TAR ART RAT and the Fragility of Interpretive Equilibrium
The other day I was visiting a friend of mine, an art collector living in Manhattan. I am often surprised by the variety of works he has acquired. On this last visit, I noticed a pair of paintings that managed to strike my interest. I asked him where he'd found them. Apparently they had been hanging in a small exhibition in Seattle in 2005, the work of a local artist known as TAR ART RAT. According to my friend, this artist had founded an organization called the T.A.R. Foundation for the Continuation of Humanity. I will admit that our conversation has influenced the following interpretations.
I discovered a series of works by said artist on the Saatchi Gallery website. He provides the following explanation of his work:
I just like to make stuff. The 'stuff' is a direct conscious-collage/bi-product of being alive in these intensely overstimulating and 'troubled' times... Usually manifests as cartoon-like images with human-plight under/overtones.
This simple series of statements, in my opinion, masks a deeper truth about the situation of the artist at this moment in American history, and perhaps history in general. By diminishing and even rejecting the outright interpretation of his work as "art", TAR ART RAT creates a critical aesthetic distance that opens space for his own "direct" method. Reduced to mere "stuff," the materials of his work and the ultimate product of their combination merge into one larger work, a work which he defines as a "bi-product" of his historical situatedness. I am particularly interested in his claim that his work "usually manifests" in a particularly way, a direct challenge to the sovereignty of the artist in creation and a reminder of the socio-processual vitality of art itself, as a concrete expression of broader social functions, aesthetic presuppositions, and what we might call "aesthetic discharge."
If we begin, for purposes of simplicity, from a structuralist standpoint, we might speak of various polarities (whether aesthetic, social, political, personal, linguistic, etc.) as bearing a kind of ontological-electrical relationship. Insofar as art is an unconscious activity, we might see the vital tension of these polarities as giving rise to sudden discharges, expressions of underlying forces that themselves produce further artistic polarities. Insofar as we consider art as a conscious mode of production, on the other hand, we might see the artist as attempting to "solve" these polarities through recourse to what TAR ART RAT has called "conscious-collage," a directed, higher-order structuring of fundamentally unconscious, given stuffs (this term meant to underscore the apparently neutral evaluative significance of cultural materials prior to their being caught up in the process of creation. Of course, we must remember that all cultural materials are always already interpreted, and so the very attribution of neutrality is itself an expression of the situatedness of the artist, who must view the unconscious as raw material only insofar as he or she attempts to bring certain aesthetic presuppositions to bear on the conscious experience of structuration).
Let's focus for the moment on “Nurturenature," a deceptively simple piece. The first element that struck me was the function of the title, which serves to undermine the natural hermeneutic posture one might take to so fragile and sparse a work. We are confronted with very little: three unnaturally conical trees standing on artifical bases constructed from their own roots. One's first impression might be of simple artificiality. The prominent white space and merely suggestive horizon call to mind the utilitarian reserve of an engineer's sketch. And parallel to the fact that the engineer's blueprint only comes to life for the layperson upon noting the label, we here find our interpretative equilibrium disrupted when bringing to mind the explicit reference to nature-nurture, a tension which is both unrelated to the work at hand, and yet somehow reverberates through its understated lines and tensions. Perhaps it is this dichotomy of dependence/independence that TAR ART RAT means to underscore. But we must be careful here, for he would certainly resist the very idea that the artist can "mean" anything, if by this we understand a kind of communicative intention. Rather, it is the work itself, as social-aesthetic process, that gives rise to whatever "meanings" we might be forced to confront in our experience of it.
But for now let us leave these as mere suggestions. I will for the time being call this my first TAR ART RAT installation, as I would like to study his work more closely and see if his organization hasn't produced any writings of which I'm currently unaware. I hope to write more on the subject in the near future.