Art Papers March/April 1988
Berry College, Austin Peay State University, Tennessee Arts Commision
Reviewed by Dorothy Joiner
“Modern tombs,” says Henry James, “are a skeptical affair…. The ancient sculptors have left us nothing to say in regard to the great final contrast.” Citing this dispraise from the American expatriate, Erwin Panofsky closes Tomb Sculpture, his survey of funerary sculpture, with Bernini, dismissing for the most part anything produced after the seventeenth century. Were Panofsky to have seen Michael Aurbach’s “coffins,” however, he would surely have laughed out loud at the witty, ironical parody of that tradition which he had surveyed. In his late twentieth-century funerary sculpture, Aurbach diverts into laughter the ponderous emotions more frequently elicited by death and the art it has inspired in the past.
Dog Unit (1982; 4’x2’x4′), an intriguing plexus of what seems initially to be disparate images, reveals Aurbach’s delight in word play, particularly puns, as well as his predilection for transposing words into images. The piece first crystallized in the artist’s mind with the expression “executing a work of art,” suggested by a physiologist friend’s sacrificing a Labrador retriever, whose severed parts were then stored in the freezer for scientific study. Looking up the word “dog” in the dictionary, Aurbach began to translate certain promising “dog-terms” into concrete things.
From a book atop Dog Unit’s lectern, for example, the viewer might read a shaggy dog story, dog-earing his page at a stopping point with a part of the Labrador’ s now preserved ear. On the unit’s table-like surface are other marvels: an arch of “bark” springing from Ionic columns of dog biscuits; caryatid paws with nails of the non-organic sort; a second arch of steak bones (which, in life, were repeatedly buried by the animal, and a spade for removing canine caca from the sidewalk. A “dog-legged staircase,” that is, one without a well-hole, in which the successive flights form a zig-zag connects this surface to the floor below. From the floor rise the two columnar legs of the unit, each decorated with fringes of the retriever’s black hair and little metal flags which trace the outline of a golf course, illustrating “dog-leg left” and “dog-leg right.”
Continuing the canine theme, Aurbach creates a reliquary for the bones of several revered dogs, Lassius Maximus, Benji Minunus, and Rintintinius. In the form of a miniature Roman triumphal arch, this reliquary is appropriately titled Archis Barkis (1985; 20″x5″x20″). A flap at the top lifts up to reveal the canine relic, a dog bone carved from vermilion. Silhouettes of the beatified canines decorate octagonal dog-tag tondos on both sides of the arch (eight the number of the resurrection?). Below each tondo is a fire hydrant, that most necessary comfort station along a dog’s promenade.
In a larger series titled “Final Portraits,” Aurbach groups the “caskets” he has made for an electrician, a carpenter, a mail carrier, and a truck driver, among others. These generic “portraits” synthesize the two basic kinds of sarcophagi which Panofsky distinguishes in Western funerary sculpture: the “domatomorphic,” that is, a kind of dwelling for the dead person in his postmortal existence, sometimes a miniature house, a couch, or a chest; and the “anthropomorphic,” that is, a likeness of the deceased, such as a statue or, as in Egypt, the several cartonnage cases enclosing a mummy. Instead of delineating the dead person’s appearance, however, Aurbach’s “portaits” juxtapose telling objects associated with that life, a technique which is, as we shall see later, analogous to that of both wit and dreams as described by Freud.
For the sarcophagus of an electrician (1983, 3’x2’x6′), one who works on buildings, Aurbach makes use of a prototypical structure in Western architecture, the Athenian Parthenon, lining it with rubber and adorning the exterior with electrical hardware. The sloping roof of the lid creates a pediment at both ends in imitation of the sacred triangular space on the Greek temple. Along the base of the lid, triads of electrical pipe form triglyphs, punctuating the undecorated rectangular spaces, which, though left bare, suggest metopes. Longer segments of pipe arranged vertically serve as columns. Enlivened by diagonal striations, the temple walls recall Antiquity’s many strigilated tombs. On the long sides of the templebox, a screw driver and a pair of pliers are affixed to Neo-Gothic projections, these anachronistic shapes adjusted to the tools’ verticality. Placed where the portal of a temple would be expected is a circuit box with a prominent padlock. The juice has been cut off for good.
The carpenter’s casket (1983; S’x2’x6′) is a carefully crated wooden tool box resting on sawhorses. Because it is much larger than a typical container for tools, this pine box when closed convinces the viewer at least subliminally that it could in fact be holding the carpenter’ s mortal remains. Handles near the lower edge provide a grasp for each potential pallbearer, accenting even further the coffin’s quasi-verisimilitude. But when the cover is raised, the viewer sees an expanse of hardwood floor and stud walls, a little dwelling appropriately constructed in wood. In a comer as though to amplify his skewed scale, the artist has placed miniature sawhorses holding a single board, after the fashion of the Egyptians and the Etruscans, who provided replicas for the deceased of what they would need in the afterlife.
For the sarcophagus of a mail carrier, Aurbach chooses an oversized rural mailbox (1985; 6 1/2′ x6′). Letter slots at the lower edge are handles for the pallbearers. One opens the mailbox door to find the simulated nave of a Iongitudinal Christian church, somewhat reminiscent of St. Apollinaris in Ravenna, complete with columns lining the walls and apse space for an altar. Visual puns transform this Italo-Byzantine space into an appropriate resting place for the postman. The capitals are actual rubber stamps turned upside down, and the clerestory windows resemble those sometimes found in an old-fashioned post office. Real one cent postage stamps carpet the floor and cover the walls, each of the 10,000 repeating the image of Dorothy Dix (double verbal pun intended) A niche above the squared-off opening holds a postal scale which gives the clue as to why the artist chose a church interior for his postman. His image suggests the centuries-old weighing of the souls, a motif borrowed by the Christian tradition from antiquity. Is the red flag raised on the side to signal the mail carrier to stop for pick-up? One is reminded of the ironic reversal of movement into stasis in Emily Dickinson’s poem “Because I could not stop for Death / He kindly ostopped for me,”
The truck driver’s final portrait is the trailer of an eighteen-wheeler (1987; 5’x2’x6 1/2′) separated from its cab as if at a terminal rest stop The truck-coffin sits on a bier surrounded by tire tread and supported by a truck scale, recalling the mail carrier’s casket and the weighing of souls motif. The rear doors of the trailer open to reveal the teamster equivalent of the reliquary’s fire hydrant a full-sized urinal.
Aurbach’s Final Self-Portrait: Artist (1984; 5’x2’x12′), a simulated museum crate with a U-Haul trailer in tow, might have been subtitled “You can take it with you, after all” Taillights on both the crate and the trailer suggest a journey. Vertical arrows on the crate indicate not only the top of the box but also a trip to “somewhere up there.” Although the contents of the U- Haul trailer remain a mystery, inside the crate is a gallery space whose white walls display reproductions of the best-known masterpieces in Western art: The Mona Lisa, The Gleaners, Arrangement in Gray and Black, The Scream, American Gothic, among others. The pictures are black and white, seeming to say that familiarity has deadened these, too. Allocating the walls to the painters, Aurbach reserves the floor space for himself. It is his coffin.
The impact of Aurbach’s work derives in large measure from his manipulation of scale he plays with the viewer’ s innate sense of what is too small, too large, and just right. It is significant that most of his coffins are fully large enough to be adult caskets. But as the other half of the aesthetic equation, they deviate from what is expected as a mailbox, the postman’s final portrait is Gargantuan, whereas the eighteen-wheeler is a mere toy of a truck, albeit a large, carefully proportioned plaything. Similarly, the museum crate is believable as a container, but the gallery inside is dwarfed. The electrician’s temple-box, moreover, though fully adequate as a coffin, is only an architectural mock-up. Especially effective is the artist’s use of real objects against this juggling of scale.
The appeal of these pieces stems also from the artist’s economy of means, a pivotal characteristic of wit signaled by Shakespeare in his well-known affirmation of “brevity” as its “soul.” Freud, too, emphasized the tendency of wit to economize in expression” and pointed out two of its basic techniques condensation and displacement. These, he says, the “wit-work” shares with dreams. “Condensation” refers to wit’s preference for fusing two or more thoughts into a single term or expression, creating compressed, laconic images Aurbach’s sculptural amalgamations seem to employ an analogous technique electrician’s coffin/Parthenon; mailbox/church; eighteen-wheeler/porta-john. Considered as “ponraits,” Aurbach’s works parallel even more wit’s tendency to condense. For each portrait, the artist selects only a few, seemingly incidental details, which take on a fortuitous aptness in the context of the whole.”
Displacement” relates to wit’s deviation from normal rational thought, its preference for shifting the “psychical emphasis.” Such a transfer of mental energies results in the familiar pleasure derived from jokes. In simple tems, a large measure of the psychical energy that is normally devoted to repressing what is painful or “forbidden” by the rational mind is displaced to something else and released in laughter. The pleasure of wit, Freud maintains, derives from an “economy in expenditure upon feeling.”
Psychologists affirm that the painful emotions triggered by the idea of death are most frequently experienced subliminally, because they are too anguishing for the conscious mind to entertain for very long. In the past, typical funerary sculpture focused on sublimating man’s realization of this mortality. In Egypt and Eruria, artists furnished practical replicas of useful and pleasurable objects for the convenience of the dead in the next life. During certain periods of Roman history, funerary depictions conveyed a vague but sublime apotheosis. And during the Christian era, tomb sculpture pointed to the joys of Paradise. But for many today, almost none of these “prospective” options–to borrow Panofsky’s term–is any longer believable. To this largely skeptical audience, Aurbach offers the release of laughter, shifting the psychic accent and substituting pleasure for anxiety. As Suzanne Langer says, “Art releases tensions in the mind.”
Dorothy Joiner is a professor of art history at West Georgia College, Carrollton.