5.25.2014

The Surprisingly & Miraculously Delirious Art of Elliott Arkin


© Elliott Arkin 2013. Image courtesy of MAMAC Nice

At first, there is recognition — Picasso! Van Gogh! O'Keeffe!  This is a moment of confirmation. Yes, I know these! I am of this world!

But this recognition doesn't last long. What the heck are these? Why is Picasso mowing the lawn? What do these figures want from me? We see what we consider great artists, the so-called masters, Arkin taking them out from behind the canvas, as if to say: Behold the geniuses!

But then, in a flash, you realize these are not the masters but figures of the masters. The artist has become the art, the subject has become the object. What was behind the canvas has become the canvas. After all, this is not a biography or documentary taking about Picasso, O'Keeffe, or Warhol.

In some sense, then, these figures are not recognized at all. That is, if recognition is a confirmation of the already known — a re-cognizing — these figures refuse to be so readily processed. We see them, know them, and then in the very next breath are confused by what we see. Why's Van Gogh planting seeds in a garden? It's what Freud might call uncanny, an experience that is at once familiar and unfamiliar. And all quite silly.

© Elliott Arkin 2013. Image courtesy of MAMAC Nice
What are they doing in the lawn? These presumed masters have not only moved out from behind the canvas, they're doing everyday tasks. And they're so small! What was genius is now petit bourgeois, if you will. But so what?

Well, on the one hand, turning these geniuses into gardeners levels them, takes them off their pedestal. They're just everyday blokes like you and me. But, at the same time, it also suggests that you and me could be special, too, that genius lurks in the everyday. One perspective gives way to another perspective — like Wittgenstein's rabbit: one object, two things. 

But it's not just two things. The perspectives keep coming. From another vantage, we see that art is work. It's not the magic of genius but the toil and skill of labor, that art is work just as gardening is.

And then we see that art comes from life! O'Keeffe painted flowers because she loved flowers, lived with flowers. Van Gogh painted of the earth, from the earth, because he lived amongst the earth. Art is everyday in the best sense!

And then, by transforming artists into objects, we see the commodification of the artist in which artists have become objects themselves that are bought, sold, and traded until someone is buying a Jeff Koons poodle for $45 million.

And then, in another moment, we see that these are garden gnomes which have their own history and meaning. In an odd, absurdist move, Arkin folds the myth of the artist into the tradition of the garden gnome. Why? Well, why not? In this simple, absurdist move, Arkin takes art out of the rarified white cubes of the gallery and museum and plops them down in the yard.

My son and I play this game he invented. I close my eyes for three seconds and open them to some face he's making, like I caught him mid-action; I close my eyes again for three seconds, open, and he has a new face; and again and again. The effect is hilarious and a bit unsettling. He keeps changing! It's insane! It's not the continuous morph of existence, forms relentlessly giving way lava lamp-like. This game insists on form but only for a moment. By masking the in-between flow, we introduce a strobe effect: form, new form, new form, new form, a hiccup of becoming. It's delirious.


© Elliott Arkin 2013. Image courtesy of MAMAC Nice

Seeing Elliott Arkin's art engenders a similar experience. While the figures themselves are fixed — they are 3D, not 4D animations — the experience of seeing them keeps shifting in this kind of relentless punctuation: this, this, this, this. I see one thing, one perspective. And then, in a flash, it's a totally different thing — all while physically staying the same. I want to say that these figures are a kind of cubism only not of form but of effect, all these different angles splayed invisibly but palpably before us.

What Arkin manages to do is miraculous: he takes familiar forms — clichés— and manages to make them unfamiliar. And even more spectacular, he takes fixed forms and puts them relentlessly, invisibly in motion. These figures, which seem so readily picked up, suddenly slip and slide, morph, move, and multiply.

This movement is the movement of art, transforming the known into a new known. This is the movement of love, amplifying the play of things, of the world, embracing the complexity of it all. This is the movement of humor, the comedy of humanity that lives as form within a life that is liquid.

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