Telling Tales: Shaping Artists' Myths

Telling Tales: Shaping Artists' Myths

John Brunetti
The Truth on Tape,
Daniel Wenk
Eastwick Art Gallery and Daniel Wenk, 1999.

Chicago art critic John Brunetti reviews The Truth on Tape, a survey of Daniel Wenk’s art, and Black Mountain College’s Dossier Ray Johnson.

One of the more difficult types of work for an artist to produce is a book which attempts to provide an intimate look at the real individual behind the artistic spirit, while at the same time providing critical documentation of creative accomplishment. Two small volumes on artists of different generations and statures in reputation, Daniel Wenk and Ray Johnson, but whose alternative works share a similar off-beat sensibility, offer an important comparison in the effectiveness of blending third person diaries with art criticism. Additionally, both books reveal the importance of historical and social context as a necessary form of art direction in marketing and canonizing cutting-edge, alternative art. While it would seem unfair to contrast books on artists of unequal historical stature, comparing Wenk’s publication and the book on Johnson brings out the importance of stylization and aesthetics in those works that propose to be a documentary reportage of history.

Both Daniel Wenk, an emerging German artist, and Ray Johnson, a contemporary of artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly, and composer John Cage, are linked aesthetically by art that emerges from an appreciation of materials that are utilitarian, disposable, and distinctly anonymous. The title of Wenk’s book, The Truth on Tape, accurately describes the artist’s singular obsession with his principal working material, scotch-tape, and attempts to set a precedent for smart publications developed by an artist and his gallery. Ray Johnson, known for his exceptional, albeit unorthodox, collages and mail-art pieces, was one of the special circle of alumni that emerged from the vanguard Black Mountain College in North Carolina, whose graduates shaped the New York art world of the 1950s and 1960s. One in a series on alumni of the school, Johnson’s book represents an important attempt to record the legacy of an artistic institution through the reminiscences of the artists that were a part of the experience.

The Truth on Tape is handsomely designed by Jennifer Brunner and Daniel Wenk with large amounts of white space that immediately assign it value according to established modernist ideals. The book’s seductive minimalism begins with the cover. Printed in a pale yellow-green, it subtly evokes the pallor of the pressure-sensitive tape Wenk uses in his conceptual pieces. Choosing a narrow, vertical format that resembles a tourist’s travel guide elevated through the refined grid of the Swiss school of design, Brunner and Wenk make a dense amount of information and photographic documentation easily digestible, while also referencing the intimate tactile quality of Wenk’s hand-held work. The intelligence of the book’s design is only hindered by the poor black and white photography of Wenk’s delicately crafted, three-dimensional tape pieces. At times too small or grainy, these photographs fail to convey the luminous quality of the yellow cellophane color that is so integral to Wenk’s pieces.

Wenk’s conceptual ideas are driven by the act of process and the random formal accidents that occur during the act of making. Whether taping over boxes of different sizes to create humorous minimalism, or creating abstract messages of transparent tape on postcards, Wenk is indebted to the Dadaist and Fluxist art movements that sought to recontextualize the art object. In the manner of artists Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Beuys, Wenk seeks to break down barriers between art and society until they merge as a single experience.

It is this approach that underlies the weakest section of the book’s text - an extended conversation “with and about” the artist recorded by Joe Tabbi. This interview panders to the worst manner of self-indulgence that an artist, or writer, can partake in - it assumes that all minutia of an individual’s life is interesting. The style of the essay wants to apparently provide the context of Wenk’s lifestyle while living in Chicago, and by inference, the influences on his work. Yet that connection never really surfaces. Instead of portraying the eccentricities of an interesting artist, it conveys more of the flavor of a shallow tabloid. Tabbi obsessively records the types of beer, or food, ordered at their meetings, and most annoyingly how much everything costs. Bars, where many of Tabbi’s and Wenk’s conversations take place, are only interesting as backgrounds in essays on art if they refer to legendary venues like the Cedar Bar, where the whole New York art world congregated in the ’40s and ’50s. In that venue, the dialogue of major art world figures offers some historical record and insight into a school of painting. Hip Chicago bars can’t possibly carry the same weight. At the beginning of the essay Wenk indicates that he wants something different than the traditional catalog essay, yet never clearly articulates what he does want, which is part of the problem with this section of the book.

The Truth on Tape does have a rich group of texts by New York art critic Bill Wilson. (John Brunetti reviews work by Wilson in The Truth on Tape for ebr.) The preface to Wilson’s text indicates that the text is actually the result of a 69 double-spaced page letter Wilson sent to Wenk, which Wenk, with Wilson’s permission, proceeded to “dynamite.” The resulting fragments were composed specifically for the book. This conceptual aspect of taking something apart and putting it back together directly relates to Wenk’s method of working, and therefore complements Wilson’s insights into the artist’s work. Additional documentary photos of multiple uses of tape in the real world - duct tape holding broken windows together - offer graphic reinforcement of Wilson’s observations, “The tape, as viscous, is dangerous, for it threatens to stick to one like glue or like honey…” A smart group of texts, Wilson’s writing reveals the complexity of Wenk’s seemingly innocuous actions and prosaic material. In his next publication, Wenk would be better served in attempting not to deconstruct the writer.

Of course Wenk’s body of work at this point in time can’t stand up to Ray Johnson’s oeuvre. However, Wenk should look closely at how the caretakers of Johnson’s estate understand the important relationship between an artist’s personal image and the perceptions of his work. If Wenk’s publication falters because he conceptually tries too hard at times to position himself as outside the art world, Black Mountain’s elegy to Johnson succeeds because it takes the opposite approach - it embraces Johnson precisely because he was an artist. Such clarity does not lessen the richness of the work on Johnson. Instead it provides the necessary framework for comprehension and revelation.

An elusive individual whose suicidal jump off a New York City bridge in 1995 was thought to be his final piece of “mail art,” Johnson the man, like the eclectic fragments that comprised his collages, was open to multiple and varied interpretations. Living a life that appeared to be an extension of the puns and palindromes that shaped his collages and mail art pieces, Johnson, to be taken seriously, must be lent a poet’s grace through a comprehensive interpretation of the fusion of his life and artistic practice. This is beautifully accomplished by another William S. Wilson text that blends his personal reminiscences of Johnson with insightful readings of his body of work.

The “dossier” on Ray Johnson immediately announces itself as a poetic recollection of the artist through the close-up, soft-focus, black and white photograph of the artist that graces the cover. The contours of fair-skinned, youthful Johnson’s face seem to disappear and merge with the background - appropriate for a man from whom personal identity was constantly in question.

In the text for this book, Wilson has the advantage of drawing on both the man and artist as he knew him. This is incredibly important in establishing the relationship between private acts and the creative process. Whether one is familiar or unfamiliar with Johnson’s body of work, Wilson’s recollections of seeing first-hand how Johnson interpreted the visual world around him, and then integrated into his unusual collages, are immensely engaging. An excerpt of Wilson’s explains this phenomenon:

Walking on the Lower East Side Ray frequently saw a Ukrainian sign advertising a dance in letters which looked to him like “3-A-BABY.” He then equated “dance” with “three,” so that when three babies were involved in his life, he put the dance of three into the word “correspondance,” thereafter usually writing New York Correspondance School.

It is this expression of Johnson’s idiosyncratic logic that Wilson articulates with not only particular clarity, but poetry as well. In describing Johnson’s suicide Wilson writes, “When Ray dropped himself from a bridge between two opposite shores on a dark winter night - he dropped himself as he would drop an envelope in a letterbox.” Here Wilson weaves the memory of a lost friend into the aesthetic that shaped the artist’s life. The dossier on Ray Johnson is an example of how the best art writing embodies the soul of the artist that is its subject. Both writers and artists could learn from this example.

>>—> Daniel Wenk responds.