A look inside the artist's studio
By Lori Waxman
May 07, 2010
Not much is happening in Bruce Nauman's studio. Hours go by. An insect flits. A mouse darts. A cat follows. Everywhere are scraps of this or that, a piece of furniture, a blank wall, a doorway.
Nauman has been thinking about what happens in the studio for a long time, since he first got one in the 1960s. Then as now, the end result of that thinking is an agonizing and witty bit of videotaped navel-gazing, a peek at that which confronts any artist upon opening the studio door: What am I going to do now?
If you're a conceptual artist, it might not look like much of anything — at least that's what Nauman seems to be suggesting in his six-screen, six-hour installation, which forms part of the Museum of Contemporary Art's smart, sprawling exhibition, "Production Site: The Artist's Studio Inside-Out."
Yes, conceptual artists maintain studios just like painters and sculptors and draftsmen. In fact, as the MCA's exhibition demonstrates, sometimes it's those more traditional artists whose studios function in less-than traditional ways. Take the two creators who treat the museum itself as a space for making art: the work presented by both Nikhil Chopra and Deb Sokolow can best be described as drawing. And yet there it is, happening live in the museum itself.
Chopra's two-day performance began with a mesmerizing turn in which the slight, Indian-born artist played Yog Raj Chitrakar, a fictional Victorian character in a loincloth who spent many trancelike hours covering the gallery's walls with evocative whirlwinds of charcoal. Visitors' shoes picked up the black dust that covered the floor, tracking it throughout the museum to make a secondary, temporary (and perhaps unintentional) picture.
Sokolow's charmingly paranoid mural-scale drawing diagrams various conspiratorial tales about the goings on in and around her studio building. According to the artist, these include but are not limited to a meth lab, suspicious Russians in room 501, and the "situation" in the parking lot across the street. On most days, Sokolow's piece hangs like any other, and says a lot about what the artist is doing in her studio when she's supposed to be "working" on art (she's spying on the neighbors). Once a week, however, Sokolow does what you are not supposed to do in a museum: she climbs up a scaffold and touches up her work, adding to this narrative, changing that one, starting another one entirely.
It's worth noting — and applauding — the fact that Sokolow, a local artist, has been given pride of place in the museum's atrium. The MCA has not been known for recognizing Chicago talent far beyond its 12 x 12 shows, but "Production Site" includes Sokolow plus John Neff, Justin Cooper, former Chicagoan Amanda Ross Ho and Kerry James Marshall. No surprise on the latter, perhaps, but a welcome change overall, and one the MCA will hopefully repeat.
Ross Ho offers a particularly literal take on the idea of the artist's studio, presenting the actual walls of her Los Angeles workspace as the work itself. This might sound dull, but it is only if you lack the imagination and willingness to follow the subtle clues Ross Ho has left behind.
A Notorious B.I.G. poster, a wee balloon sculpture, a Chinese New Year mask, mismatched jewelry, paint drips and more suggest a diversity of work come and gone. Admittedly, this envisioning process is substantially easier for viewers already familiar with her work, but it might just be more fun for others.
Peter Fischli and David Weiss seem to have done something similar to Ross Ho, transporting not the walls but the messy contents of their studio into the gallery. But look again (or read the materials list and then look again) and discover that their project has nothing literal about it. Instead it is a confoundingly realist recreation of a studio from carved and painted polyurethane — a fake studio for a fake artist, presumably made in some kind of real studio by real artists, about whom we learn little.
The very opposite is the case with Andrea Zittel, who installs wood furniture, felted organizers and other designs from the desert home-cum-studio in which she makes and tests her customized goods. Through her products, slogans and a documentary, Zittel promotes a lifestyle as ostensibly simplified, empowered and handmade as her own — though in its insistence on limits and its focus on material objects, her program often seems more fascistic than liberating.
Plenty of other artists in the show focus on the studio as subject, including Rodney Graham, Ryan Gander and Tacita Dean. None of them, however, seem to be taking as much playful pleasure as William Kentridge does in his own workspace, where he animates the universe in charcoal, spilled coffee, ants and sugar. Kentridge's witty, self-reflective twist is to film himself in the midst of that universe, bumbling amicably amid flying sheets of paper and pictures of himself. The result is a portrait of the artist in the studio, a studio at once traditional and contemporary, a studio that shares with the viewer much of the wonder it contains. Would that all artists' studios — and artists — produced such generous, captivating meditations on the world.