This is a repost, originally published on Red Wedge in early 2013 and lost, along with other folks’ writings, in RW’s various technical transitions to new website formats over the past two years. “Breaking the Silence” is a review of the exhibition “Tony Feher”, organized by the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston.
Per the Bertolt Brecht quotation with which I begin, different oppressions can be, and historically have been on the left, visually represented in a realist, figural, or imagistic idiom. Feher’s work raises the question of how such oppressions can be represented through abstraction or “formalism.” In what political situations or struggle contexts would the latter, seemingly counter-intuitive, approaches be necessary or even possible in the first place?
“Tony Feher” debuted at the Des Moines Art Center in Des Moines, Iowa and ultimately traveled to the Blaffer in Houston, the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, the Bronx Museum in New York City, and the Akron Art Museum in Akron, Ohio.
In the midst of the upheavals of the Great Depression, Bertolt Brecht penned this criticism of abstract art: “You paint … an indeterminate red; and some cry at the sight of this indeterminate red because they think of a rose, and others because they think of a child lacerated by bombs and streaming with blood”. Per Brecht, this ambiguity should be resolved in favor of a politicized and partisan art that clearly represents: recognizable “objects” and “motifs”; “specific perceptions, like anger in the face of injustice”; and other perceptions “which may alter the relation of the viewer of his [sic] paintings to the objects represented in them”.
This criticism is hardly uncommon today and is still applicable, if not “correct”, even as art has expanded well beyond the traditional media (for example, a monochrome canvas) at which Brecht’s comments were targeted. The worst economic downturn for working people since the Depression, and the most significant anti-systemic upsurge in longstanding centers of capitalist power since the 1970s, ensure that these debates on the relationship between art and politics will remain relevant.
The recent exhibition “Tony Feher”, at the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston and curated by the Blaffer's Director and Chief Curator Claudia Schmuckli, is a consideration of Feher’s defining sculptural practice, which he began in 1987. These mature works, particularly when understood in terms of the historical period in which they were created, very much pose the question of abstraction versus representation.
From the late 1980s forward, Feher (who himself tested positive for the HIV virus in 1989) was a member of ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. ACT UP’s flagship organization had formed in early 1987 in New York City to engage in militant direct action around the many life-or-death issues concerning the then-escalating AIDS crisis.
A highly politicized art practice was associated with ACT UP, as well as other mass struggles prominent in the streets in the late 1980s and early 1990s. These struggles mobilized tens of thousands and included: the LGBTIQ movements and groups like Queer Nation and the Lesbian Avengers (this was not equivalent to the AIDS movement, despite obvious intersections); the feminist movements and groups like Women’s Health Action Mobilization (WHAM) and Women’s Action Coalition (WAC), agitating around abortion rights and the defense of women’s clinics (under assault around the country by Operation Rescue and similar reactionary forces); and campaigns organized within the art world itself, in support of artistic freedom and against censorship (spurred by a constant stream of attacks by right-wing legislators against the works of David Wojnarowicz, Andres Serrano, Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, Annie Sprinkle, Tim Miller, John Fleck, Robert Mapplethorpe, and other artists).
Some of the most notable political visuals of the era were created by arts-and-graphics collectives within ACT UP: for example, Gran Fury, Silence=Death Project, and Little Elvis in NYC; and Boy With Arms Akimbo / Girl With Arms Akimbo in San Francisco. Other collectives, not associated with an activist group, were notable as well, particularly in NYC: Group Material (members during the period included Félix González-Torres, Julie Ault, Doug Ashford, and Tim Rollins), and General Idea (longtime collaborators Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal and AA Bronson). Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, and Keith Haring were among those individual artists (mostly) outside collectives that created engaged works. Much of this art was polemical or didactic, with the directness and immediacy required in addressing urgent political questions and in making propaganda for on-the-ground organizations and struggles. Much of this art appeared in public: on demonstration placards, street posters, billboards, crack-and-peel stickers, t-shirts, and book covers and in journal graphics, video, installations, and other media.
Striking about the works on view at the Blaffer is the formal distance that Feher takes from this whole roiling context. His sculptures are composed from the banal detritus common in our everyday capitalist world, especially the packaging used to circulate consumer goods, whether in warehouses, in distribution centers, on delivery trucks, on store shelves, or in a grocery bag: plastic soda bottles and caps, tins, glass jars, lids, soft drink crates, potato chip bags, paper cups, cardboard boxes, polystyrene (for, among other things, cushioning new appliances), straws, metal and plastic straps (of the type used to reinforce parcels), and mesh fruit containers. These materials remain whole, maintain their shape, and are, thus, able to sustain the geometries, evocative of Minimalism, that Feher constructs with them: for example, jars can be stacked one atop another or laid out in a square on the gallery floor; bottles can sit upright, in an ordered series, on a shelf; polystyrene blocks can form a ziggurat. Appearing as well are: painter’s tape, plastic weed trimmer, assorted filament, tubing, marbles, pennies, rope, coils, springs, and washers.
Manual modifications to these found objects are sparing. They are dusted off or washed up and evince little of the grime of the streets or the discarded. The original shipping labels remain on many of the cardboard boxes. Rust remains on small hardware.
Bottle and can labels are cleanly removed, eliminating any evidence of their corporate source. At points, jar lids (for jellies?, salsas?, sauces?) are turned upside down, again presumably veiling the brand; only their sides are visible, revealing generic slogans or instructions: “100% NATURAL” or “REFRIGERATE AFTER OPENING”, as in Untitled, 1993. The relative absence of recognized consumer signs puts Feher’s work at a remove from Pop art.
There are little, if any, images, text, or representational matter that have been added to the pre-given readymades used in the works, which is another aspect that differentiates them from central political work of that time period and gives them an abstract character. However, the artist’s compositions have frequently been read as allegorizing the human body and its conditions, including mortality, Meckel’s diverticulum (which threatened Feher’s life in 1989), and AIDS.
Suture, 1997, is a set of 57 clear, plastic bottles, partially filled with water and orange dye, hanging from a rope. The bottles have a red or white cap (a reference to blood cell types); and each is hooked to the rope via a length of vertical metal wire. The repetitive intersection of the rope with the multiple, vertical wires does visually resemble certain surgical stitches. The sculpture is given a further organic sense by way of: the rope, which is not rigidly horizontal, but gently bows in the middle; and the water (which comprises approximately 60% of a person’s total weight). Suture is indeed suggestive of wounds, repair, and healing.
Untitled, 1987, is a sealed glass jar flush with translucent red marbles. Only about half-a-foot in height, this small sculpture is decidedly anti-monumental; and, in vertical orientation, homologous to the standing human body. Once again, the red acts as a metaphor for blood (and tests for the blood-borne HIV) and gestures towards the circulatory system.
Penny Piece, 1995-ongoing, is a series of US pennies, one minted in each year of Feher’s life to date, on a wooden shelf; they are ordered chronologically (ascending). The color of the coins subtly shifts as the viewer scans leftward along the line of the shelf: they have progressively lost luster and darkened, due to oxidation and corrosion, with age. A small, lidded glass jar sits empty on the left. Penny Piece registers the trajectory of life and its gradual decay.
Applying Brecht’s terms to Feher’s “indeterminate red[s]”, there is an absence of forthright “objects” and “motifs” of the body, the “anger” of the body, the “injustice[s]” to which the body is subjected, or a body charging collective mobilization against such injustices, in this specific case AIDS. Nevertheless, abstraction and allegorizing of the body can still be understood as consistent with the on-the-ground political response to the AIDS epidemic at the time Feher was developing his artistic approach.
Representations of persons with AIDS (PWAs), per Brecht’s terms, could be extraordinarily problematic during that period. AIDS was first seen in 1981. The one-to-many, vertical mass media in the 1980s (television broadcasts, newspapers, magazines) were replete with stories that trafficked in, and intensified, the worst prejudices: homophobia, racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, and vilification of sex workers and IV drug users. Images of PWAs were constructed in ways which were invasive, objectifying, and disempowering: for example, the ubiquitous scene of a PWA dying alone in a darkened hospital room or covered in the distinctive purplish lesions of Kaposi’s Sarcoma, an opportunistic infection that commonly struck those with AIDS. Those images were incapable of addressing the underlying political and social causes that transformed the HIV virus, a basic biological phenomena, into an actual crisis that was killing tens of thousands every year in the US alone by 1986: malice and neglect at all governmental levels, particularly the White House (the conservative Ronald Reagan did not so much as utter the word “AIDS” in public until 1987); a bigoted social climate; and profit-driven pharmaceutical and healthcare industries. Those images were also incapable of registering the massive grassroots-based efforts by and for PWAs, mostly within the gay and lesbian communities: organizing among PWAs for self-empowerment, as articulated in the 1983 Denver Principles; providing housing; delivering food and tending to the homebound; acting as extended family, when the biological families of origin rejected their sons or daughters; hospice care; testing out potential treatments for opportunistic infections; among many other things.
In this context, a Brechtian representation of the body with AIDS and the injustices surrounding it would be in danger of easy re-absorption into the pre-existing field of problematic, mass-media signs. Brecht’s demand for realism, determinate clarity, and recognizable properties risks treating as the truth of such a body the publicly-visible “stigmata” of Kaposi’s Sarcoma lesions or physical wasting, for instance. PWAs themselves were challenging such biased definitions of bodily truth, in favor of one that emphasized the fact that they were living with AIDS, weren’t always sick, and weren’t necessarily doomed to die. Similarly, the truth of injustices – for instance, abandonment by families and the social isolation engendered by fear of AIDS, both featured prominently in the media – were being challenged by PWAs’ and the gay and lesbian communities’ cooperative response. This was all important politically. A movement can rarely be sustained long-term reactively or by mere threat, no matter how serious. There has to be a positive, clear, and possible future towards which people are encouraged to struggle together (treatments, an ultimate cure).
In this abstract work, Feher approaches the object of the body and its conditions obliquely, awry. This poetic, allegorical approach may be the only way that object can be figured for us today.