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Mario Cutajar

STEPPING IN IT:
THE EXCREMENTAL IN ART


When I paint, what am I really doing? Freud’s answer would have been that I’m redirecting the complex of sadistic impulses related to what he termed the anal stage toward a different object. Instead of playing with my shit, I smear paint on canvas or paper. To sublimate, according to Freud, is to channel the libido and its infantile fixations into activities that yield socially valorized objects.

One of my earliest memories is indeed of standing up in my cot and taking advantage of being left unobserved for a brief period to smear the closest wall with my excrement. I must have had indulgent parents because I don’t recall any severe repercussions. Every painting since has at bottom (if you’ll excuse the pun) been a repetition of that first one.
I’ve been thinking about this because after a hiatus of some six or seven years, I recently started painting again, and this time with the full acknowledgment and acceptance that painting is “dead.” I used to be deeply wounded by that assertion. Now, it seems liberating. But we will get to that in a moment.

In truth, it is not just painting but all the plastic arts considered as media--which is to say as efficient vehicles for disseminating ideas--that are dead. The tendency to regard the plastic arts as media reflects the ubiquity of advertising. But it dovetails with the romantic notion of art as primarily a means of “self-expression.” Even putting aside for the moment the problematic construction of the self, the self-consciously expressed content of art is rarely the most engaging. What we typically get is: “Love me because . . . I’m a primitive . . . I’m conversant with the latest theory . . . I’m hip . . . I don’t care about being hip . . . “ and any number of variations on and permutations of these themes. Art that bears more than passing attention speaks with a fractured voice or with several conflicting voices at once. And it may well leave one unable to decide whether one loves it or hates it. At this level, if art functions as a medium it is a medium of a hard-to-pin-down subject that evades the censorship of the official facade we call the ego. And at this level, which is not the level of communicating what one already knows or thinks one knows but the level of bringing to light what one would rather not know--awkwardness, fear, isolation, perversity--the choice of medium itself, which is actually not a choice but something akin to a fatal attraction, is significant in itself.

Fundamentally, all media, like all languages, are dead structures haunted by living ghosts. Nobody is born speaking English any more than they are born speaking Latin. When a language is officially dead, however, its materiality, its non a priori status is unveiled. And so it is that the obsolescence of the plastic arts as media brings to light that very inertness that artists formerly struggled against as they have attempted to create the illusion of life.

For better or worse, this dimension of art, the material side, or if you want to do without euphemisms, the excremental dimension, is what excites me. In my mind at least, poetry, pottery, and potty are concepts that are intimately related, to a degree that has not always been easy to acknowledge. When I gave up on painting, one of the reasons was that I had convinced myself that none of the things that “should” interest a painter interested me. Not light. Not the figure. Not the tradition. Or at any rate, none of these things directly, in their own right. The thing that made painting available to me was the ability of a surface to hold dirt. At a certain point that didn’t seem like a sustainable reason for making paintings. It meant that my ambition was to make crap!



Mike Kelley, "Frankenstein,"
1989, mixed media.












Robert Smithson, “Asphalt Rundown,”
1969, earthwork in Rome, Italy.
Photo courtesy James Cohan Gallery.
Well, I got over it. Now, the trick is to work without pretensions or expectations, avoiding any ambition except the extremely modest one of making something that resembles a painting in the very rudimentary sense of being a paint-covered surface.

In the meantime, I’ve been rethinking some of my old prejudices. Being a latent coprophiliac can make you queasy about the manifestation of the same tendency in other people. That would account, for instance, for the negative reaction I had when I first came upon Mike Kelly’s stuffed animal sculptures. (That and my aversion to the monotonous regularity with which the artworld manufactures new sensations.) Upon recently seeing an image of one of these things on the web, what struck me was the gamut of excremental connotations that they manage to pack. Conjoined from discards, the no-longer-wanted “babies” of children who’ve outgrown their childhood or at least their toys, they work every possible excremental metaphor: shit as penis, shit as baby, shit as gift, shit as viscera. Their real kick, though, comes from the incongruous associations Kelly sutures together. In their “normal” context these toys symbolize the innocence that adults attribute to children, in denial of both their own memories and what Freud and Melanie Klein uncovered about the anarchic perversity of infantile fantasy. Kelly’s provocation consists in remaking them into the playthings of that denied fantasy, which he reactivates as his own return to infantilism.

The excremental manifests in art in various guises. The references can be direct, oblique, or entirely unconscious. It can manifest as poverty of both content and means. Pop, for instance, is often associated with the consumption side of the economy. But its iconography typically focuses on the most used-up (evacuated) of visual clichés. To that extent it betrays an impulse to revalorize the excremental. Earthworks and the postminimalist fixation on the processing of industrial materials from which the earthworks aesthetic developed revalorize the excremental by associating it with the constructive and destructive energies of heavy industry. Robert Smithson’s “Asphalt Rundown” is a big dump. His “Monuments of Passaic” are a colonoscopy of New Jersey’s industrial wastelands.

Sometimes the excremental manifests in forms that are at once both more direct in their reference but which, thanks to their exploitation of viewers’ presumptions, also more veiled. Nothing could be more fecal as an art material than clay, and the forms Linda Benglis (who has a long history of making art by dumping stuff on the floor) recently exhibited at Frank Lloyd practically declare themselves as piles of shit. But the high-art context, the cutesy titles, and the omnipresent memory of abstract expressionist gesturalism all conspire to hide what would otherwise be obvious. In this case, the revalorization of the excremental relies on granting viewers covert satisfaction of their coprophilia without disturbing their decorous denial of it. This is perhaps the oldest of art strategies. The excremental, after all, is contraband in the very manipulation of the materials of the plastic arts. Yet we typically overlook this. When I previewed Carlos Estrada-Vega’s modular paintings some time ago, I mentioned their resemblance to confections. That placed them at the oral entrance to the digestive tract. But these things are almost literally stacked logs. They are colored turds. Nonetheless, the connection escaped me because, quite simply, I didn’t want to see it. On the other hand, something that has never escaped me, and of which I was once again reminded by a show of works on paper at Manny Silverman, is how unmistakably (at least to me) Robert Motherwell’s black shapes in his Elegy series also resemble turds.

With other artists, it is the poverty of their materials that is immediately striking. The tactic here is to redeem the excremental by elegantly reconfiguring it. This is something that Steve DeGroodt does all the time. The aesthetic is transmutative. It coaxes the exquisite out of the mundane. But sometimes the exquisite is but a detour that eventually returns, perhaps unwittingly, to the excremental. An example is supplied by Lynn Aldrich’s “Serpentarium,” which consists of a coiled garden hose held together with cable ties and made to assume the shape of a pot. The allusions to serpents and pots are already fecal but if you mentally invert the sculpture, the connection becomes impossible to evade: you end up with a plastic pile of doo-doo. These and countless other works reveal the prevalence of the excremental theme in art that foregrounds its materiality.

What is it that keeps artists orbiting this theme? It has to be, in some part, a need to address a trauma that is actually universal. If a child’s first gift is shit--the gift of its insides, prototype of all later “expressions”--then one of its earliest traumas is the discovery that others do not value this gift as highly as it does. Its precious gift is literally wasted. An artist, presumably, is someone who never gets over this disappointment but spends the rest of his or her life trying to make shit that others will acknowledge wanting.


Lynda Benglis, “Leaded Moss Knot,”
1992-93, ceramic, 17 x 12 x 14”.
Photo courtesy Frank Lloyd Gallery.






Carlos Estrada-Vega
, "Florito,” 2005,
oil/wax/oleopasto/dry pigments on
canvas on wood, 6 1/4 x 6 1/4”.






Robert Motherwell
, "Elegy Study #4", 1983,
acrylic and pencil on canvasboard, 12 x 30".

© Dedalus Foundation, all rights reserved






Steve DeGroodt, “Transducer,” 2004, Fix-
All, cloth, music paper, dimensions variable.
Photo courtesy Carl Berg Gallery.






Lynn Aldrich, "Serpentarium," 2002, garden
hose/cable ties/blastic, 30 x 25 x 25"..
Photo courtesy Carl Berg Gallery.

At a deeper level, the value of the excremental may lie in its ability to evoke what the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan called the Real, which is the world in its uncategorizable fullness, the world unmediated by language, and, therefore, also the world that is beyond our grasp. This Real, which we imagine we knew once as a state of Edenic wholeness, is a fiction, for the simple but not obvious reason that prior to our acquisition of language and simultaneous fall into alienation, the self that could experience and enjoy this unity did not exist. Unity, by definition, does not permit individuation. The paradox is that this blissful Real comes into view only at the moment when it becomes unattainable, there being no way to be unborn to language once you have been cast into it. Subsequently the Real attains the status of what Freud called the Lost Object, which we relentlessly seek in other people, blind to the fact that the idea of its being lost is itself a consoling fiction designed to give us hope by constituting the lost object as capable of being refound.

Were we to actually attain this Real, impossible as that is, we would experience psychic obliteration in the same sense that the Greeks imagined that humans exposed to the unbearable effulgence of the gods would instantly burn up. The beyond of language is a realm of suffocating, crushing fullness. From a distance, an aesthetic distance, this beyond of language has the same allure as the aestheticized excremental. From this distance, the Real is the allure of plasticity and the beauty of color and texture. Up close, at the point where mediation approaches its limit, the Real and the excremental become overpowering. At that point, shit becomes a nasty reminder of death, decomposition, and reincorporation into the impersonal.

Art that concerns itself with its own materiality inevitably preoccupies itself with transfiguring the excremental, the heaviness of death that weighs upon life, into aesthetic presence. The gift artists give to others, it turns out, is not a specific object, but the spectacle of sublimation itself.