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Civics as Open Work:
Semiotics of the Scrawl
(Regarding Evan Gruzis' Public Paintings)
‘Wash Me’ is among the least malevolent of common anonymous scrawls, found on vehicles showing the obvious neglect of their owners. It might be a discourteous call to courtesy, a gently uncivil rejoinder, a form of human Auto-Correct, or a simple holier-than-though poke in the ribs. Without empirical evidence beyond a lifetime of observation, I feel I can confidently assert that rudeness is the primary form of public sign-making, from such gentle assertions as a call for a much-needed car wash to far cruder protests, lewd jokes, open insults and slanderous libel. Even the oblique self-interest of the tag is in itself a rude gesture, unconcerned with such normative codes as private property or civic order, and certainly uncaring towards whomever will be charged with having to remove the tag (as civic codes almost universally require).
My concern is with the classic cock-and-balls. I hope the real subject of this essay, Evan Gruzis with his new Public Paintings, isn’t offended by such a silly reduction of his efforts, but the question seems as important as it is reductive: Why, if given a free hand, do so many of us resort to such simple-minded gestures? Discomfort over the privacy of sex might be one clue, in that we might even consider it noble to try to inject the subject into the public discourse whenever a venue presents itself, since everyone has sex but we have so few accepted ways to discuss this fact openly. The engorged phallus is a symbol of male power, but is hardly aggressive in its cartoon representations (beyond eliciting the gag reflex). If, at a stretch, we can say cartoon-ized maleness works to diminish its power, could this be a subversive means of becoming more subservient within the general order, of giving over the position of primacy in society?
More likely, I give too much credit to the hordes of chuckleheads out there who rely on the good old cock-and-balls as go-to graffiti. But another personal instance defies this category, and opens onto the far more confusing realm of why so many young women engage in what are normally considered the defilements of Internet porn culture. With a band on tour to SXSW some years ago, a pair of 21-year-old women offered up their home for us to stay in, which is a common generosity during the festival. So many bands are so broke that they could never afford to put themselves up, and have little or no label support, that the old punk ethic of scrounging for accommodations after gigs holds as a general part of Austin’s music culture. We were, of course, grateful. The women worked at the mall—an eyeglasses kiosk—and were excited to do their part. However, the hint of randiness in their behavior towards us proved out when cocks-and-balls began appearing in blue ink on small whiteboards posted around the apartment. Unlucky girls, though, since we might have been exactly the wrong band to have been stuck with: all solidly encoupled already, two girlfriends along on tour, one a member of the band (unlike the stereotypical image of the drummer, ours was chaste, quiet, kind, gentle and sober). I can’t imagine how disappointed these girls were that their rock-n-roll fantasies wouldn’t be playing out even close to what they might have hoped for. My only shame was in expressing even a degree of false disgust at their antics, which were of course perfectly in keeping with a sense of intrepid adventure.
This example offers up the scrawl as an actual sign, though, signifying an expressed desire. Usually, the scrawl in question is meant far more stupidly, if we can even discuss meaning in this context. It’s as though when a space is opened for public discussion, half of us must spit out whatever rabbly bit of gunk has collected like plaque on the most obvious parts of our frontal cortexes. “Blah!” they said, collectively expressing their political will.
Gruzis surely knew what his whiteboard paintings might be in for, though we can safely assume a certain level of civility in discourse among the contemporary art-concerned, nay? Another example offers insight: the mirror paintings of Tony Matelli. Himself a staunch defender of personal expression (see the dust-up over his Sleepwalker installation at Wellesley two years ago), Matelli’s mirror paintings precisely mimic neglected mirrors that scrawlers have left their impermanent mark upon, commonly rude little gestures like cocks or vulvas or other sexual signs, swear words or obscenities, and maybe most intriguing, the simple slash marks of hands or fingers, as though a wipe signifies an existence, maybe a brute attempt to demonstrate the difference between obscurity and clarity. Through expert use of materials, Matelli makes such dumb, presumed temporary scrawlings permanent, like names scrawled in wet sidewalk concrete, as though the ‘Wash Me’ car were forever preserved museum-like as a relic of the moment of rejoinder.
Gruzis’s paintings will become fixed at some point. When they leave The Open’s gallery space, they are essentially ‘finished,’ not via the usual process of artmaking, but through the collective jouissance of whoever and however many people chose to inscribe upon them and the happenstance of duration. They might leave as blank as whiteboards can be, given that marker ink dries unevenly and dry-erasers work inefficiently, or they might be fixed as intricately layered designs, scrawls and scribbles worthy of artistic regard. Who knows! Which is precisely the point, that the uncertainty of determinacy has become a primary nexus of public discourse, which seems to have settled on the notion that no notion is fixable enough, no problem settleable enough to stay etched in time. Only a staunch originalist would fail to recognize that a charter of law is already a response to the specific conditions of its time, and cannot possibly account for how rapid change in societal conditions might become unaccounted for in the letter of the law and thus require adjustments to the document, like the post-slavery amendments. (Okay, I’ll admit that I’m avoiding his name, out of purile disrespect for the recently deceased. To push it further, I might just as well picture the image of the classic cock-and-balls in his place, if only this keyboard had such an emoji at the ready). But let’s leave vulgarity behind.
Because he offered some of the first analytical words about the “open work,” Umberto Eco deserves some of the last words here.(1) He wrote that the open work, that is, an artwork that depends on its completion through interaction with its audience, formulates:
…a fresh dialectic between the work of art and its performer…
which actually draws squarely back to the intent of the artist, and asks us to recognize the death of the author (see Barthes) as a form of authorship. Gruzis hasn’t merely handed over the labor process for making some of his new paintings, he has ordered a framework for public inscription as a means of examining our collective identity, which he will then assign his own name to. Whiteboard paint isn’t as sleek or shiny as a mirror surface, but with the power of the sign, it reflects us in a fragment of our totality, as we see others in ourselves.
1. Umberto Eco, “The Poetics of the Open Work,” The Open Work, Harvard University Press (Cambridge), 1989, pp. 1-23. Eco identifies this cited factor as what makes the new form relevant. Granted, Eco is mainly writing about new (at the time) music, particularly that of composers Luciano Berio, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and John Cage, and the “open” dialectic occurs mainly between the composition and its actual performer. Yet, we (as Eco himself does) can extend this beyond this limited relationship to that of ‘static’ artist and audience:
Hence, every reception of a work of art is both an interpretation and a performance of it, because in every reception the work takes on a fresh perspective for itself.
Gruzis’s work continues a tradition of art that invites public participation to acquire its full realization, but places it within the unusual context of office ‘creativity,’ that is, a highly constrained, regimented sense of what’s possible given very limited, directed conditions. Here, the same tools are deployed towards unlimited ends, drawing a fine definition of art as one of culture’s most open modes.