The advent of the « receptacle form »

Palma de Mallorca, August 2019

The discussions on this site are about form, the semiology of images, and the relationships between images and their time and environment, as much as they are about art. We are therefore not shy of addressing from time to time topics which might address a more social angle, or sometimes seem more judgemental than analytical.

While visiting a few art galleries in Palma de Mallorca, the author could not but marvel at these two opposite worlds separated by only a hundred yards, that of the Gerhardt Braun Gallery, on the one hand, and of ABA Art Center, on the other.

The former has become a little empire: it can boast vast, well organized showrooms on both sides of the street, and it actually seemed that the whole street was under rapid conquest. The works shown there are a magnificent example of art manufactured for a well-targeted segment of the market, let us call it the “upper-middle segment”, upper for the wealth level, middle for the visual education level, quite representative of the tourism which owns or rents large houses and motor boats on the island. Let us take two paradigmatic examples, that of the Energy Ray exhibition of Francesca Martí and of Summer Madness by Leon Löwentraut.

The work of Francesca Martí immediately pleases the eye. Colours are vivid, parts of it is easily recognizable thanks to a “signature character” which has the appearance of a toy man with no distinguishable features, and a brilliant way to quote as remotely as possible a few major contemporary artists so as to borrow some of their light without actually appearing to repeat their work. The works are neither small nor very large, ideally suited to fit into a room of reasonable size. Last but not least, we are given to think that there is an underlying message, which is put forward in the opening poster; no further captions needed.

Here is the attempted message: “Francesca Martí focuses on the human dynamic. Through her art, she analyses human behaviour, whenever people are gathered together in crowds at political demonstrations, in religious rites, at border controls, commuting to work, or even as a group of fans at a sporting event. Martí looks at the role of leaders, followers and congregations. Her figures wander through the cityscapes she has photographed in Madrid, New York, Shanghai, Stockholm and other urban hubs. She has called these sculptures her Believers. They are explorers migrating to new, brightly coloured territories. Sometimes these figures all follow the same path, as in Martí’s Energy Ray installation, a procession of Believers advancing with the determination of a lightning bolt. Meanwhile, a series of works in Perspex boxes by Martí features the enlarged heads of anonymous mannequins and blocks of bold, neon colours. Surreal chains of figures move in single file across expressionless faces. “the life-like figures of the mannequins are without a soul, but they are given new spirit by the energetic Believers walking across the topography of their faces” explains Martí. They are like explorers discovering new lands””.

I quote the text in full as it is very enlightening, in a sense. First is a general approach that sounds anthropological: art has something to tell us about human gatherings, and who is not interested in such a topic? Then we have the setting of large, modern metropolises, which brings to topic closer to us, who live in those cities, or other ones similar. Enter the character of the Believer. This is a brilliant name, admirably ambivalent. You may use it as a positive sign – to believe implies having a purpose, an inner energy – or as a negative sign, as a faceless believer could just as well be a moron who follows any crowd out of ignorance and blind acceptance. We then learn that the Believer is an explorer, full of energy: here we have the positive charge. But what exactly is the message, by the way?  There is none. The message is that you are induced to feel that there is one, and probably feel obliged to project your own. Once you have projected your version of the message on the work, it becomes a mirror of your own thought process, and you are therefore more convinced of the relevance of the message which you have elaborated yourself.

Formally, the enlarged Believer has the texture, the mirror skin of a Jeff Koons, or of Schütte’s Kleiner Geist (see illustration), while the “expressionless mannequins” constitute a three-dimensional quotation of pop’ art, bright colours included. But the synthesis is original, and cannot be denied a degree of seduction. The artist is definitely using the codes of a highly visible segment of contemporary art, readily accessible in any serious art fair.

This is not to say that Francesca Marti is an artist to be discarded; in fact, she is quite brilliant in her use of the image, her tuning it to the desires of the market, and her great mastery of visual impact; she does produce pieces which deserve more than a passing interest, as she possesses a wide range of technical and expressive abilities in different media as illustrated here-below.

This, at any rate, is art for the market. The sign that is the image has become a product, and there is a market for signs made receptacles, just as in the political arena there is a market for ideologies made receptacles, or recipients, which can be filled by any angers, frustrations or desires. We will call this group of images “receptacle forms”. Receptacle forms are images which are capable of connoting a mood, a period, a tonality, and can be “filled” (or not) by any number of symbols, concepts, ideas. They are not an opera aperta, an open text in the sense given by Umberto Eco in his fundamental essay of 1962, where Eco developed the theory of an art work open to the interpretation of its reader (or viewer). In fact, Opera aperta had a subtitle, form and indetermination in contemporary poetics, which related to the refusal by a number of writers or composers to accept any organic development of the text, any necessary causation, introducing, precisely, a degree of non-determination, of non-necessity between what is stated and what is received. The receptacle form does not lend itself to the viewers’ co-construction as it is not made in order to propose or state something which might then be completed, oriented differently, or specified; nor is it related to a built-in “indetermination” of the image.

Rather, the receptacle form is an emblem; it is meant to circulate as a reflexive sign which designates itself as a work of art emanating a certain mood, a certain Stimmung, and designates its owner as a participant in the art community, one who knows and speaks the generally accepted codes, rather like a coat of arms in blank, or to be completed, akin to some drawings in children’s books. A coat of arms would have signalled a grandee, irrespective of the heraldic meaning; the analysis of its contents would then have told a family story, an ambition, a set of values.

The receptacle form could be compared to a vase in which you may decide – or not – to insert the flower-concept which you like, so that the whole – the vase with the flowers –  may be considered as a totality, an art work, by yourself, while the “vase” retains all the visual characteristics to be considered potentially as an art work by the circle in which you evolve, perhaps only after you will have explained verbally your concept, i.e. made the flowers mentally visible.

The case of Leon Löwentraut is even more impressive, from a semiotic perspective. This young German artist is presented in the following manner: “Leon Löwentraut born in 1998, discovered his passion for art at the age of seven and started painting together with his mother. Today, he is one of the best know up-and-coming artists of the present day. His works are versatile, deal with people and interpersonal (sic). Inspired by Picasso, Matisse and Basquiat, he combines wild colours and shapes. Not infrequently he paints with the tube directly, instead of using a brush. His works show us the people behind the social façade. He lives and works in Dusseldorf”. This text is next to a portrait of the artist in the manner of the young Warhol.

The words that count here are wild and versatile. It does not matter if artists have been painting from the tube for more than sixty years now; wild is what everyone loves, and versatile means not trapped in or by any system, it means freedom. Mr Löwentraut is launched by the German promotion system as a great star (“Sein Name ist Löwentraut. Leon Löwentraut. Der 20-jährige Star der Kunst” – His name is Löwentraut. Leon Löwentraut. The 20-year-old star of the art – do we read on Orange by Handelsblatt. Please note the subtle « his name is Bond. James Bond » allusion…). The artist poses on the internet as a rock-star, and managed to convince UNESCO to commission paintings relating to the UN “global goals”; at twenty-one, he apparently donates for school projects in Africa, from the wealth acquired, and makes it known.

As transparently mentioned in the caption, his works immediately bring to mind a synthesis between a watered-down, “good boy” version of Basquiat, and a distant reminiscence of the Picasso of the 1950’s and beyond – think of the Femmes d’Alger of 1955 (illustrated) or Claude et Paloma Jouant of 1950 , or the Reflexions on works by Pablo Picasso by Vladimir Zunuzin, though with a use of the brush and the tube that emphasises stripes and contour, filling the space of the canvas to the maximum bearable extent. The same principle applies: this is art which implicitly refers to formal inventions by, or visual signatures of, major artists – the current jargon would say “re-appropriates” past works – but with a twist which makes the synthesis both new enough to escape repetition and recognizable as a “relative” of great art.

A perfect illustration of what I called a receptacle form, and a great achievement of art-for-the-market with the additional medal of institutional acknowledgment and support.

In another showroom of the same gallery are shown pieces which seem directed to a slightly different, lower market segment, where the allusions are less necessary than the joke, the amusing, the mirror effect to some extent. As an illustration a couple of samples are shown here-below. The dolls are a reflection of – rather than on – a large segment of society, but their visual seduction and lack of context cancels any potential trace of derision, or rather turns it into a smirk. Part of these productions are in fact quite effective as a backdrop for selfies, as I could witness.

To the very opposite of this very effective machinery stands an initiative such as that of the ABA Art Lab, which was founded in 2004 by Alejandra Bordoy Bennàsar and Maria Isabel Bordoy Bennàsar, two ladies who act as art advisors and curators for private clients, and dedicate a space in Palma de Mallorca for the production and exhibition of, and discussion around, art which is not commercial by destination; ABA seems more interested in the exploration of new visual expressions of contemporary issues, in the sharing of a poetry of forms, in a quest for visual elegance in the expression of an artist’s purpose.

An example is ISHOKUJUŪ, an exhibition of the works of Tatiana Sarasa. The word is formed from the juxtaposition (which I am linguistically unable to comment…) of the Japanese words for clothes (i), food (shoku), and home/refuge (juū), the three fundamental needs of humanity. Each aspect is illustrated by very simple materials – wool, paper, threads out of natural fibers… – elegantly organized so as to suggest their necessity, their vulnerability, and their connection to human life and to one another. The artist has spend a long period in Japan to master a number of local techniques, and produced every single element of this installation by herself, from cutting the wool on a sheep’s back to dying and spinning it.

She illustrates the “clothing” part of the installation with a series of six very simple white shapeless cotton shirts on which are written Virginia Woolf’s words “let us never cease from thinking”; under the shirt marked “thinking” is a small pile of salt, which signifies purity in Japan. That thinking should be pure.

Tatiana Sarasa, who was born in Barcelona in 1966 and showed her work mostly in Catalunya and the Baleares,  is clearly not the only artist to advocate a return to the essential conditions of life, a refuge, simple clothes and indispensable food, as a solution to the hubris of our civilization and the resulting environmental disasters. In fact, Arina Loze is another case in point, who uses entirely different means of expression (see article), and tens of other names could be found in any contemporary art school of the “western” world. This idea is everywhere in the air. But it is expressed with utmost coherence, which makes it much more convincing, more genuine, and more touching. The art here lies precisely in achieving such visual and emotional coherence in the expression of the idea, an idea complemented by that of re-establishing the physical relationship between humans and matter in the age of virtuality, of parallel worlds, of generalized schizophrenia where the same individuals clamour in favour of preserving the environment and escape reality in every possible way, from fake selfies posted on social media to addiction to digital games, from artificial procreation to body-enhancement, from remote controls to the reliance on algorithms for innumerable decisions. The sentence of Octavio Paz, quoted in the presentation document, is well-chosen: “handicraft teaches us to die and thus teaches us to live”.

Octavio Paz

This quotation is from a remarkable conference by the great Mexican poet Octavio Paz on 7th December 1973, of which it is worth quoting a couple more sentences: “The return to craftworks in the United States and in Western Europe is one of the symptoms of the great change occurring in today’s sensitivity. We are facing another expression of the critique towards the abstract religion of progress and the quantitative vision of man end nature…Craftworks do not wish to live for millenia, nor are they in any hurry to die soon. They go by with the days, they flow with us, they wear out little by little, they do not look for death nor deny it: they accept it. Between the timeless time of the museum and the accelerated time of technology, a craftwork is the beat of human time. It is a useful object but also one which is pleasant to see; a lasting object, but one which has an end and accepts to have an end; an object which is not unique like the art work, and which may be replaced by another object which is similar but not identical. Handicraft teaches us to die and thus teaches us to live.” These words spoken in 1973 were clearly not prophetic in the sense that civilization has run its course in the exact opposite direction; perhaps their time has not yet come, and as we know one of the purposes of art is prophecy.

The question put forward by these simultaneous exhibitions in the small art centre which is Palma de Mallorca is not entirely vain: two visions of vastly unequal power coexist, and the receptacle form wins hands down in terms of market value, visibility, noise, while openly admitting in its own statements that it has nothing much to say. It is there to be, to circulate, just as great lounge music: you feel good with it, you want to sit in that lounge with those pretty-looking people, sipping great cocktails and spending a few words of approval for the DJ, the subtlety of his playlist, of his transitions. After a year of heavy work, you may spend a week or perhaps even two in that monastery, or that yoga class, and go on some Ayurveda diet. The question, which is also far from new, is that of the disconnect between desire and thought, price and value, success and relevance, to an extent which seems to be growing. And what drives this disconnect, to a very large extent, is image. In all the senses of the word.

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