The pristine smoothness of its sumptuous surface has been destroyed, just as the purity of modernist abstract painting was destroyed in the 1960s.
Exquisitely resplendent and opulent in its stunning gilded surface, Rudolf Stingel’s Untitled from 2012 is at once visually seductive and conceptually complex – a deeply alluring example of the artist’s iconic electroplated works. Recycling fragments of the graffiti-ed insulation panels that lined the walls of his 2007 exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Whitney Museum in New York, Stingel cast the sections in copper and electroplated the surfaces with gold. The reflective sheen of the gilded surface at first resists the gaze, like a mirror, as viewers are involuntarily aware of their presence in the face of the work. And yet upon closer inspection, the proliferation of marks and scribbles fracturing the glistening surface become increasingly prominent to both the eye and mind – their wayward vectors and perforations celebrating and memorializing the passage of time as well as the ghostly enigmatic gestures from a manifold of anonymous sources. Manifesting as a progressive form of abstraction, the present work encapsulates the very best of Stingel’s oeuvre that centres on the processes of creation and the cerebral interrogation of the tradition of painting.
Beginning his career as an artist in New York in the late 1980s, Stingel developed a line of inquiry that aligned with the concurrent backlash against neo-expressionist tendencies in painting, pioneering a process-focused approach to the medium. In 1989 he released his seminal Instructions: a limited-edition artist book that explained the process by which anyone could produce their own Rudolf Stingel artwork. The artist’s creative process behind the present series stems from his participatory installations debuted during his 2007 mid-career retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Whitney Museum. The installation comprised expansive aluminum-coated Celotex boards that lined the museum walls, onto which visitors were invited to imprint, scribble, and incise any kind of mark with any available material. Audience members rose to the occasion with pens, credit cards and even fingernails, adorning the walls with a lively riot of graffiti and etchings that ranged from scratches and perforations to drawings and inscriptions. It was this densely turbulent and richly expressive surface that Stingel harnessed as the mold for the present work: after the exhibitions ended, the artist preserved sections of the graffiti-ed panelling to be cast and electroplated, alchemically transforming the collective vandalizations into something new and valuable – a narrative of a transitory happening made permanent by means of Stingel’s intensive casting process.
Departing radically from traditional museum protocol, the making of Untitled exemplifies the participatory dimension of Stingel’s oeuvre, aligning his art within a greater tradition of relational aesthetics. Further, Stingel takes on the role of mediator and elevates the scratchings and drawings of anonymous viewers above the status of vandalism into something of value. The gilded veneer of the present work functions as an agent, transforming the banal into the spectacular. Likewise, the use of gold conflates the immaculate opulence of its traditional form with a debased and maimed surface texture, thus inverting the expectations for this valuable medium. Through his wry exploitation of medium and method, Stingel “developed a singular approach to painting that aims to undermine the very essence of the creative act. His works do not always conform to painting’s traditional definition of paint on canvas, yet in their simultaneous attention to surface, image, color and space, they create new paradigms for the meaning of painting” (Robert Fitzpatrick, “Foreword” in Exh. Cat. Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art (and travelling), Rudolf Stingel, 2007, p. 9).
Rigorously conceptual, the present work reveals a multilayered process of creation that complicates traditional ideas of authorship. As individual marks aggregate in rich layers of expression, each mark loses its unique identity and becomes absorbed into a collective mass. Text that was once legible devolves into pure abstraction, subjected to a lyrical thicket of gesture. In turn, Stingel amasses the marks and reincarnates them anew through the electroform casting and plating process. By this process, singular authorship dissolves into a collectivized whole, which is again repurposed and redefined under Stingel’s authorship. The mark of the other thus becomes synonymous with Stingel’s own authorial gesture. Through the lens of audience performance and reproduction through casting, Stingel attempts to redefine modes of production in painting. As Chrissie Iles writes: “The performative nature of Stingel’s mark-making makes evident its three-dimensional presence as a symbol of painting, rather than as painting itself. The pristine smoothness of its sumptuous surface has been destroyed, just as the purity of modernist abstract painting was destroyed in the 1960s” (Chrissie Iles, “Surface Tension” in Exh. Cat., Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art (and travelling), Rudolf Stingel, 2007).
As consistent with the overarching themes in Stingel’s art, the present work bespeaks the passage of time, moving beyond representation towards the value of process. Further, every incision etched by visitors exposes us to the archetypal and most primitive but essential creative act that man has repeated since the beginning of time: scratching and drawing on the wall, be it a cave or the surface of electroformed copper. Existing as a frozen testimonial of collective memory, Untitled demonstrates not only a transformation within Stingel’s methodology, but also a transformation in the viewer’s physical encounter with the art object. In the all-encompassing grandeur of the present work, time is laid bare for us to revisit and reflect upon, as our own presence glistens in the surface.