Context and Meaning: Looking at Art through a Post-Election Lens

by , April 2017

“Every meaning requires a support, or a vehicle, or a holder. These are the bearers of meaning, and without them no meaning would cross from me to you, or from you to me, or indeed from any part of nature to any other part.”

George Kubler, The Shape of Time

In his 1962 book The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things, art historian George Kubler describes the interconnectedness of objects through shared ideas across time and examines how the past can influence the creation of new “things.” He explains that meaning requires a physical form for content to be expressed; without its representational object — or in the case of language, words and sounds — meaning would not exist. Artists often use physical forms and formal elements as a “support, vehicle, or holder” to express the content of their works, which can be linked to larger cultural or political ideas. But meaning is not static; it continues to evolve over time in relation to the historical context in which the work is viewed.

Taking its name from a passage in Kubler’s seminal book, the exhibition A Slow Succession with Many Interruptions, organized by assistant curator Jenny Gheith, considers artworks created in the twenty-first century from this perspective, looking at how they embody time and how they have been shaped by cultural and personal events from the recent or distant past. I worked closely with Jenny on the exhibition and have found my understanding of the works on view shifting since we began preparing the show — more specifically, since the presidential election last November and the emergence of widespread resistance against the new administration’s policies. Two works in particular stand out.

Liz Larner’s gangly seven-foot-tall sculpture RWBs (2005) is composed of countless aluminum tubes that the artist found in a Los Angeles salvage yard.

Liz Larner, RWBs, 2005; collection SFMOMA, Accessions Committee Fund purchase; © Liz Larner

Larner has said, “There’s a direct relationship between the material I chose to make the form of the sculpture and the aluminum-tube story that brought us to war.” The story she refers to is the claim by the Bush Administration in 2001–2 that the purchase of aluminum tubes by the Iraqi government provided “irrefutable evidence” that Saddam Hussein was gathering materials to enrich uranium for a nuclear bomb. This false information was used to justify the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Larner’s twisted, tangled mass of tubes reflects both the contortions of the truth that led to the war and the chaos that followed Hussein’s overthrow, while the outstretched tentacles, reaching beyond the confines of the work’s monstrous form, suggests the U.S. government’s interventionist tendencies in the world. Larner outfitted each of the tubes with a hand-sewn red, white, and blue fabric sleeve — a reference, she has explained, to flag-draped coffins, cheerleading outfits, gas-station banners, and other aspects of our everyday lives that are imbued with concepts of patriotism, nationalistic fervor, and American hegemony.

Installed near RWBs is Liam Everett’s Untitled (2012), consisting of three swatches of ink-dyed fabric that are delicately fastened to a poplar pole. Everett used salt to bleach color from the textiles and then hung them on this support to dry. The colors aren’t fixed; they are fugitive, staining the wood. The artist has stated that his work is guided by practice, not ideas, and the resulting object can be thought of as an indexical record of its own making. However, with its loosely draped forms adhered to an angled pole, its relationship to a flag is undeniable.

Liam Everett, Untitled, 2012; collection SFMOMA, Accessions Committee Fund purchase; © Liam Everett

But signs are slippery, meaning is mutable, and content is intrinsically connected to context. Since Donald Trump’s election, he and his administration have promised increased military spending, threatened another nuclear arms race with Russia, and hinted at a war with Iran, which has ushered in a new wave of domestic and global anxiety. Concurrently, there has been an unprecedented wave of protests against Trump and his policies. An estimated five million people in more than eighty countries took to the streets for the Women’s March in January. Large demonstrations erupted in airports all over the United States the day after Trump signed an executive order banning travel and immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. Banners, handmade signs, and flags have become an increasingly visible symbol of resistance. In this context, Everett’s Untitled and Larner’s RWBs take on new meaning, particularly as they relate to each other within the exhibition.

Women’s March on Washington, January 21, 2017; photo: David Atkinson

Like Trump’s America, RWBs clumsily makes its presence known. We are confronted by the sculpture’s gargantuan size, out of proportion to its surroundings, hinting at the perception of the United States elsewhere in the world. Like our new president, RWBs appears threatening, dangerous, and unpredictable. (Presciently, Larner included a few red power ties among the tubes’ sleeves.) In direct opposition to the sculpture, Everett’s Untitled becomes a flag — not of a specific country, ethnicity, or religion, but one that represents the unrepresented, a flag of defiance and dissent. The gauzy material looks distressed and worn, and its colors have bled. It has been to battle but is still standing strong. Though pinned against the gallery wall, Untitled is positioned in direct resistance to the oversize, tangled mess of American imperialism and aggression.

Liz Larner’s RWBs (2005, foreground) and Liam Everett’s Untitled (2012, on wall), installed in A Slow Succession with Many Interruptions, SFMOMA, 2016–17; photo: Craig Corpora

Craig Corpora

Craig Corpora

Craig Corpora is administrative assistant in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at SFMOMA and acted as the curatorial assistant for A Slow Succession with Many Interruptions. He holds both a BA and an MA in art history from San Francisco State University. His master’s thesis, “Little Lovelies: Queer Worldmaking and Disidentification in the Art of Jerome Caja,” explores ideas of utopia and transcendence in the work of this seminal San Francisco artist.