Originally published in:
This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s
Edited by Helen Molesworth
Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in association with
Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2012
|Allan McCollum, Plaster Surrogates, 1982/84. Installation: Cash/Newhouse Gallery, 1984.||Eric Baum
After mounting a few exhibitions I learned quickly that the Surrogates worked to their best effect when they came across as props-like stage props-which pointed to a much larger melodrama than could ever exist merely within the paintings themselves. The Surrogates, via their reduced attributes and their relentless sameness, started working to render the gallery into a quasi-theatrical space which seemed to 'stand for' a gallery; and by extension, this rendered me into a sort of caricature of an artist, and the viewers became performers and so forth. In trying to objectify the conventions of art production, I theatricalized the whole situation...McCollum, then, produces a surrogate of painting, an empty signifier that stands "in the place of social relations, objectifying them in a displaced way," as George Baker has astutely put it. The surrogate fulfills the task of painting: it facilitates aesthetic engagement and economic exchange, produces discourse, and takes up space on the wall. It does all the things that a painting should do. But it is not a painting. It is a fraud, a fake, a stand-in.
This problem is evinced in May I Help You?, 1991, a performance by Andrea Fraser, executed "in cooperation" with McCollum. In the piece, performers in the guise of gallery assistants greet the visitors to an exhibition of Surrogates at the now-defunct New York gallery American Fine Arts, Co., and conduct a tour through the exhibition of near-identical works, acting out a range of reactions for the viewer. Moving from piece to piece, the performers rapidly shift personas (critic, collector, dealer, amateur) and languages, from the rhetoric of distinction to that of confectionary delight, from financial appraisal to philistine rejection. The works, then, function as the absent center around which a proliferation of institutionalized identities and discourses whir. Fraser's intervention exploits the Surrogates' prop-like character-their blurring of the distinction between reality and artifice-in order to make manifest the social armature that sustains the aesthetic encounter and the projected values it produces. McCollum's conventional signs for "painting" cast the entire space of the gallery as a stage for performance.