Matthew McCaslin "Mining The Urban Divide" for Performing Arts Journal
Updated: Oct 17, 2018
To be an Installation artist in the 1980s was to be extremely creative in a form generally perceived to be approaching its grandfatherly phase. Born out of concerns related to the urban experience, and added to that the new availability of huge loft “spaces” in the early days of New York’s SoHo art neighborhood, Installation Art drew attention to a concept of spectacle that borrowed its formal constraint from a sense of objectness. These two elements may seem immediately at odds with one another: the spectacle and the objects, but a spectacle is an event dependent upon the arrangement of given objects, or people. It is perhaps best described as a rearrangement of expectation, and the use of objects or materials in an uncommon manner allows it to be fulfilled more successfully. As people do not conform their everyday activities to the unusual state of affairs that normally creates a spectacle, it is instead formulated among their myriad interactions and the varied uses of the spaces in which their lives intersect.
One of the most successful practitioners of Installation art since the early 1980s has been New York artist Matthew McCaslin, whose work actively comments upon the nature of interior space by using those materials, which exist within the walls of all our spaces. McCaslin’s work originally focused upon the dynamics of private space. That concept has since developed into a focus upon the underlying notions of ostensible privacy, public (in)action, and how these subtle interactions form the basis of a visual tapestry that includes the natural world as part of its exploration of space.
McCaslin tests the ground equally held by installation and sculpture. His early solo exhibitions at Daniel Newburg in Soho were radical experiments upon the degree of perception inherent in our experience of interior space, whether domestic or corporate, always deconstructing the formal qualities of these spaces and the many elements, either formal or utilitarian, which build them and our conceptions of them. Landscapes of the Inbetween (1989) presented a set depicting a squatter’s home: a bed made from dozens of blankets laid one atop the other and several sets of wall struts made for holding up sheets of dry wall, in this case left uncovered, and set nine sections deep, as if a sound barrier made only from repeated walls was the original intention. From the other side of the area crossed by the wall struts, the office area of the gallery was visible, and though the metaphor of a wall is overt, there was little sense of the separation, only a diffusion of light, air, and the ability of gallery visitors to easily interact with its staff. Though this mimics, in the barest sense, a domestic environment, this space remained stolidly alienating to its visitors. We were reluctant to settle onto the bed or transgress the field covered by the wall struts. In making them habitually conscious of the degree of artifice at work, McCaslin performed an act so subtle that it became difficult to accept the plausibility of our role in it. Human beings, though necessary for the creative realization of this work, are otherwise no more than furniture themselves, entities which take up space, and in doing so, exert an ostensible effect upon their immediate environment.
McCaslin’s second exhibition (1991) depicted a site of recent mechanical construction, with objects and tools scattered about the floor, the installation as a whole remaining untitled, yet with specific works on the walls. These works are also made to look as if they were recently constructed and perhaps abandoned halfway through the process of their fashioning. They were composed of electrical wiring, lights, fans, and switch junctions, and represented sculpture as the merest utilities exposed from behind building walls. One work in particular, Path of Least Resistance, represents a model of the world using a length of electrical cable hidden within electrical piping, formed into a square with curved corners and three distinct junctions: a bright, garish white light at its upper left corner, and on/off switch located at the opposite side, just above the center, and below, nearer the side with the light, a four-plug power extension with one plug in place, a loose wire wandering away, across the floor. The space as a whole represents a field of endeavor in a state of flux, in which each individual work embodies an effort toward utopian ideals, which fall by the wayside. The idiom of McCaslin’s metaphorical vocabulary relates immediately to notions of connectivity and unity, yet the installation on the whole evidences an idiosyncratic breakdown of systemic thinking. The wall works exhibit a sense of disjunction, or mindless re-treading of the same tautological ground, not dissimilar from many of the more overtly theatrical presentations then occurring in downtown New York black-box spaces.
Subsequent exhibitions by McCaslin in New York included two major works created for museum spaces, Tribute to a Moment (Museum of Modern Art, 1992) and Harnessing Nature (Whitney Museum at Philip Morris, 1996). In Harnessing Nature, the exhibition space was completely dominated by a field of video monitors of varied sizes, arranged so as to blanket the visual area of the gallery and also create an environment of physical encounter with these inert forms projecting and interiorized portrait of reality. The images they depicted were of the Atlantic Ocean viewed directly head-on, with only rare glimpses of the horizon or shoreline. The images were accompanied not by a matching soundtrack of waves, but by a collage of white noise that assaulted viewers unceasingly, jarring them from the possibility of a comfortable reverie. This drew attention not only to a subject which, by its visual and aural wildness, is immediately separated from the usual expectations of the contemporary art space, but also spoke to the passive activity of viewing art as an exercise in ironic self-absorption.
Exhibitions at Sandra Gering (1998) and Feigen Contemporary (1998, 1999, 2004) have engaged themes related to city living, with the use of individual sculptures projecting specific topics such as the movement of crowds to architectural dimension, of mechanized industry to human leisure, of velocity to languor, and of man’s increasing psychological distance from the simple acts of nature. McCaslin’s themes have naturally extended from his earlier installations, which utilized only hardware materials, with the accent being on perimeter rather than media. Slowly, his installations have taken the form of an amassing of complex functional (though mnemonic) objects, which act as sculptures. Yet he has also remained interested in the potential of interior space to express the qualities of intimacy and alienation, which are self-evident in those environments that most, if not all urbanites, choose to live and work.
The exhibition at Sandra Gering consisted of four installations which all worked toward a single effect. Video was used to provoke the sensibility of the viewer, with images of office buildings lit from within, moonlight on water, and night action scenes in which only street lights and car headlights and taillights are in evidence—were aided by objects and materials that underscored their use as constructs of experience. Darkness was the central sensation of this exhibition, the darkness defined by electrical illuminations. In Split Level Mind Revisited (1998) five large video monitors formed a totem with views of a city at night: moonlight flickering off the river, downtown office buildings illuminated by various business signs, and scenes of the city’s traffic crosswalks, showing only stoplight, taillights, and headlights in stark tones of white and red. The physical structure of a cage held the monitors in place, anchoring them as fields of visual endeavor. Daydream on the 54th Floor, a smaller totem with three medium-sized monitors and a small speaker projecting a wash of white noise—the cosmopolitan equivalent of crickets or the voice of the night—had a seething primeval energy produced from local and distant noises both heard together.
The display at Feigen Contemporary began with “Time Clock,” in which a portable stereo sitting in the bed of a black metal wheelbarrow (shades of Beckett) emits a loud rhythmic pulse of white noise. The noise changed in variety and intensity, flailing out in a crescendo of imaginary explosions, which caught in the metallic tongue of the wagon’s load area and echoed about the immediate area, even into the street. Blinker, another piece, is comprised of a square bank of small video monitors and their attendant hardware. The image of a human eye fills each screen, repeated with variations in color and brightness. The eye functions like a normal eye: it blinks. This action is constant though intermittent; causing a chain reaction among the multiplied eyes, until not one resembles its previous appearance or position in the wall of images.
“Check It Out” has a single stack of four video monitors accompanied by a large clock face sitting on the floor to its left, and by two yellow construction lanterns, one on the ground beside the clock, the other hanging over the far side of the screens. The screens project the image of a shifting mass of people as viewed through security cameras in shopping malls or train stations. The mass of bodies, filmed in such an indiscriminate manner, based upon spatial position within a particular building, becomes both a current of human activity and a narrative of human reflection when shown in intermittent movement or listless waiting. There is a great pleasure in being able to view this mass as it mills about, and then sometimes one “actor” steps close to the camera lens, even notices it, and shows the depth of individual self-consciousness in a tic, a nervous smile, or a look of slight horror. When the film loop ends, as in other works, these images are replaced with a fine mist of static, which tends to heighten the sense of visual pastiche formed by the combination of recognizable entities with a nonrepresentational depiction of space. The visual images and even the flow of static enter into the context of narrative and drama, made physically approachable by the lamps and by the constantly moving clock beside the screens.
In “Pop Cycle” five monitors are lined chest-high along the wall, accompanied by a long white fluorescent bulb. The images rapidly alternate between machines making hamburger patties and of men and women surfing upon huge blue-green waves of tanning themselves upon beach furniture. The use of the fluorescent tube to physically illuminate the local area around the work frames it as a reflection of real-life elements, occurring physically as well as thematically, while as an art object it simultaneously contains and contextualizes the images which flit across its screens. The images themselves, along with the title, seem to refer to another aspect of the modern working life, but one in which human beings are removed from the act of production and are mainly beings of consumption and relaxation.
“Junction Blvd” has three video monitors of different sizes sitting upon a low wooden dolly, swathed in black rubber electrical wiring and lit by three lamps, one beside the monitors, and two others among them. The monitors face outward in a circle one must traverse before discovering that the image in each is the same—an anonymous spot at which cars and trucks on a highway and cargo cars on a train pass alongside each other for a brief period. This image is purposefully general and ambiguous, but it also entreats one to reflect upon the various possibilities of metaphor, such as the notion of differing modes of transportation for both persons and goods as symbolic components of American cultural identity, identified with certain periods of historical growth and change in the American “national consciousness.” Both thoroughfares are busy, and each references the other in the manner of its motion, its burden or weight, and the history and identity that each takes in the popular imagination. The props, including the dolly and the lights, are used to emphasize themes of industry and labor, and the repetition of the image in a fashion which does not differ from one screen to the next even as one undertakes to discover this, also imposes a passive aggression upon them, and a sense that the dramatic components of this view of the world are not mutable to individual choice.
“Hello Good-Bye” has a single video screen that sits in the bed of a bright red hand drawn wagon, and is illuminated by a single lantern. Te screen depicts the image of a sunset, and follows it slowly as the large red orb hangs patiently above the horizon of an ocean, until it passes just beyond view. The image is framed in such a way, by the corners of the physical screen, that neither sand nor surf is visible. The use of the lantern hidden behind the monitor underscores our sensory experience of the illumination of a sunset, even as we recognize that it is being recalled for us on the monitor. McCaslin seems to be urging us toward an interpretation of sensation as a product of divergent reality—that the image of the sunset is not enough, the technology is not enough—that the image and the illusion of narrative, with its undertones of causality, represent only a slick attempt to breach the difference between them, as it dramatizes and elaborates upon the fascinating but humble qualities of this real event.
“Turn Green at the Light” has nine monitors with images of flowers blooming in slow motion, cows munching on grass, and brightly colored automobiles speeding back and forth, their frantic vitality a jarring contrast to the thoughtful slowness of the animals and plants on the other screens. This piece constitutes rumination on daily life and the velocity with which me move through it. Repetitions in the occurrence of images of flowers and cows occur in a circular fashion, enveloping and surrounding those of the cars, which erupt from the center screen and screens vertical and horizontal to it. This pastiche, as both symbol and physical collage, evokes a flower’s mantra-like order in its rhythmic alternation, from one set of images to the other, embodying youthful vitality and renewal.
The period of development from McCaslin’s earliest solo exhibition to the present is around twenty years. During this time, he has utilized a variety of materials and has referenced a broad range of motifs. Yet his work has maintained its metaphoric relation to the physical elements of the constructed experience: first its wires, lights, fans, and clocks as indicators of the natural subverted for the use of the unnatural, and made to represent a form of totemic super-reality; and to the visual elements of dynamic experience in and of themselves, transferred to a realistic sensory context through the use of video commingling with the aforementioned functional items. All of these objects and events exist in a time and space which is idiomatically post-urban, and their effects fall into that void of made existence which I have referred to as a divide, an area which is defined by its reliance not upon innate physical detail, nor upon a practical purpose which it may alone provide for its occupant, but upon the range of phenomena that is possible within it. Any made environment can be stripped of those natural details and sensory aspects which allow us to experience its environment as similar to one found in nature. Once stripped, a process of subversion begins in which any effect may be achieved by the subtlest placement of objects or a shift in sensory amplitude, such as those imposed by McCaslin’s work. Their earliest manifestations depended on how our recognition of physical space is structured through our common and subjective experience of urban interiors. We may be quite accustomed to such environments, in which case we may naturally take for granted their muted range of color and noticeable detail, and the physical separation which they interpose between us, as living organisms, and the living, natural environment from which we sprang. The elements of time, of sensory experience, and of the spatial quality of objects, are each important determinants in our constant self-education as human beings. Cut off from the natural world first by the larger urban environment, and second by the layered areas in which we choose to work and live, we experience a certain numbing of sensory expectation, and it is that expectation which McCaslin addresses, while simultaneously critiquing the forces which subvert it.
The use of video has transformed the visual vernacular of McCaslin’s work. The sense of spectacle has altered in its construction from a manually created environment to a visually narrated one. This adds a degree of perspectival remove that injects more narrative, and therefore more irony, into the work. His installations have ceased to function as a mere constellation of objects, or as a dematerialization of the internally functional landscape made external, but continue as a complex tapestry of found experience projected into the limited sphere of the urban divide. The visual character of video depends upon its use of time. Either it introduces the element of duration, of intermittence, or of oscillation. Images of the natural world allow him to dispense with having to dramatize the physical interiority of sculptural experience as intimate space and allow the qualities of the natural world—scale, speed, and the dynamic of complicated physical interaction—to both obfuscate and enrich our experience. This allows us to engage both the dynamic and passive elements of live experience within the continuum of viewed existence, turning sensory and visceral events into aesthetic ones, and turning ourselves as gallery viewers into spectators of these same elements infinitely recurring both in and outside the gallery space. Our expectation of what comprises an artistic event is transposed with our recognition of those generally unnoticed elements occurring within the built sphere, so that what effects us in our dynamic, exterior life can be recontextualized from the passive, interior version represented by the artist’s installation in general and the work of Matthew McCaslin in particular. The divide is partially engendered by a recognition of such elements, and by the questions we pose for ourselves.