For Create. Destroy. Rebuild. at Beep Beep Gallery, seven artists were asked to take a completed work, destroy it, and rebuild the pieces into an all-new work of art. Unfortunately, the resulting artworks seem poorly conceived due to a lack of distinction between destruction and the normal process of experimentation in art making.
Destruction denotes finality: a destroyed object is irreparable or no longer exists; a destroyed organism is dead. Though destruction seems anathema to the creation of art, it has been used effectively in conceptual art. Perhaps the two most prominent examples of willfully destroyed art are Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953, and John Baldessari’s The Cremation Project, 1970.
In the 1950s, Rauschenberg was a newcomer to the art scene, painting all-white canvases to create ‘empty’ canvases. To create an empty drawing, he erased one of his own, but found it didn’t have the same import, as he was a relatively unknown artist. Rauschenberg then visited Willem de Kooning, by that time an artist of high acclaim, and asked if he could erase one of de Kooning’s drawings. The older artist agreed, and Rauschenberg erased it completely over the course of a month (watch Rauschenberg discuss the work here). The result was a highly controversial and influential work due to the significance of what was destroyed.
Similarly, in 1970, Baldessari, frustrated with his own body of work, cremated all the paintings he’d created between 1953 and 1966 as part of a new piece called The Cremation Project. In one audacious move, Baldessari destroyed his entire life’s work, an act of sacrifice but also rebirth. The ashes from these paintings were baked into cookies and placed in an urn as part of an installation. The next year he created the lithograph I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art, 1971, which features that phrase repeated like a mantra, definitively marking a turning point in his art making. An important body of work was permanently lost but the gesture became a springboard for more artistic production.
The destruction of art can also serve a political function. Earlier this year Antonio Manfredi, director of the Casoria Contemporary Art Museum, burned a work from the museum’s holdings—with the permission of the artist—to call attention to the government cutbacks that have crippled the institution. Though the Italian government has yet to respond, Manfredi’s act has become a symbol of the crisis in art funding all over the world.
In the examples I’ve mentioned, the destruction of art was complete, irreversible, and significant for the stakes involved. In comparison, the destruction phase of the art in Create. Destroy. Rebuild. seems timid and the resulting rebuild incomplete. Indeed, many of the artist quotes displayed alongside the documentation of the creation and destruction stages admitted that the works they chose were pieces they were dissatisfied with, or that the destruction phase became part of the process. Sam Parker chose a painting he was unsatisfied with and kept working on it. Kelly McKernan and Jessica Caldas both cut works on paper into strips which were subsequently woven back together: McKernan’s into a fabric-like piece and Caldas’s into a paper nest. These acts of so-called destruction seemed more like the normal working and reworking of material; nothing was sacrificed in the effort.
The most interesting works in the show were John Paul Floyd’s photographs, printed from negatives that he sliced, punctured, scratched, and burned. He describes this mangling as an act that goes against the art-school emphasis on handling negatives with care. The photographs are of boulders at a nature preserve that narrowly escaped residential development. Floyd’s destruction of the negatives references the potential for destruction of the preserve. Even this play on the concept of destruction, however, seems muted. The negatives are gone but these boulders remain, suggesting the photographs he lost can be retaken.
For the most part, the works in Create. Destroy. Rebuild. did not enact real destruction as suggested by the concept of the show, and as such were unsatisfying. If there are no stakes behind the destruction of an artwork, and no intention other than those set by the title of the show, how can we take these acts seriously? Outside of the art-school critique, why would anyone care? Create. Destroy. Rebuild. demanded little more than normal art-making from the participating artists and as a result the works demand little from the viewer.
Create. Rebuild. Destroy. will remain up at Beep Beep Gallery through Monday, June 30, 2012. The gallery is open Wednesday, Fridays, and Saturdays from noon to 6PM and Thursdays from 1 to 6PM.