Gabriel Boyce at Vox Populi
November 2 – December 2, 2012
By Manya Scheps
When the punch line is already present, when the laugh has already happened, what is left for the joke? What is the space for humor to fill when the gag is long over? Gabriel Boyce’s current show at Vox Populi, The Last Banana, circles around such questions of humor, objecthood, and futility. While never landing on a concrete position, it is precisely that ambiguity which unsettles the exhibition, and indeed catechises the very notion of art and form.
Boyce, a Philadelphia artist by way of Columbia, Missouri and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is a member of Vox Populi. During his graduate studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Boyce focused solely on landscape drawing from direct observation, creating the tools and viewfinders necessary to make the drawings himself. This interest in draughtsmanship is evident throughout his work, much of which combines architectural feats (6ft Endless Column) with unsettling realism (Puddle). The relationship between creation and manufacture is blurry and fickle, with each scupture’s documentation fading into and out of a white-walled self-consciousness.
In The Last Banana, sculptures appear in the guise of everyday objects, mimicking that which they represent with quiet uncanniness. Without traditional titles or wall text, the sculptures appear as readymades. Upon closer inspection, the pieces drop from life into representation — the pillow in the corner is meticulously hand-sewn out of commercially-sourced yellow corduroy; the pedestal is a seamless wood construction. In this hybrid, grey, and ambiguous space the show questions the very distinction of art and object, serving both to parody and protect the gallery space. Wine Glass is a recreation of an object from an art opening, made by re-enacting a wine and cheese reception at home. The husband pillow is comforting and sad, meant to embrace viewers as they watch a mechanized magic pencil whirling up and down. Green Screen is at once a dressing screen and lawn chair, carving out a space within the exhibition to see and be seen. The sculptures are individual and decontextualized, but in collective vicinity, they host the entire structure of an opening reception.
Most striking, of course, is the humor that Boyce deploys — a straight-faced slapstick that delights in its own manifest absurdity. Green Screen’s construction is so perfect, it becomes a sculptural trompe l’oeil: it looks like a found object, until the viewer realizes that such an object would be ridiculous. Wine Glass first appears to be an unfortunate opening-night oversight before one realizes it belongs not to a tipsy patron but to the pedestal itself. Diversely, Husband Pillow never actually reveals itself; the piece requires supplemental information to slide from readymade into handcrafted object. This recreation of a manufactured counterpart is uncanny — it is in this disarming moment when the works are the punch lines to their own jokes. As Mike Kelley writes in his essay “Playing With Dead Things: On the Uncanny”, “Historically, literalness has been considered the enemy of art…The literal use of material is a non sequitur in art. No one would seriously consider the idea of sculpting a body out of actual flesh, or carving a rock out of stone. What would be the purpose of such redundant exercise?” Such works close any initial distance between sign and signified — art becomes quotidian and impossible. Kelley cites surrealist artist Hans Bellmer’s exclamation that “an object that is identical with itself is without reality”, and explicates that a readymade— a literal, material, realist sculpture— succeeds primarily in reducing “the modernist idea of art as materially self-referential to an absurdity.”
Though Boyce’s works move well past the realm of the readymade, their proximity to literalism is what makes them ambiguously deadpan. The resulting humor – so overt it becomes suspect – is not an end in and of itself. Rather, the sculptures utilize levity to investigate the fundamental differentiation and liminal space between object and art. Instead of dematerializing a manufactured item, Boyce constructs one in perfect detail. The impulse is still deconstructive, but in accompanying a specialized interest in craft, it folds in on itself, tripping in a way that seems both staged and unaware.
It is this literal humor, the childhood jokes made material, that becomes quietly corrosive. Magic Pencil churns forever, moving a quick gag past any initial surprise and into an odder, disquieting territory. Inspired by Naum Gabo’s Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave) of 1919, the piece calls into question many of the same dualities of constructed timelessness and mechanical malfunctions brought to light by its Russian predecessor. Magic Pencil’s projected intemporality is at odds with its material construction: old erector sets, a twelve volt motor, and a vintage Dixon Ticonderoga No.2 pencil. Just as with Gabo’s ninety-three year-old sculpture, Magic Pencil will break down and need parts replaced. Even more so, its life within the gallery space is keenly circumscribed — the show will come down at the end of the month. The joke will be over.
It is in this abstract, uncertain space where the works begin to crystallize as uniquely independent — they begin to break from their literal counterparts and establish an exhibition space filled with forms at once recognizable and dematerialized. The exhibition plays upon binaries: the sculptures are neither archival nor ephemeral. Taking their forms from manufactured objects, they borrow a commercial aesthetic, but they are not minimalist. Their earnestness is erosive, which is not to suggest that it is nihilistic or insidious. In the middle of such nullities, the sculptures become charmingly futile, much like body actions by Erwin Wurm or the films of Jacques Tati. They spin around in place, sag on the floor, hide away, or accidentally reveal too much. When context and certainty are zeroed out by the works, we are left with an incredibly smart and admirable show — we are left with the last banana, unappetizing, melancholic, and the sweetest of the bunch.
Manya Scheps is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied fine arts. She is the editor of New Asshole and co-founded Talking Pictures, an art theory reading group, in West Philadelphia. Her critical focus is on DIY art, its production, and its social implications.