Jonathan Horowitz, ‘Minimalist Works from the Holocaust Museum’
Dundee Contemporary Arts, 27 November 2010 – 20 February 2011
Comprising a number of new works by forty-something risen artstar Jonathan Horowitz, Dundee Contemporary Arts gives us a show which demonstrates wonderfully Horowitz’s trademark blending of ‘irony, politics, and humour in surprising and off-putting forms’. Horowitz certainly does blend irony, politics and humour in surprising and off-putting forms, he’s good at it, and the Dundee display is a very effective, concentrated blast of Horowitz’s dark and jaggy humour.
It is the Minimalist works of biggies Richard Serra, Joel Shapiro, Elsworth Kelly and Sol Le Witt, commissioned for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, that are under specific attack from the subversive irony. For most, this range of portentous targets would remain perfectly untouched: any damage done being done to the artist’s reputation for trying. But this testing exhibition succeeds in its varied critique, and you can hear Horowitz giggle as he steps off the tightrope.
On walking into the main space of the exhibition you’re faced with a designer crucifix – shaped to allow the demise of two. The ante is set. The gallery leaflet tells us of autre-biggie Donald Judd’s fondness for the Douglas Fir, from which the crucifix is made, and informs us that Horowitz makes repeated use of the ‘Crucifix for Two’ motif in his oeuvre. Returning to the crucifix after a tour of the works, the construction gets past its Siamese humour and stands there all sinister.
Sex, love, devotion, fandom, mania – all stained with ideology dye – pervade this show. The crucifix is to be used by those whose insert relevant helpless human foible based on love might impinge on the lives of others as well as their own. Stop to think about this in Horowitz’s ambit and you could upset yourself: the cost of insurmountable love, the sum of which might mean more to each of the constituent parts, can be very high indeed. The smooth and perfect material seductiveness of the Douglas Fir (the Donald Judd), inseparable as it is from its loving carpentry, is checked. This is a ghastly object – all too human – and all too clinical given that it is.
What’s more, ‘Crucifix for Two’ faces an ominous pink shape on the wall. ‘Pink Curve’ 2010, a should-be-innocuous phenomenon spoofs Ellsworth Kelly’s white fibreglass sculpture in the Holocaust Museum. But this is more than a reminder of the visual designation of homosexuals in Nazi Germany. The crucifix shadows the reading of ‘Pink Curve’ and turns the comic shape into something humorously frightening – a chart of some kind which maybe records the trajectory of exterminations or deaths from aids. Whichever powerful subtext you choose here, standing next to the crucifix, you’ll struggle to allow the Kelly to be ever again a forever-benign formal shape.
The cruelty-of-love is furthered by the three pieces behind the crucifix. This time the potent mixture contains an ingredient or two from a critique of market-driven culture. Three ‘Contribution Cubes’, updated from 2004, invite monetary donations for one or all of the worthy causes: ‘People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’; ‘Palestine Red Crescent Society’; and ‘Behind the Mask: for the LGBTI of Africa’.
Unsettled by the crucifix, aware of the Disney-pink shape turning black, now you’re contending with the ugly human sullying of otherwise adorable cuboids. Once stroked and polished by human lovers of Juddist geometric virginity, these forms are blemished by the political overlay – another ghastly clashing of shape and cause. Put your money in the slot, cast your fiscal vote, salve your conscience, and ruin a good cube with your contextual concerns. But there’s very little cash in these boxes – art is not about concernedness of this sort argues Horowitz with his tongue in his cheek. Other works do well to continue the bittersweet theme of Horowitz as the great deflator – the human needle to puncture formalist art pomp.
But there is something serene about the minimalist works in the Holocaust Museum in Washington. Massive Serras describe at once the unspeakable enormity of that part of our history and the durability of our humanity as counterforce. And the shapes of the minimalist works in that impossible context do work as reduced-referential totems of determination never to repeat. In fact Horowitz doesn’t tackle head-on Serra’s ‘Gravity’, which, through name and form, might have been a sitting duck.
Given the seriousness of the cultural context, this show is a fascinating demonstration of audacious critique and it is well served by moments of scurrilous cheek. The minimalist works do their duty as straightmen for Horowitz’s humour and still live on in Washington and elsewhere to inspire awe and represent pointless piousness in equal measure.