When, in the late 1990s, Ralph Rugoff curated an exhibition at Rosamund Felson Gallery in Los Angeles with the title “Just Pathetic,” the critic Robert Storr remarked that the underlying idea, “patheticism,” was one of the only stylistic denotations of the ’90s to stick. I was reminded of this while standing in Curtis Ames’s exhibition “In General” at Mint Satellite, partly, I think, because I always misremember the title of Storr’s article itself as “Just Pathetic” rather than “Just Exquisite,” and partly because patheticism was the term Rugoff used to map an exploration of the abject that was previously unknown — or at least unmapped — in the American context.
What makes Ames’s show so intriguing, and in many ways so humorous, is that it is the successor to patheticism, a successor to works grounded in a deep theoretical and conceptual framework that seem as if they are, instead, merely pieces of junk. This is their magic. And, this is the magic of “In General.”
Ames’s exhibition is far more than a casual nod to his visual antecedents. He has distilled their conceptual essences down to a single visual trope, reconceived them, and made them manifest. Take Coupled Forms, for example. Here, two wire basket frames — complex polyhedrons that recall Robert Morris’s untitled works of 1967 — are intertwined on the floor. They are more intimate in scale, and play with the ideas that LeWitt so methodically explored, but for Ames these ideas are just a ground on which he has laid his new figures. On the back right wall, Sanded Wood (2015), a painted board — essentially a 2 x 4 — riffs on Donald Judd.
Part of the fun of “In General” is this game of art history associations, but the works stand on their own as Nietzschean “eternal returns,” or perhaps the reinterpretations of a pared down ’90s aesthetic. Ames oscillates between titles that are evocative and descriptive, between Folded Sheet Metal and Forced Collaboration: the former, literally a cut and folded form that again references Minimalism, humorous in its minute scale, and the latter, a blue ball inserted into a hole cut in a sheet of plywood.
What is the most amusing, and the most perplexing, is that Ames’s work is strongest when it is either truly reductionist or truly conceptual. So Flaccid Paper, a sheet of paper taped to the wall along its bottom edge and drooping downward, is a laugh-out-loud work, as are Plopped Plaster — blobs of plaster dropped onto the floor —and Deflated Balls, a cluster of various types of sports balls arrayed in the gallery’s front corner. Maybe there is one too many penis references in the show, but this may just be a none-too-subtle swing at Minimalism’s machismo.
On the other end of the spectrum, Wet Paint (Do Not Use Stairwell) is a tour de force. Simply, as a work it invites viewers to do precisely what it is a categorical imperative against, inviting them to climb the stairs to read an already visible sign. On a deeper level, it recalls the famous Fluxus piece by Yoko Ono that revealed the word Yes. Ono’s piece actually required viewers to climb a ladder – Ames’s slacker version allows them to keep their feet planted firmly on the ground. Even Ended Beginning, an unnerving video that at first seems to document a camera tilting on its axis but turns out to show the endless machinations of a broken projector screen, creates a monotonous soundtrack that is strangely mesmerizing.
Ames’s work is emblematic of a new approach to synthesizing the historical and the contemporary that seems to characterize the Atlanta scene at the moment. Whether it is imbued with humor or with seriousness, the works illustrate that that art does not exist disconnected from its past. “In General” fabricates a lineage that is deeply funny, resonant, and rewarding through constructing specific works and by constructing connections to art’s past. What casual viewers may see as a collection of deflated balls or haphazard doorstops are in fact deeply conceived reflections on the state of contemporary art today. Well, generally.