Sculpture Magazine November December 1990 (NEA/SAF Supplement)
Having noted parallels in language relating to art and to death–“hanging” pictures, “executing” works, “shooting” photographs–Michael Aurbach began the “body” of work titled Final Portraits. Each piece is a variation of the container sarcophagus, the whole series an ironical parody of the Western funerary tradition.
Characteristic of his early works, Aurbach’s portraits for the carpenter and the steelworker suggest an identity between the deceased and his occupation. The carpenter’s casket, a wooden toolbox supported by sawhorses, opens to reveal a miniature dwelling with hardwood floor and stud walls. The two tiny sawhorses inside are like the replicas of objects useful in the afterlife found in Egyptian tombs. Similarly, the steel worker’s “portrait,” elevated on an I beam, is a lunch pail opened to show an oxyacetylene welding outfit.
More elaborate concretizations of verbal wit, Aurbach’s recent “portraits” tend to activate the ambient space. His “tomb” for a handicapped person is a wheelchair ramp cut into the ground on a diagonal with handrails embedded into its dirt walls. A prim but gateless white picket fence and greener-than-grass astroturf belie the fact that the ramp leads down to “nowhere,” an impenetrable dirt wall.
Equally as caustic is the humor inspired by the American Indian’s portrait. Beginning with the verbs “to eradicate” and “rub out.” Aurbach reinterprets the slab tomb found in European cathedrals. The parallelogram casket, an oversized “Pink Pearl” eraser, is lined with skins, its floor covered with sand and a native blanket. Under the coffin is an oversized “Big Chief” tablet (the Indian face significantly covered over), and the step it forms is decorated with “American #2” pencils. Ringed by a chalkboard with more erasers, a map of the United States forms a second larger step beneath the first. Two giant column-pencils, erasers at both top and bottom, create a gateway in front, underscoring an identity “erased” by a society “schooled” in eradication.
For the banker, Aurbach chooses a Renaissance wall tomb, the casket a pneumatic tube resting on a tufted cushion. Suggesting the verbs “to deposit” and “put away,” this funerary drive-in window is manned by a macabre teller, invisible behind black Plexiglas, controlling the “transaction.” This “marble”-Corian monument to hi-tech bourgeois splendor is elevated on steps like an altar, and burgundy velvet curtains recall the cloth of honor in art, which traditionally signals the presence of important personages.
In all his works, Aurbach impresses his viewer in part through a manipulation of scale, playing with his innate sense of what is too small or too large. Many of the “coffins” are life-sized, whereas other elements deviate from the expected, as, for example, the giant pencils or the gargantuan pneumatic tube.
More significant, however, is the artist’s wit: good-natured fun in the earlier “coffins,” a humor noir focusing on human fallings in the latter. No less engaging for its incisive edge, this new, more satirical humor still effects a kind of comic catharsis, purging the viewer’s inevitable consternation at the thought of death, shifting what Freud terms the “psychical emphasis” away from painful emotions to laughter.
Dorothy Joiner teaches French and art history and chairs the Department of Foreign Languages at West Georgia College.