Review: Allan McCollum Plaster Surrogates Colored and Organized by Andrea Zittel
On 27, Sep 2013 | In exhibitions | By marywp
Plaster Surrogates Colored and Organized by Andrea Zittel
September 6- October 5, 2013
Petzel Gallery, New York
Allan McCollum and Andrea Zittel’s collaboration, their second at Petzel, continues the former’s practice of consistently approaching art production, display and study with the critical eye of one situated outside the art world—persistently questioning the motives, conventions and expectations surrounding the art object. By implementing a consciously exterior perspective, McCollum is able to look in and reveal the unique set of conventions termed the art world and questions the intrinsic value of the work of art.
Plaster Surrogates Colored and Organized by Andrea Zittel occupies a single gallery at Petzel, the color (a deep, warm grey) of which was chosen specifically by Zittel as a backdrop for the earth-toned pieces (she was also responsible for the selection of their tones). Although the first Plaster Surrogates were produced by McCollum in 1982, as a further objectification of his Surrogate Paintings, the series at Petzel expands the artist’s production of the notably mass-produced art object with the introduction of a collaborator, who shared with the artist the role of administrative decision maker over a team of workshop assistants.
The Surrogates are created by creating plaster casts of framed canvases which are then entirely painted over with enamel paint, producing an object that looks like a painting, and by definition, is a painting, yet is decidedly not a painting as accepted by art world rules. By drawing heavily on the complex and at times paradoxical relationship between image and object, signified and signifier, McCollum, as did Jasper Johns, produced a system that mirrors the iconic function of art itself—to represent as a reflective image of the “real” outside it.
At heart, the Plaster Surrogates refute their existence as simple “things” by activating the multiple chains of signification and meaning between themselves and the viewer, an interaction at once expected of an art object, yet also true for all objects. McCollum’s practice is based on the simultaneous singularity yet transmutability of sign systems—an ongoing project is to have a unique shape created for every person on the planet, even as the artist acknowledges the importance of images’ ability to be communicable to as many viewers as possible without explanation. Yet the Surrogates ontological essence denies the presence of a depicted or suggested subject. As Hal Foster has emphasized in his seminal essay, “Subversive Signs” (1986), McCollum’s work leaves a vacuous space in the place of a subject. By eliminating content from the frames, McCollum reduces then to vacant signs, signifying not something outside the frame but reflecting the cyclical end game of the commercial art world in which art objects are reduced to empty tokens of exchange—distinguishable from each other often by size or coloration than artistic value.
Although produced in context with the socially critical works that now define the “Pictures Generation” of the late 1970s-80s, McCollum’s Surrogates remain resoundingly significant today. Foster perceived the timeless quality of the work, noting that “McCollum literalized the rules of art”. Solemnly, the work’s subject is the definition of painting, and art itself through the production of mass-produced objects, a Duchampian prototype made afresh. With the Surrogates, McCollum forces a definition of art to lie within the object’s context and presentation, allowing him to “ just do just the minimum that is expected of an artist and no more.” In this way, the Surrogates are not art in and of themselves, but rather “stand-in” for the experience of looking at a framed painting on a wall. The experience duplicates that of “the real” by adhering to the proverbial rules of a painting—that it must be a framed canvas on a wall to which paint has been applied” but subverts this very definition by transforming each painting into a object, each an object within the greater installation which is itself the work.
Zittel’s purposeful play of color activates these relationships by at once combining the gallery into a single installation and by generating each plastic piece’s coloristic properties through its relationships with the others, with the background and to the visitor. In this way, Zittel’s addition to the Surrogates can be understood as one that imbues them with a painterly, as opposed to a curatorial perspective. Zittel’s life is an expansion of her own design—her homestead outside Yucca Tree National Park entitled A-Z West, her color-blocked, style-savy “uniforms” and fabric paintings rely on her acute sense of color relationships. By applying this sensibility to McCollum’s institutional critique practice, the project takes on a unique hand-made aspect. McCollum has described his Surrogates as “product of tiny gestures built up over time,” emphasizing an almost craft-like production while simultaneously relying heavily on a system of assembly-line production even as Zittel’s handmade, organically colored forms aesthetically oppose it. Even this paradox itself seems mass-produced however, as it aligns with a dizzying array of new age spiritual lifestyle commodities from clothing, exercise programs, home décor and food that attempt to situate themselves pure and apart from the society of which they are an intrinsic part.
By transferring his sense of authorship to Zittel, McCollum put his own system to the test—would the sign system of plastic Surrogates function differently when attributed to a different artist? Stepping back even further from “the minimal you can do and still be an artist” while retaining his claim over the project, McCollum allows for Zittel’s own aesthetic and practice to complicate the Surrogates. By overseeing color and compositional decisions, as well as overseeing the installation, Zittel’s own role overlapped the boundaries of curator and artist. McCollum’s heightened interest in display here takes the form in his willingness to relinquish these decisions to another.
Context and presentation are brought to the fore, curatorial, display and artistic practices merged. Operating as a coy response to Jeff Koon’s double exhibitions at David Zwirner and Gagosian this past summer in Chelsea, McCollum re-considers how the mass-produced object can function in this hyper-commercialized Chelsea gallery culture.
 Hal Foster, “Subversive Signs” (1986), re-printed in Modern Art Culture: A Reader by Francis Frascina (Routledge: New York, 2009), 109-120.
 Allan McCollum “Allan McCollum” Art 21 http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/allan-mccollum (accessed September 17, 2013).
 Allan McCollum, interview with Paul Bernard originally published in Frog No. 10-11 (2011).
http://allanmccollum.net/allanmcnyc/frog/interview.en.html (accessed September 21, 2013).