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Sean Bluechel at Nicole Klagsbrun: a Review by Adam Welch.

SEAN BLUECHEL'S EXHIBITION AT THE NICOLE KLAGSBRUN Gallery, Still Life is No Life, combines Internet-sourced images with three dozen tabletop sculptures. Akin to neo-expressionism, detractors of formal abstraction, Bluechel exploits the abject by making work just offsetting enough to disrupt the norm. He also questions our beliefs about kitsch and simulacra, creating work that is a return to expression without any inkling toward tradition. The work and title imply an artist at odds with art. Bluechel is a contrarian, a quintessential avant-garde holdout, working against art and detached from its history.

Bluechel is an artist based in New York, relocating there after earning a BA in New Genres from the San Francisco Art Institute and an MFA from Yale. Before leaving Brooklyn for upstate New York, Bluechel worked in the studios at Greenwich House Pottery. In the artworld, Bluechel is gaining renown for his ceramics. This is his second exhibition at Klagsbrun in as many years. In 2011, Another With Suspension also paired photographs with ceramic sculpture. Before Klagsbrun, Bluechel was with the Jason Rulnick Gallery, exhibited at the Andrea Rosen Gallery and was part of Paul Clay at Salon 94.

Simulacra and abject both imply greater significance of art. Before Postmodernity, simulacra was pejorative, suggesting an image devoid of any substance inherent in the original. Earlier still, it signified mere representation. Jean Baudrillard spent considerable intellectual energy arguing against this former provenance. His point was there are in fact no copies and no originals--everything is simulacra. Abjection gained currency in the wake of simulacra when the boundaries of subject and object became tenuous and meaning collapsed. Simulacra and the abject had the power of theory behind them and they were fashionable. Somewhere between this status and the 16th century roots of simulacra lies a window into Still Life is No Life.

The Drunk series, (editioned c-prints 2013) framed reproductions of youthful alcohol-fueled binges, are images without substance that dispel hope in acculturation and undermine Enlightenment thought regarding human perfectibility. The photos of adolescents passed out with their heads and bodies graffitied are as absurd as the gesture of exhibiting them as art. Alternatively, they offer an experience that elevates instinct and baseness, flaunting Hobbesian boorishness. Bluechel suggests we are not as proper as our will-to-propriety would have us believe.

Three dozen wonky sculptures on plywood tables are vessels stuffed with flowers, feathers, fruit, donuts and so forth, all made of ceramic. No piece is more aesthetically relevant than the other. The extent of their conceptual complexity is reflected in their titles such as Hair Balls of Hope and Europeans Decided When Cultural History Began, which only seem to ridicule their conceptual depth. The sculptures reveal Bluethel at his best, unshackled by aesthetical proclivity. Their lack of sophistication upends material perfectibility, exposing it as kitsch and hiding its true existence.

Is Bluechel's art cynical? Is his abject gesture a struggle with sincerity? There is a portentous relationship borne from the interplay across these works, underscoring primitivism, eroticism and shamanism. Bluechel does not aestheticise the abnormal; he portrays reality as he experiences it, keeping taste and convention at arms-length. Is this latent teenage angst masquerading as critique or avant-garde stratagem, mocking conformity and propriety? The answer hinges on whether Sean Bluechel is genuine about his insincerity. This art is rebellious to the extent we refuse to accept it as normative--once assimilated, it loses criticality. His art stands outside convention, unendorsed and unsupported by societal norms. I believe he sees his work as honest in its unsophistication--holding up against a self-proclaimed honest and sophisticated society.

SEAN BLUECHEL'S SOLO EXHIBITION COULD BE DESCRIBED as diverse and discombobulating. Klagsbrun's large front gallery was occupied by 13 modest-sized plywood-topped and metal-framed tables with tall, spindly legs, which jostled up against each other irregularly like guests at a raucous party. Each held two rather crudely handmade glazed ceramic vessels, wildly divergent except that all were consistently garish. Imagine Kathy Butterly's coy objects crossed with Rhonda Zwillinger's or Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt's brash accretions. In the smaller back gallery were four more tables of the same type, arrangement and offerings.

The objects were usually lumpy vases with clunky clay flowers, sometimes Picassoid heads garnished with feathers, banana-like shapes or appliqued disks or ellipses. The vessels were often textured as well and decorated with glazed patterns mostly in bright but sourish colours. In these inventive, energetic treatments, the parts overwhelm the wholes, so that it is hard to determine or remember the vessel shapes because of the over-elaboration of elements.

The ceramic forms relate not just to vernacular decorative objects but also to toys and also, surprisingly, to the imagery in photographs abutted in tight rows - most about 8 by 10 inches - that were also part of the exhibition. Four of these image collections featured young men with coloured lines on their faces, seemingly sleeping. Could the show's relationships just be a pun - pieced and 'peaced'? Both objects and individuals looked as if clamour had been stilled, as if a soundtrack was missing.

But the checklist indicated that these images were from Bluechel's Drunk series and the gallery press release said that most of the photos in the show were sourced from the Internet. Both of these facts conceptually reverberated. The faces in the photos were as casually decorated as the ceramics. Other photos showed cheap everyday objects - jar lids, earthenware flower pots and the like - being spray painted. Loose ornamentation and lack of refinement pervaded the works, whether two-dimensional or three-dimensional.

The overall impression of the show, oddly enough, was a pretence of being jolly. Underneath that was something strained and painful rather than easy. It was like watching a comedian who tries too hard and makes the performance tiring instead of amusing. One might then mull over the exhibition title, Still Life Is No Life. Is Bluechel saying that a drunken stupor is a waste? Okay. But how, then, do we regard the ceramic objects, each in itself a stilled life, from the fired day to the anthropomorphic shapes and vegetal representations? Was he mocking the still life convention of painting, or kitsch ornamentation in popular culture, the Wal-Mart vulgar calibre of decorative objects?

Although Bluechel, a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute with an MFA from Yale, has nothing on his CV that indicates a connection to the ceramics community it is not possible to think that this work is meant to disparage ceramics as a category. The forms and decoration may be jarring in their hues and their patchwork nature, but he has invested the objects with a kind of care closer to the concerns of a potter than to the material investigation more common in art-world clay dabbling today. The individual objects are wonderfully engaging if you study their formal aspects. That they can give a lot when singled out suggests to me that he advocates being a 'noticer', giving attention to detail and individuality rather than standing back. This guess seems supported by the provocative titling of the objects, ambiguous and poetic fragments that set the viewer's mind to hying out different interpretations, for example Travelling the Current in a Diffused Flux or Liberating Teenagers One Porn Porn at a Time. A few are playful comments on that interpretive process, including Dubious Relevance to Baked Goods, Unable to Discover Any Message or my favourite, There Is No End to a Trail of Clues, which is the summary of a good work of art.

Janet Koplos, a former senior editor at Art in America magazine and guest editor at American Craft magazine, is the co-author of Makers: A History of American Studio Craft (2010), University of North Carolina Press).

A Review by Janet Koplos

Adam Welch is a lecturer at Princeton University and Director of Greenwich House Pottery in New York City. The exhibition was held 1 March -6 April 2013. All photos by Sean Bluechel, unless noted.
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Author:Welch, Adam
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2014
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