn't make them less interesting. She created colored boxes of Plexiglas that are only modestly translucent. You can see through them, but enough is obscured to lend the works an artificial sense of depth, as if you're peering into a pool of water that's much, much deeper than it is broad. Heightening the liquid effect are floral soaps in "Glade" (at UD) and flower-suggestive cutouts in "Night Glade" (at UTD) that evoke a crystal-clear pond moodily illuminated at dusk. Such an organic demeanor conflicts with the hard-edged plasticity of the works.
New York-based McGrath and Dallas-based Breazeale score the most memorable works. McGrath's "Informative Niches" is a small, inverted bell curve of stacked toilet paper rolls accented with a lime-green color that feels lifted directly from a mid-'70s suburban kitchen. Yet it commands your attention despite its quirky, quotidian materials. Breazeale's stacked reams of paper, some of which are lovingly shrink-wrapped in plastic, take a minimalist, painterly approach to rectangular three dimensions. What exactly about them is so compellingly odd is difficult to pinpoint--some simply look like large Post-It pads--but you'll find yourself remembering them after you've left the galleries.
But it's Houston's Halonen who offers the most rewarding piece here. Located at UTD, the cast-sugar squares of "Picnic" form a checkerboard pattern that looks like a blanket. But when you realize that the diabetic Halonen has opted for coloring her sugar squares in hues that correspond to different blood-glucose levels, the relationship between the association of eating and the picnic activity takes on an entirely more precarious meaning.
It's that subtle wrinkle of a more serious meaning on top of a deceptively trite one that sticks in your head and is the most indicative of Romantic irony, and it's not merely trying to find humor in a serious subject. There's an entirely more sophisticated process at play. Warhol pushed the idea of the artist as machine as a way of forcing contemporary viewers into realizing how much consumer culture and highbrow culture have become intertwined. That idea is even more pronounced now. It's almost as if Clement Greenberg's hard-lined argument in "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" has come full circle. In his context, kitsch was that element of commodity culture, the ersatz world of the mundane. High art--modernism in his case--was art about art, the intellectually heavy stuff.
Since then, however, the rift that separates the life of the mind from the life of the commodity has dwindled dramatically. The age of intellectual property has made "product" and "idea" almost interchangeable in a court of law. And when human thought can seemingly be patented as though it were just another newfangled widget, what does that leave for the individual? Does he or she conceive of him or herself as just an idea machine spitting out product?
The resounding no to that question was delivered by America's greatest practitioner of Romantic irony, Wallace Stevens, when he wrote of the duty to give life the "supreme fictions without which we are unable to conceive of it." Writing in the New York Times book review in 1947, the ardent American critic F.O. Matthiessen recognized Stevens' preoccupation with the "differences between the observed thing and what the imagination can make of it" when he noticed:
"All of Stevens' later work has been written against the realization that we live in a time of violent disorder. The most profound challenge in his poems is his confidence that even in such a time, even on the verge of ruin, a man can re-create afresh his world out of the unfailing utilization of his inner resources. The value of the creative imagination, of 'supreme fictions' in their fullest abundance, lies in the extension, even to the point of grandeur, that they add to our common lives."
Quite simply, Stevens gave equal consideration to the serious and the silly in order to endear life's tumultuous turns. And it's something that many of us, consciously or not, do on a daily basis. Sure, we laughed when the weekly satire paper The Onion winningly opined, "A Shattered Nation Longs to Care About Stupid Bullshit Again" recently, obviously poking fun at what President Bush's call to "return to normal" implies. Back to the self-absorbed obsessions with various pop-cult effluvia. But lurking right behind that chuckle is the grave realization that the luxurious, comfortable freedom of even having "stupid bullshit" to care or not to care about is something that America, rightly and wrongly, has always regarded as an inalienable right.