Scott Ingram’s Blue Collar Modernism, at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia through September 13, fits right in with this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale in its emphasis on “fundamentals.”
In this culmination of his 2013–2014 Working Artist Project grant, he has moved beyond the modernist facades and geometries of past work and found kinships between modernist painting and sculpture and the down-and-dirty underpinnings of architectural beauty.
The Atlanta artist also comments on the ephemerality of architecture in cities inclined to tear things down after a couple of decades. Curiously, although he states that Atlanta was his prime example, his test cases come from other cities. Extended wall-text commentary explicates aspects of the topic that would otherwise escape comprehension by even the most architecturally savvy.
His most spectacular visual metaphor for the phenomenon needs no annotation. Visitors entering the museum may be startled by the sight of what appears to be a floor-to-ceiling cinder block wall stretching almost completely across the gallery. Only on looking more closely does it become apparent that Wall is a large piece of printed fabric.
This type of pointed commentary on materials and materiality composes the greater part of the exhibition, in pieces ranging from an abstracted drawing of twisted rebar to thickly layered paintings in which latex, gesso and marble dust imitate drywall mud on sheet rock. Simultaneously referring to early to mid-20th-century artistic movements and to everyday construction techniques, the paintings are among the aesthetic high points of the exhibition.
Ingram’s homages to or commentaries on 20th-century modernist sculpture offer a dramatically different effect. Stack is a rickety-looking floor-to-ceiling column of stacks of sheets of plywood, each stack bound tightly together with blue bands. The unease viewers expressed during the opening regarding the structural integrity of this simultaneous homage to building-supply stores and Brancusi’s Endless Column confirmed the success of Ingram’s intention to “project the ideas of fear and doubt . . . as if the ‘house of cards’ would crumble if the straps were released.”
Cut consists of a video inserted into artfully angled sheets of broken chipboard salvaged from Ingram’s recent Pierced project. The video documents Ingram bisecting a Roy Arden photograph of a house and ends with him juxtaposing the two halves of Arden’s photograph in a witty visual reference to Gordon Matta-Clark (who cut apart actual houses).
Pierced, Ingram’s physical penetration of an Ormewood Park house with a wooden I-beam, was both an allusion to Matta-Clark and, according to wall text, a symbolic reference to “an attack or intrusion on our homes by corporate products and marketing,” a message unlikely to be imagined without explanation.
Viewers familiar with 20th-century art history would remember Matta-Clark without Ingram’s prompting. The reasoning behind some of Ingram’s other handsomely attractive historical references remains obscure even after his explanation.
Legacy . . . (Dodge House, LA) is the most interesting of these multilayered allusions. In this collage, a photograph of a modernist house is visible through a biomorphic-looking hole cut into sheets of ordinary notebook paper and brightly colored paper. Anyone who recognizes the hole as a reference to Alvar Aalto’s famous candy dish is likely to know Irving Gill’s iconic Dodge House, but by this time we are talking about a very small number of viewers.
Ingram’s perfunctory description of the Dodge House as “one of the most architecturally important American homes of its day” overlooks the aspect of this Los Angeles dwelling that is most pertinent to this exhibition: it was demolished in 1970 in spite of efforts to preserve it as historically significant. Just as happened with many buildings in Atlanta, the Dodge House bequeathed to succeeding generations nothing but a few influential photographs.
Ingram’s failure to connect the dots here is peculiar because he justifies the presence of his Gateway Arch collage by stating that Eero Saarinen’s immense structure in St. Louis survives because it is regarded as a monument, while many of Saarinen’s iconic buildings have been demolished or soon may be.
This commentary on the intended permanence of monuments ties into the antimonument quality of Stack, which in turn ties into the essential ephemerality of cheap building materials used to construct dwellings not meant to last forever, so Ingram has thought a great deal about making connections, even if he fails to remark on this one.
The interconnected themes hive off into serious obscurity in God and Man when Ingram chooses to juxtapose two postcards, one a photograph of Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House in winter and a spring or summer view of Philip Johnson’s Glass House built in poetic imitation of Mies’ example. Ingram places a label reading “God” beneath the Farnsworth House card and one reading “Man” beneath that of the Glass House. The wall text remarks that “the cards reflect very different seasons, one speaking clearly of death, the other of a lush life.”
This doesn’t explain the logic of the God vs. Man metaphor, unless Ingram means that Johnson’s imitation of the divine example flourished and was fecund while Mies’ original was dead and barren. This seems provocatively possible but unlikely. The alternative notion, that Mies’ example created a legacy before it was completed (because Johnson saw the preconstruction model and made a parallel creation), fits Ingram’s theme but doesn’t completely explain the title or the labels.
However, the adjacent Catacombs is such a feat of free association that it makes the Mies=God / Johnson=Man hypothesis almost tenable. Ingram made a cast-concrete frame for a photograph of cinder blocks from a partially collapsed building because the blocks, which had appealed to him as an accidental installation piece when he saw them scattered in disorder, had been neatly stacked when he returned to photograph them. This reminded him of the stacked skulls he had recently seen in the Catacombs in Paris, so he created the concrete frame as “a sarcophagus for the image.”
We have, again, death followed by the dubious legacy of a cobbled-together and transient order, but this complex of themes is only tangentially related to the original show-title topic of blue-collar modernism, unless we think of Catacombs’ stack of blocks as a sort of modernist grid, made with humble materials assembled by the blue-collar workers who barely make cameo appearances by way of wall-text commentary and the exhibition title. But since the pieces dealing with examples of the modernist architectural legacy abandon the blue-collar theme altogether, there is no need to link this piece that firmly to it, either.
The cinder blocks of Catacombs take us back thematically to the illusory cinder blocks on the curtain that opens the exhibition. So, in spite of conceptual gaps large enough to drive a construction truck through, Ingram has built an artistic environment that, like the plywood sheets of Stack, looks vertiginously unsteady but is actually structurally stable.