Art Papers September/October 1991
New York, New York
Michael Aurbach: Final Portraits
Bernice Steinbaum Gallery
Nashville Tennessee Arts Commission Gallery
Michael Sandle, the noted British sculptor, best known for his series of thanatoid bronze monuments of Mickey Mouse manning an M-60 machine gun, once commented to an art critic: “I could accept the idea of death provided I’ve got a tomb”–dryly referring to the solace the living derive from public and private monuments to the dead. Michael Aurbach might well have taken Sandle’s remark as a starting point for his own investigation into the subject of death. Aurbach has created a group of sculptural installations over the past few years that cleverly satirizes our culture’s traditional notions of the tomb as a quiet resting place, marked by a stone with banal designs, set among neatly ordered lawns. In its place his corpus of “Final Portraits” buries his subjects in a flurry of puns, joking references, and knowing commentary. Aurbach’s humor is of the “black” kind, undermining the false dignity and conventions surrounding death, coffins, tombstones, and internment; he exaggerates the stereotypes that accompany socially constructed identities formed around race, gender, class, sexual preference, ethnic group, and career choice. By lampooning these constructed identities in “Final Portraits,” Aurbach paradoxically reveals that which makes us just human, and makes a very subtle plea for the recognition of individual worth in the face of oblivion.
It should be noted, first of all, that Aurbach is also a highly-talented craftsman. Many of his pieces display a conception, execution, and finish bordering on the obsessive, and his pursuit of unusual and obscure materials seems to know no bounds. I know of few artists, for example, who have been able to procure genuine parking-meters for a work, or make lavish use of a marble-patterned formica. His sculptural installations are made on a scale as would be appropriate for a public monument or a fair-sized gravesite. And all of them are designed and constructed with materials connected to the status or job of the subject. Final Portrait: Electrician, to cite an obvious work is a metal toolbox-shaped coffin, with detailing made from plugs, sockets, conduit pipe, copper wire, and the like; it is lined-to “prevent shock”-with black rubber on the inside. With this, and many other pieces, Aurbach’s years of honing workshop skills are clearly evident, and the results have gravity and presence in a gallery setting.
In several respects, Aurbach’s works most closely resemble those of H.C. Westermann, [he “dean” of the Chicago school of Imagists. Westermann, whose wood sculptures from the 1950s and 1960s blazed a path for subsequent artists, also chose the subject of death for many of his important works. Pig House, his screened-in toy cabin with a plastic pig hanging from the ceiling, seems like an antecedent for Aurbach, as does the series “Death Ships,” which refers to Westermann’s Navy experiences during World War ll. Westermann’s compulsive concern for crafting his objects with utmost care, his encyclopedic knowledge of woodworking techniec, and his preoccupation wiith puns and paradox all seem particularly relevant to issues in Aurbach’s pieces.
While it is true that Aurbach concentrates exclusively as a sculptor on the long-hallowed tradition of vanitas, He seems to be recreating his own conventions within it. One would have to refer back to the jolly vitality of Etruscan tomb sculpture to find a similarly irreverent attitude towards final portraiture. At the Tennessee Arts Commission, Aurbach showed Final Portrait: Banker. This work resembles a drive-through window at the local bank. It’s complete with a darkened, opaque teller’s window, a plastic vacuum canister (the coffin), fakey neo-classical design (like all good banks) for the facade, and tasteful, conservative materials (the aforementioned formica). One presumes this window was only open during banker’s hours! Aurbach has ventured into more controversial territory as well. His Final Portrait: Gay Person openly flaunts gay stereotypes: a small closet serves as the coffin. The coffin rests upon an outsized book of matches (framers) from which a single burnt match protrudes, erection-like. The closet is also lined with a pink wallpaper that has Tinkerbell and flower motifs, and this paper is reflected on a mirror mounted on the closet door–a wry comment on the narcissistic aspects of certain gay subcultures? I am sure that I missed other subtle references. Final Portrait American Indian is a room-sized pastiche of some of the ugly misconceptions projected onto what was, essentially, the original American culture. The color red pervades here, including a red carpet that rolls up to the coffin. Pencils made on an Indian reservation line the bier upon which the coffin rests; the coffin itself is a big pink eraser–signifying the idea of genocide as erasure. The mastaba-shaped base is painted with a candy-colored map of the United States, and lined with chalkboard erasers, while two torches flanking the monument turn out to be outsized pencils with huge erasers at their tops and bottoms. Within the coffin itself, Aurbach has placed fragments of doeskin and other animal hides, and makes allusions to the “happy hunting grounds,” although he has added a Mexican-style blanket with Apache designs as something of a final indignity–this is where the corpse would repose, on a fictitious bit of tourist wrap made from polyester and cotton.
While Aurbach has something of the cynicism of Evelyn Waugh’s Mr. Joyboy, he lacks Joyboy’s glee over the hollow pieties and sanctimonious lies of the funeral industry, and he has regard for some of the myths invented for the deceased. Like Sandle, who casts his modern heroes adrift and surrounds them with the worthless detritus of modern warfare (weapons, bombs, sandbags), Aurbach negates the ambitions of traditional monuments. His catty, witty, even cruel commentaries, filled with obvious and obscure references alike, provide no final resting place for the dead; what we are and what we were in this life continues to haunt us in the next–or so Aurbach seems to imply, embalming it for us as a memento mori. Like Cindy Sherman, who also satirizes socially-defined roles, Aurbach reveals the baggage we place on individuals when we classify them by standard types. He dares us to confront the ultimate absurdity of these types, showing us our own prejudices carry over unto death. on the negative side, Aurbach’s pieces often suffer from the “one-liner” syndrorne. You get the joke, you get the piece, nothing further required. It’s a flaw which tends to undermine some of the elaborate craft and conception.
However, Aurbach is probably hardest of all to himself. His own Final Portrait: Vanitas is a fitting monument to the futility of the artist’s lot in life. Vanitas consists of the outline of a room, made from steel pipes and joints painted black. The room is filled with a variety of objects that all refer to the act of transportation to a final destination: a scale for weighing, carts for moving, a desk with an in/out box and rubber stamps, a wastebasket and time-clock for processing, a pathetic water fountain, and a stack of coffin-shaped crates. The crates are marked “Address Unknown” and “Damaged Freight.” All these objects are literally the stuff of Aurbach’s life as an artist who seeks exhibitions and transports his sculptures from site to site. Imagine him on the highway in his truck, schlepping his work all about, passing through ship ping and receiving and storage, journeying to the end of the road with his ephemeral cargo. All these gerunds are loaded, of course, according to Aurbach’s thinking, with metaphorical import. Taken in context of life and death, Vanitas is a melancholy testimony to the absurdity of the whole process of being a “professional artist,” emphasized here by the dull gray that colors every item mentioned above. I suppose Aurbach would have us laugh, but his sadder, deeper message suggests that doubt and the constant awareness of mortality is the lonely lot of the ambitious artist.
Again, Aurbach does not emphasize the heroic or the transcendent with his monuments. Rather, the comedies and tragedies of our secular life are portrayed. Aurbach’s best work, in my opinion, was not displayed in any gallery but bears a mention here. Final Portrait: Handicapped Person was constructed outdoors on the campus of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. The site for the work was enclosed on all four sides by a white picket fence, denying access. The lot inside the fence was excavated with a long ramp that was covered in wood planks; the remaining area inside the fence was excavated with a long rampo that was covereed in wood planks; the remaining area inside the fence was covered in covered in Astro-Turf. The ramp was wide enough for a wheelchair and led down to a small platform at the bottom. On one side of the earthen walls, Aurbach had attached a stainless steel bar, the same as those found in stalls in handicapped-access bathrooms. A final insult added to injury? Perhaps, but then there was one better: the artist related how, after several days of rain, the hole filled partially with water, presenting a hazard to the students and other campus visitors. Campus work crews dug a drainage hole into the bottom to eliminate the waste and stagnant water. Voila! No unpleasant or unsafe remains. Surely this work was every bit as compelling as any by minimalist ditch-digger Michael Heizer. Sad to say, the work no longer exists, since it was filled in once the show ended on the campus–gone, but not forgotten. But then, Michael Aurbach would have wanted it that way.
David Ribar is curator of collections at The Fine Arts Center/Cheekwood Nashville, Tennessee.