By Zachary Rawe
“Some kinds of art are routinely described as powerfully (read: intensely) expressive or emotional, but Judd’s work is not of that sort: if his objects were persons (and I mean this strictly in a fanciful way) they would more likely be described as the proverbial ‘strong, silent type.’”
-Anna C. Chave, Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power
I have a tendency to focus on individual artworks as opposed to an exhibition’s entirety. Writing about art in this way is an attempt to see how much dialogue a single artistic gesture can generate. This challenge, I hope, is twofold; it demands that I refine my language in relation to artwork, while also demanding that the artwork be able to maintain a dialogue. In Sharon Koelblinger’s exhibition A Scar is a Question Mark, I felt as though her works desired to stop dead my dialogue in favor of a distant, empathetic correspondence. Her works — on view during April at Vox Populi — exude signifiers that are quickly recognizable and available for discussion. At the same time, their minimalist austerity undercut more specific conversations in favor of formal ones. As Koeblinger suggests with the title of her exhibition, scars are remnants of painful histories. I would, in turn, suggest that (outside of close friendships and romantic partners) it is rare that people ask about scars.
Luck Like Lead is reductively minimalist. During the exhibition it hung on the far back wall of Koelblinger’s sparsely installed space. As an object, it is a tiny replica of a four-leaf clover dangling from a thin silk string. The clover’s color is a chilly ash grey, distinctly dead compared to the lively Kelly green associated with all things Irish. The silk is a punctuating bright red that provides the work with a confident visual. Luck Like Lead firmly holds the viewer’s attention despite being the smallest work in the exhibition, reveling in minimalist maneuvers such as using limited, transparent materials. The aesthetic insistence on minimalism allows this piece to register as coolly detached; at first, it seems completely disinterested in gushy emotion.
But gushy emotion seeps into the work through the process of making an object that romanticizes luck. This is where the clover starts to (melodramatically) break my own Irish heart — if one is in the position of fantasizing about luck, it is implicit that they view themselves as unlucky already. What does it mean if an artist produces an object for luck? What if the lucky object is seemingly despondent and far from what one would traditionally call affective? Koelblinger’s production of this clover is a gesture full of these sorrowful questions, however the questions are painfully frozen by the objects’ austere minimalism. Luck and fantasy wink at the viewer from a distance, while its material reality is mundanely present. It becomes apparent to me this four-leaf clover doesn’t gesture towards luck, but rather, towards luck’s distance and unattainability. Luck is isolated and adorned as something wanted, not had. Of course there aren’t many who wouldn’t like a bit more luck, but producing a little frugal work that memorializes luck’s absence is a step away from fanciful daydreaming. This work feels decidedly melancholic, and resonates as a quietly cathartic object that wistfully wishes it had something better to offer.
The questions that this single artwork generates go unanswered precisely as a result of the Koelblinger’s use of minimalist aesthetics. The opening quote for this review is from Anna C. Chave’s discussion of minimalism’s use of power and masculinity, and it’s dismissiveness towards emotion. The specific quote I’m using refers to her understanding of Donald Judd’s work, describing it as the, “strong, silent type.” Being aware of this reading of minimalism informs my understanding of Koelblinger’s work. To make a playful equivalency, I think of this clover as the, “vulnerable, silent type.” Luck Like Lead is decidedly vulnerable, both in its material qualities and its operative stance as a gesture. The object itself is small and barely suspended by silk. It is even hung at face level, so if one is closely viewing it their breath would delicately push the clover, revealing how precarious it’s physicality is. As a gesture, it reveals a desire for luck, but never admits to why. Its aesthetics keep the viewer at a distance, while its production keeps the viewer empathetically invested.
This is where the idea of the scar in the title of Koelblinger’s exhibition gains traction. A scar is literally the surface of skin that never fully healed after a wound or injury occurred. Minimalism, for Koelblinger, does the same by glossing over the sorrowful questions. I agree that a scar is a question mark, however, I’m not very concerned about where the scar came from. Instead I’m concerned as to why this object maintains austerity. Generally, I find this four-leaf clover particularly devastating, as it is both fragile and confidently withholding.
Zachary Rawe is an artist, curator, and writer based in Philadelphia, PA. Rawe creates anxious objects and texts invested in affective responses to the dissolved relationship between work and leisure.