Joe Thurston, Elizabeth Leach Gallery
Joe Thurston at Elizabeth Leach Gallery, Portland, Oregon
Originally published in the exhibition catalog for "Nothing Leading Anywhere Any More Except to Nothing."
The forms that populate Joe Thurston's new body of sculptures look like the fresh spoils of an excavation, having sponged up the ochre, mustard, and earthy brown hues of the soil. With their repeated right angles and rectangular planes, Thurston's hulking monoliths and shallow, window-shaped boxes resemble crates or shipping containers. Scored, waterlogged, and decorated with errant smears of sooty bone char and white chalk, the works use decay and residue—that is, decomposition — as essential compositional concerns. Some surfaces seem scorched or charred, creating marbled patterns. Others are chipped or peeled back, teasing glimpses of interior layers. Fabricated with wood, the sculptures are overlaid with cork exteriors—a jigsaw of irregular shapes fitted together and sealed with wood filler—that are as soft and absorptive as skin.
In an art-historical context, these sculptures conjure Minimalism's romance with geometric composition, repetition, and formal variation. Exhibited in clustered groups that suggest architectural colonies, Thurston's works seem to descend from the sequential box arrangements of Donald Judd, while their surfaces conjure the patina of erosion in Tony Smith's six-foot steel cube Die, 1962. But the cork skin, whose scarred fragmentation evokes maps or masonry as often as sheer decay, is far too worked for the cold, uninflected surfaces of Minimalism. In fact, the detail of these mosaic-like planes, however roughly hewn, is an aesthetic intervention that behaves like camouflage, complicating our ability to see the forms for what they obviously are.
In comparing Thurston's sculptures to the objects they most strongly suggest—sarcophagi, gravestones, and shipping crates—we recognize the attribute that connects them: an abundantly visible exterior that implies a concealed interior. The coffin encloses, futilely attempts to preserve, and gives an enduring facade to a dematerializing entity. Similarly, the gravestone serves as a visible surrogate for the unseen deceased—an assurance that life has not expired but has simply transitioned to another realm. The crate, on the other hand, implies that its contents are so indispensable that they must accompany their owner to the next stage of life. Taken together, these visual cues remind the viewer that surface always carries a tacit promise of the unseen substance beneath.
The descriptions of the works' constituent materials—which symbolically progress inward from the outermost media—confirm our suspicion that the sculptures are, indeed, containers. Each description ends with a revelation: Thurston has inhumed in these works various pieces of memorabilia, including photographs and correspondence; the belongings of deceased loved ones; studio tools, such as paintbrushes and stretcher bars, that no longer relate to his practice; and family heirlooms ranging from an old steamer trunk to a sixteen-gauge shotgun. (If you were to tip one of the sculptures on its side, you would hear the interred object, likely broken beyond repair, noisily shift position.) These symbolic objects, now laid to rest, have been removed from circulation. Just as the deeply personal dimension of Thurston's work is buried beneath its visible surfaces, the significance of the buried mementos is similarly concealed. For example, the eyeglasses entombed in Container #3 would lack evident meaning or value for most viewers, but by virtue of the care taken by the artist to inhume them, we imagine their importance and settle on our own compelling fictions. Perhaps we envision the eyeglasses balanced on the bridge of a grandmother's nose—an image that swiftly pinwheels into our own indelible sense impressions.
It may seem that in discarding these personal objects, Thurston is suggesting they are useless or expressing a need to erase aspects of his own history. But this quasi-ceremonial process actually belies a tremendous valuation and a desire to grapple with the brutal reality of loss, absence, and obsolescence. In fact, the sculptures' function as protective vessels carrying precious cargo precedes Thurston's intercession altogether: the underlying armatures of the containers, scavenged from galleries and museums, are crates previously used for shipping fine art. If we were to strip the containers of their mottled layers of cork, we would find hastily scrawled surnames such as Richter, Ruscha, de Kooning, Kandinsky, and Smith (both Tony and Kiki)—names that traffic in the art world as synonyms of priceless, even sacred.
With these readymade structures, Thurston activates a potent metaphor for what he calls "objects in transition." Just as the containers' original contents once traveled from one location to the next, Thurston's interred objects, serving as surrogates for their owners, are also in a state of transition. Invisible within their containers, they disintegrate over time until they are gone. Additionally, Thurston's metaphor tracks closely with the "transitional objects" of child psychology—objects that replicate the bond between mother and child. With his entombment of objects in these sculptures, Thurston acknowledges the harrowing fact that emotional bonds with friends and loved ones can never be more than ephemeral. Through inhumation, the objects are at once obliterated and enshrined. As the artist constructs a deeply worked, aesthetically charged shell around the items, he closes the margin between his own veneration of them and the value others will assign to his sculptures once they are jettisoned into the art market. It is a covert strategy to cajole the world into feeling what he feels, even if they cannot see what he sees.
But while viewers cannot see these artifacts or comprehend their value, they are active participants in the construction of the work. Because Thurston deliberately obfuscates their conceptual core, the sculptures are seductively enigmatic; they tempt us to unlock their secrets, as if the very presence of a mystery avows an unveiling. But the interred possessions, so fraught with implied biographical meaning, remain just out of reach. We can only read the names of the objects and visualize them: first in our mind's eye, and then in the real space of the containers. We are free to imagine them in any condition, positioned anywhere. Perhaps they are scattered in fragments at the base of each sculpture, or perhaps—following the logic of burial—they are renewed, restored, and transferred to another world. By virtue of their concealment, the objects become souvenirs, inextricably tied to loss and the unrecoverable, guiding viewers to integrate them into their own memories and meanings. As much as Thurston, we become psychic stewards of these relics, ferrying them from the solid ground of the material to the eternal expanse of the mythic.
In that light, the objects Thurston stows in his sculptures can be seen as almost incidental and unimportant in any specific sense. They signal a broader, less explicit meaning: namely, that the "contents" of his containers are stand-ins for "content" in general. When we talk about the meaning of an artwork and deliberate on what it is "about," we address that aspect we believe to be concealed, that bears unpacking. Just as the artist manifests his subjective experience through expression, we gather knowledge not by skimming the surface, but by dredging the depth.
With Thurston's containers, our ability to inspect and analyze the interred objects is not only frustrated; they are reconstituted as exclusively mental processes in which our own minds help bring the artworks into being. With no access to the sculptures' interiors and little context for the artist's rationale for choosing their contents, the viewer is neither observer nor interpreter. As we look within ourselves for an image of each object and affix our personal associations to it, we both arbitrate the work's content and symbolically inhume a part of ourselves, filling the containers with meaning. When this occurs, the sculptures are no longer simply Thurston's shrines to personal loss. Instead, they become something closer to an oracle, which we approach with the hope of veil-rending revelation—only to be stranded in silence.