Cameron Rowland - Deputies - Essex Street - May 1 - June 19, 2021
It feels edgy or problematic to suggest that one doesn't like Cameron Rowland's work. He's not only one of the foremost young politically-oriented Black artists but also one of the most tasteful inheritors of the aesthetics of post-conceptualism, clearly intelligent, productive, and talented. And yet I don't like his art at all. I should hasten to add, before someone tries to call me racist, that I always enjoy reading his press releases and find them to be consistently incisive and educational pieces of research. That's also the problem with his art, in that the content of the work lies in the press release to the point that the works themselves are relegated to the role of symbolic "illustrations" of the text. His work is, to my mind, the full realization of a type of post-conceptual art, but unfortunately I think that entire current of artistic thought is a misconception of art's function.
His appropriative artworks may have a cohesive aesthetic of hard-edged cleanness and precision, and his past interventions into the economics of his work may have a laudable conceptual boldness (I'm unaware if there are similar gestures regarding the prices of artworks in the current show), but regardless I still see Rowland fundamentally as a writer/researcher caught in the art world instead of academia. I don't begrudge him for his displacement, academia is just as fraught as the art world and anyone with integrity will have a difficult time finding the space to do what they want to do in any industry or public forum such as, for instance, art criticism. The question, however, is what it is he wants to do with his art. The first problem of an activist approach to art is art's inherent insularity. I'm sure Rowland's 2016 show at Artists Space supplied eye-opening information on the shockingly exploitative nature of prison labor to most attendees, which is of course a tangible and practical accomplishment. My question is what an exhibition of inmate-produced items as artworks attains beyond the impact of the information already contained within the press release. Certainly it would be idealistic to think the text of the press release would not be too incendiary and too rigorous to be published by the likes of New York Times, but what is it exactly that relegates this research to the obscure cultural backwater of the art world, where the audience is predominantly already leftist (aside from those collectors that are too rich to care what petty little leftists think)? That question itself is mostly rhetorical, but to take a step back, we should consider the artistic heritage of this mode of artwork.
Rowland obviously works within the art historical lineage of conceptual art, post-conceptual art, and Institutional Critique in particular. To summarize, briefly and broadly, conceptual artists pushed the bounds of art by exploring the possibilities in prioritizing ideas over the process of making, leading to new modes of work that often outwardly lacked conventional artistic content but were lent meaning by the force of the ideas that led to the creation of the work itself. Though Michael Asher is considered one of the primary purveyors of Institutional Critique, he's also one of my favorite examples of a conceptual artist in general, in the sense that his often astoundingly minimal interventions succeed as artworks by virtue of his thorough and continual intellectual investigations of the institutions of art themselves. Any artist could make a similar exhibition to Asher's 1973 show at Lisson Gallery where he cut 1/4" out of the bottom of the wall of the space, but without the backing of Asher's obsessive considerations of the gallery space such an action would cease to be conceptual and become simply aesthetic or referential. Likewise, post-conceptualism rendered conceptual objects or interventions into a mode of visual aesthetics instead of things that had been brought into existence by the necessity of the thoughts that engendered them. This is not to say that post-conceptual art is bad, only that post-conceptual art differs categorically from conceptual art in spite of their visual similarities. Finally, Institutional Critique turns the conceptual approach into a reflexive investigation of art itself, which functions as a politicization of art by problematizing the functions of art as a system implicated within other systems. This characterized Andrea Fraser's earlier works, which probed the structures of the arts and her own position as an artist within those structures. But, as I've written before, her work made a decisive shift after Untitled (2003) towards an overtly activist political mode that strikes me not so much as a development in her creative process as an expression of her ultimate disillusionment with the arts in favor of teaching, politics, and psychoanalysis/Group Relations. The reason this methodology fails is that by disavowing art's potential as a mode of agency within the context of art, she negates the possibility of art as a mode of action. Art is not only an empirically marginal venue for activism but, more importantly, art's function lies in the ambiguities of affect, which stand in direct opposition to the ideological certainties of activism. Political action requires certitude, and certainty of ends is the one thing that cannot be allowed of art. An artwork whose goals are predicated in their conception ceases to be art because art cannot be reduced to reason. If an artist seeks to "raise awareness" through making a piece of art they reduce the piece to a discursive symbol rather than an affective phenomenon, which is to say they are turning it into not-art. This brings us back to Cameron Rowland.
The most interesting part of Deputies is that it pushes the discursive/informational trend of Rowland's work to such an extremity that it borders on turning the work's context from an art gallery/museum to that of a history gallery/museum. Three of the gallery pieces, one 1803 issue of the New York Herald and two 19th century cotton scales, are literal historical objects, the broadcasts of NYPD police scanners are historicized in that they are archived in contradistinction to the NYPD's own practice, and the off-site benches placed without city authorization in Seward Park are named after the addresses of historical unmarked mass Black graves in New York City. Only the emergency call tower inside of the gallery has no intrinsic historical content, though it is thematically related in the exhibition pamphlet to the historical complicity of the White public in policing Black people in America. The works look good together in the gallery with their cohesive conceptual/historical appearance, but the question remains what the works themselves are accomplishing. For one to have an affective relationship to the works they must react to their political implications, because in themselves they are simply objects that have not been modified by the artist. But, continuing the relationship to the history museum, is there any difference between seeing these objects in a gallery versus in a non-art context? One may be moved by the racism of an archival news article or the obvious connotations of slavery in a cotton scale whether or not one sees them in an archive or at Essex Street. By the same token, many people feel involuntary and justified anxiety at the sight of an NYPD vehicle, just as they might in hearing police scanners or thinking about the implications of an emergency call tower's ability to deploy the potential of police violence at the press of a button. Perhaps the benches in Seward Park would have an additional function by serving as a public memorial for the grave sites they have been named after, but that information is withheld from any visitor to the park who has not read the gallery's exhibition pamphlet. To everyone else they are just benches that are outwardly identical to those in the rest of the park, only glossier and not bolted into the ground. Perhaps their remaining unmarked serves some purpose I'm unaware of, but to my mind their lack of designation undercuts the legitimate force of them as public memorials, as though the art feels the compulsion to remain insular by force of habit. In spite of my criticisms, I don't wish to suggest that Rowland is a bad artist. He definitely isn't, which is why his exhibition precipitated this editorial. But he's a symbolic artist, and I don't believe that art functions symbolically. For instance, one could argue that much of the history of European painting functions within the symbolic context of Christianity, but to argue that Renaissance painting derives its significance from its symbolism would be to imply that Mantegna's Lamentation of Christ is important by virtue of its being a painting of Jesus Christ rather than a landmark of painterly realism and perspective. Symbolism is an artistic pretext for themes and imagery, an excuse to do something repeatedly and build it up as a tradition because of its accepted cultural significance. To be sure, our lack of robust contemporary symbols is one of the largest problems in the present state of art. That Rowland anchors his work in a Black political context is not wrongheaded, because such struggles are certainly the closest thing we have to a contemporary format for symbolic significance. His problem is that, even within that context which he rigorously supplies through his writing, his art objects function as objects, not as art.