Art Papers Magazine (Vol. 26.2)
REVIEWS: Southeast / Nashville
Had Lenny Bruce remained sober, kept his intellectual rigor intact, masterfully versed himself in carpentry and conceptualism, and then entered the upper echelons of art world academia, poised for subversion and critique therein? Then perhaps MICHAEL AURBACH’s “The Administrator” (C.A.P. Gallery, Frist Center For The Visual Arts, Nashville, April 8 — August 19, 2001) would suffer the rejections of nostalgia. Fortunately, this is not an alternate universe, and there are real people still saying the right things. Michael Aurbach is one of them.
In the seventh and most recent work in his “Secrecy Series,” Aurbach plays hero to the over-bureaucratized underdog, and further secures his place in a unique personal-political niche vested with empathy towards the subjugated. An actual-sized room within a room, The Administrator is a burlesque tableau of an office space. It is made entirely of reflective, galvanized steel (or wood painted to mimic metal), theatrically lit from above with a series of sparse but intense spotlights, and seemingly encased by the deep grey-black walls of the surrounding gallery space itself. It has the immediate look and feel of a shiny, jewel-like prison cell, overly riveted together, blocked off and expanded in four corners by railings through which the audience may peer inside. It is a stage for a play that has already happened, and Aurbach’s protagonist, the absent administrator, has left behind a rebus of contextual clues for us to piece together and contemplate.
Step stools, waist-level peepholes, and a significant scaling down of furniture within the room paint an initial picture of a very short, Napoleonic man. Fleur-de-lis adorning the wall tops surrounding the space provides a subtle historical nod to the moral failure of the French Monarchy, whose leaders believed themselves divine. A toy-like motor and air compressor flank a lone desk, frontally adorned with a pair of Roman fasces_symbols of ancient strength and control_here sabotaged by their absurd pairing with obviously functionless and artificial sources of power. You get the idea. Marionette strings dangle overhead, underlining the artist’s intention to portray the administrator as a puppet of bureaucracy. A genuine “hot seat”_a chair fused with a stove eye_sits atop a trap door, wired back to a huge desk-side lever_an image of interrogation straight out of a wartime cartoon made hilariously real. Siegfried and Roy-style animal training hoops, the only objects of normal height and scale within the room, stand perched on stilts, waiting to be leapt through by subordinates of normal stature. Inside the edge of the entrance door, a red and white “height stick” (like those in convenience stores to assist clerks in identifying the height of criminals running out of an exit) is carefully demarcated from three to five feet. Here, one can almost image the artist thinking of ways to translate “new heights of paranoia” into a sculptural guffaw. The translation is easy, hilarious, and biting. Almost needless to say, this corrupted tyrannical midget can’t practice what he preaches, give what he demands, or ask without a threat. A towel bar, water bowl and pitcher seem to await a Pontius Pilate-inspired guilt-washing exercise. The ease of such deconstructions notwithstanding, the work does feel genuinely cathartic and knowing; especially in the places where Aurbach references himself, the elements read no longer as satire, but as pointed autobiography. Two shelves are symmetrically positioned on the wall behind the desk, one supporting a box of shoe lifts and the other an array of metallic notebooks meticulously labeled “Aurbach Incident 1 through 8.” Such details bring new depth to the work and invite many intriguing questions. Is this “administrator” a real person; and if so, just how much is the artist risking in being so candid? If this work steps on real toes, could its public display be a kind of Pandora’s Box for Aurbach? Could this work bring about a real change in the artist’s life or within the bureaucracies that he lives and moves within? There is real risk here, of a much heavier kind than the artist references through his sharp-edged building materials.
The visual puns in Aurbach’s work are stacked and unapologetically literal but so numerous and involved that the elements read interconnectively, like parts from the 1960s board game Mousetrap, except taken to a dizzyingly involved extreme. What starts out as an exercise in “figuring out” a comic scheme quickly becomes something quite alive and inclusive of real-world politics and lives. Meanings remain slippery, not because of symbols being difficult to interpret, but because the interpretive boundaries between each “joke” (for lack of a better word) are ultimately ambiguous. Also, the artist’s jabs become so personalized, seedy and specific upon closer examination that the viewer is left with a mood of unexpected seriousness. Even the convoluted manner in which the audience gleans information about the life of the administrator is itself indicative of the common experience of “wading through red tape,” and discovering that a corruption of power is taking place.
One of the most inviting aspects of the work lies in Aurbach’s refreshing choice to suppress a kind of cynicism and misanthropy (certainly the kind that he is critiquing) that would wince at such wisecracks. His satire is informed by a fresh improvisational sensibility, mixing a knack for plundering art history’s “greatest hits” with the need for a populist punch line. “The Administrator” succeeds in much the same way as a rim shot would if played by an orchestra.