Ceci n’est pas un tableau , The Work of Amikam Toren

Richard Dyer


In 1975 Amikam Toren finds four smashed milk bottles on the streets of London. He carefully gathers the fragments and reassembles them in an attempt to form a reconstruction of the original object. Applying the methodology of the archaeologist, not to some ancient relic but to that most humble of everyday objects, the milk bottle, Toren re-focuses the Duchampian gaze by remaking the ready-made. How much more poignant and precious is the everyday when it is mediated through the praxis of the conservator, and then re-contextualised within contemporary art practice. This ‘museumification of the utilitarian’, this transformation of the lowly object into high art – which will be a recurring theme in Toren’s oeuvre – is further augmented by the series of finely rendered pen-and-ink drawings which accompany the display of the remade bottles. The glue Toren used to reassemble the milk bottles – or to make resemble milk bottles – is black; this emphasizes the graphic aspect of the sutures between the shattered fragments. It is this lyrical meander that Toren has drawn with infinite care, as if he were mapping the various territories of some unknown country. In fact, the territory Toren begins to explore in the mid 1970s is nothing less than a cartography of the history of art. He will thence commence to penetrate deep into the strange continents of representation, appropriation, and deconstruction. It is ironic that the object which the artist chose in the 1970s as being ‘ordinary’, ‘ubiquitous’, and ‘throw-away’ has now disappeared from the world; milk is no longer sold in glass bottles and the ‘everyday’ milk bottle has become an object of some archaeological interest.

AN ART THAT SITS ON ITSELF

A key series began in 1979-80 with the installation Neither a Painting nor a Chair. This work can be read as an indexical register for much of Toren’s work, embracing as it does many of his fundamental concerns and central modes of practice. In this work Toren deals with the problematics of representation by acting on the materiality of the object, in this case another ‘everyday’ object, archetypal in its dumb ubiquity and utilitarian quiddity: a very ordinary wooden chair.

The chair was sanded away until all that remained was, literally and metaphorically, a skeleton. The resulting sawdust was then mixed with clear acrylic binder – a philosophically and materially ‘neutral’ medium – to form what could be termed ‘not paint’-paint, a substance which was to be treated ‘as if; it were paint, but in this special case was manufactured from the very object that it was destined to represent. This theoretically loaded pigment was then used to ‘paint’ seven of a series of ten paintings of the original chair. The last three paintings of the series represent a special case; they were painted with a second order of ‘not paint’-paint, manufactured from the ashes of three unsuccessful paintings from the series that were burnt. The skeletal remains of the original chair and the ten paintings were exhibited together as an installation.

The chair as an object of attention and investigation in modern and contemporary art has a long history. Two relevant examples here are Van Gogh’s Chair with Pipe – is that really a pipe, or just a painting of one? – of 1888, and Joseph Kosuth’s 1965-67 One and Three Chairs, a real chair exhibited with a life-size photograph of the same chair and a photograph of the text of its dictionary definition. Toren has taken this key concenptual work forward by questioning the status of the object as object and noun, deconstructing its physical and conceptual coherence as ‘chair; and seeding it into a representation of itself. How much of an object can one remove before it is not longer that object? Which is more ‘really’ the chair: the remaining, rather pitiful skeleton, or the representation of the chair made from the substance of the chair, which at least has the advantage of ‘looking’ like a chair? In fact, in the process of its dissolution and resurrection as re-presentation, the ready-made has been smuggled into art under cover of the artist’s paradoxical praxis; not by contextualization, appropriation, or any of the other familiar strategies of postmodernist practice, but by an act of simple ‘labour’, an act which in its sublime absurdity lies outside of craft, inside art, and around a metaphysics of representation.

THE WHITE SPACES

A copy of The Times newspaper is pulped to produce ‘paint’ with which Toren paints a picture of a single letter – or fragment of a letter – in the distinctive font of that same newspaper (‘Of The Times’, 1983-). Sublime synecdoche; the single letter represents – here, literally re presents – the whole newspaper, and the whole newspaper is contained in this single, swollen and pulpy letter. As we look at the form of an A or a Z in this series we are actually scoping the contents of an entire newspaper; letters – of a smaller order, words, sentences, paragraphs, articles, headlines, and the marginalia and minutiae of printer’s registration marks, pagination and running heads. Not forgetting the white spaces in between.
But this is just the form; the content has also been masticated and digested into Toren’s alchemical papier mache, his ‘philosophic’ paint. All form andcontent is reduced – literally re-juiced– to a uniform grey matter, a canvas platter of prima materia, before being transformed into an iconic representation of a single letter of the alphabet. This radical simplification, this reduction ad absurdum of content, paradoxically irrigates the material matric with quixotic meaning. We can no longer ‘read’ this letter, this postcard from the island of dedifferentiation, in the same way as we read the original newspaper. A different strategy is required, a new system of decoding, an expansion of our pre-programmed modalities for approaching what could be termed the ‘text’ of the painting.

Knowing that the letter in the painting is made from the pulped material of a whole newspaper, we contemplate the universe of lost meaning, the ephemerality of information, the irrelevance of particular events to the totality of infinite space and endless time, the fundamental homogeneity of all actions at the level of molecular truth, the meaninglessness of the ‘knowledge’, ‘information’, ‘crises’, ‘war’, ‘peace’, ‘politics’, ‘births, deaths and marriages’, relative to the births and deaths of stars and galaxies, to the beginning and end of the Universe.

Clement Greenberg’s ghost turns once more in the rectilinear grave of high modernism. We are looking at a Jules Olitski, a Clyfford Still, a Barnett Newman; or at least we are ‘reading’ the painting before us through these iconic presences, these historic, modernist ‘filters’. ‘Flatness’, Edge Consciousness’, ‘Truth to Materials’, ‘The Physicality of the Painting as Object’. All of these parameters are evoked by Toren’s playful and yet highly serious physical and philosophical deconstruction of a cultural artefact; The Times, which is at the same time a ‘throw-away’ item, and a trope for stability, regularity, ‘Truth’, and society. The discarded newspaper has been transformed into an object of high culture. Embedded within the matter of the ‘paint’ is not only the ink which carried the putrefying cargo of ‘meaning’, but also the ‘white spaces’, without which the text would cease to exist.

AN ART THAT EATS ITSELF

What is one were to make a painting using nothing but a painting? It is no used to leave the canvas as it is, like its precursors; Toren is not so much interested in the cul-de-sac of the ‘final’ or ‘last’ painting as he is in exploring from the ‘inside’ the very constituents of the practice of painting. The series ‘Pidgin Paintings’ was begun in 1986 and is still in progress. Pidgin English, as spoken in many of the former colonies of the Empire, is an approximation of the ‘mother’ tongue. A phonetic, oral language that evolves out of the necessity for the indigenous population to communicate with the colonizer, a witty and ironic response to the imposition of the dominant culture’s language.

The ‘Pidgin Paintings’ are similarly a response to the dominant language of official art. Like Pidgin English they take the basic elements of the language of painting, break them down, and use the constituent elements to build a means of communication based on the approximate rendering of that language, a shorthand for the received modalities of the accepted processes of representation.

Stretching up a large canvas and slicing out huge swathes of fabric, Toren then proceeds to pulp the resulting material, mix it with a clear binder, and apply it as ‘paint’ to the remainder of the canvas. We have here a perfect trope of the ultimate self-reflexive painting; an abstract painting which is at the same time a representational painting, in that it is a painting of a painting, made from a painting; but the painting is ultimately a picture of the process of its own creation, which is paradoxically facilitated through its own destruction.

By exposing the stretcher, and the wall behind, in the process of obtaining the material to manufacture the ‘paint’, the painting is made at the same time more ‘real’, as an object – its sculptural and structural attributes are emphasized over its flatness – and yet weaker as a ‘painting’ in that it is no longer a viable vessel for the Greenbergian attributes of a modernist painting, ie, its two-dimensionality is no longer privileged over its fact as a three-dimensional object.

The penetration of the surface of the canvas is reminiscent of Lucio Fontana and his signature ‘slash’ paintings but, whereas Fontana was concerned with now archaic ideas of destruction and beauty, ‘breaking through to the new dimension’, etc, Toren is engaged with the concretization of the theoretical; not illustrating theory, but making theory active through a praxis with involves a redefinition of the notion of ‘craft’, an equivocation of process and material with its theoretical skeleton.

An earlier precedent for this series of work is perhaps the performance piece At One Moment Opening Six Holes by Murakami Saburo, performed at the First Gutai Art Exhibition in Tokyo in 1955. The artist rushed through a series of paper ‘canvases’ rending the material from the stretcher frame. This act of destroying the central symbol of Western art practice – the stretched canvas – resulted in artworks that prefigured Toren’s ‘Pidgin Paintings’. However, whereas in Murakami’s work the performative element is the principal content – the performance was repeated in 1956 so that it could be photographed – for Toren it is the object resulting from his destructive acts of cutting and grinding the matter of the canvas. Nevertheless, there is a specifically performative element to Toren’s practice; the mutilated stretcher, hanging on the gallery wall, also functions as a testament to the artist’s physical act, an act which can be linked to the auto‐destructive work of Gustav Metzger, who famously ‘painted’ on nylon ‘canvases’ with hydrochloric acid, eating away the surface and virtually destroying the canvas.

This utilisation of the destructive act as a legitimate art practice can be construed as a reaction to the notion of the sanctity of the painting as object/commodity. Greenberg endlessly discoursed on the primacy of the two‐dimensionality of the painting, asserting that this surface must not be ‘punctured’ by perspective or illusionism. Metzger, Murakami, and Toren react to this position by literally breaking through the two‐dimensional surface; ‘So here is your precious flat canvas’, they seem to be saying, ‘here is the foundation of your formalism, I destroy it!’ But in so doing another artwork is inevitably produced whose subject is its own demise.

THE FINE ART OF SABOTAGE

Another series of work in which the artist breaches the taut inviolability of the stretched canvas is the ‘Armchair Paintings’, begun in 1989. ‘Bad Painting’ is all Matisse’s fault; its miserable history commenced when he uttered that rallying call to the bourgeois instinct of the budding Sunday painter:

What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or disturbing subject‐matter… like a comforting influence, a mental balm – something like a good armchair in which one rests from physical fatigue.

With these words Matisse gave birth to a whole new sub‐genre of art. Paintings that ‘look like art’ but are certainly not art, to be found in every junk shop in every city of the world, and hanging on park railings for all the world like hand‐painted, pictorial metonyms for ‘keep off the grass’ signs. Toren retrieves these déclassé pictures, with their smug, self‐satisfied assurance that they are ‘real art’, and slices mercilessly into the integument of their banality, ‘removing’ words the better to make them manifest; words and phrases such as ‘no bill sticking’ (into an icky nude), ‘sharon I shall wait forever’ (into a solo boat afloat on a melancholic lake), ‘attention please’ (a parade of upstanding jugs in a sub‐Morandi still‐life) and ‘ultimately propaganda’ (a thistly Scottish glen). Not only does the text – variously gleaned from graffiti, aphorisms, idioms, street posters, public notices, and the like – interact with the paintings at the level of a ludic, linguistic joust, an ironic rebus (the spectre of Magritte’s La clef des songes of 1935 hovers close), but the very genre of Matissian ‘armchair painting’ is recovered, reconstructed, and subverted to Toren’s own end, which is nothing less than to critique – not through theory, but through material practice – the very nature of representation, reality, materiality, and the everyday.

When we look at a painting of a landscape, one which embodies all the clichés of what has come to be accepted as an ‘ideal’ landscape – one of millions of such landscapes that descend in a long line of diminishing returns from the landscapes of Claude Lorrain – we are impelled to think of its opposite; the bucolic implies the urbane. And it is from that most extreme cipher of the urbane, the inner‐city housing estate, that Toren has harvested that most proscriptive of kill‐joy admonitions, ‘no ball games’. By incising this lugubrious command into a prime example of one of these ‘idyllic’ landscapes – in this case a notionally paradisiacal tropical island – the artist conceptually infects the exotic, Palmeresque paradise by evoking the unseen opposite of ‘the urbane’. The effect is all the more potent in that this invisible ‘urbane other’ is evoked through letters whose meaning is rendered by their absence.

The notion of value in art is closely related to issues of authorship. Toren purchases his anonymous Sunday paintings for a few pounds, but when they go on sale at one of his exhibitions – after his textual and conceptual intervention – they are worth thousands. The ‘added value’ is contingent on a variety of factors: Toren’s reputation as a contemporary artist; the legitimisation of his practice due to his representation by the Anthony Reynolds Gallery in London; his international exhibition history; his biographic presence in the official organs of art criticism; the financial and social structures of the international art market, which confer value on a particular set of designated objects due to their contextualisation within the aforementioned; and the relationship of Toren’s praxis to the officially sanctioned history of modernism, postmodernism, and contemporary art practice, particularly in this case the so‐called ‘schools’ of conceptualism and minimalism.

The persona of the artist who painted the original painting has effectively been elided by Toren in the process of his appropriation, alteration, and re‐presentation of the painting – which can also be construed as an act of literal and theoretical vandalism. When Robert Rauschenberg erased an original drawing by Willem de Kooning in 1953 and presented the resulting erasure as a framed work of art bearing his own name, something in the order of a reversal of Toren’s engagement with the found artwork was in operation. Whereas Rauschenberg’s act gains its power from the status of the author of the original artwork – it is because it is a de Kooning that has been erased in order to produce ‘a Rauschenberg’ that the exercise is successful – the efficacy of Toren’s ‘Armchair Paintings’ relies on the continuing anonymity of the original artist, the maintenance of the status of the original painting as a déclassé object which is a member of the category of objects classed as ‘kitsch’, and the supremacy of conceptual practice over the production of work based on notions of beauty, idealism, aesthetics, comfort, and pleasure. So, paradoxically, Rauschenberg’s erasure is in fact an inverted act of homage; the de Kooning is ‘worthy’ of sabotage because of the very reverence in which it is held by the saboteur and because of its existing status within the artworld; whereas the found landscape, still‐life, or nude is sabotaged by Toren in order to affirm its status as a worthless object, and at the same time to confirm Toren’s resulting artwork as a legitimate artefact within the realm of contemporary art practice.

THE OBJECT OF IRONY

The gallery is empty apart from an ironing board, a fairly ordinary, everyday sort of ironing board, the usual X‐shaped legs, a fabric‐covered board, a metal grid on which to place the hot iron. But there is no iron. Instead the ironing board bears the weight of half a ton of Kilkenny stone. The semi‐polished grey‐black mass soars up towards the gallery ceiling, like the upturned bow of Charon’s barque, ferrying its cargo of souls, Duchamp, Magritte, and Joseph Kosuth, across the river syntax to the dark land of metaphor.

Golem (2003) is probably Toren’s most complex work, despite its apparent simplicity. It is at once a hypnagogic image that leapt, fully formed and persistently, into the artist’s mind, declaring ‘I am Golem!’ and simultaneously a lucid encapsulation of the central concerns of his work over the past thirty years.

In Hebrew mythology the Golem was an entity created from clay and brought to life to protect villagers from outside invaders. It had no soul or mind as such, and in many ways may be seen as the precursor not only of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein but also of the twentieth‐century concept of the robot. Even the simplest of domestic aids may be subsumed under the rubric of ‘robot’, and an ironing board is a wonderfully attenuated example of this class of mechanical helpers.

The vertigo, dizziness, the shear metaphysical delirium induced by standing close to Golem speaks eloquently of the almost palpable power of this precarious confrontation of the absurd with the sublime. The potential danger of its collapse is only subverted by the sure knowledge that it is impossible for it to exist. Toren is constantly raising the most serious of questions concerning art, reality, and the everyday, and then eliding the question with another question which is the answer. Where we expect the solemn, in quiet genuflection to the deities of deconstruction, Derrida, Duchamp, and Baudrillard, we find instead the theoretical rug being pulled from under our feet by the searing wit of a visual and material conundrum, which, in this case, leaves even a certain over‐theorised, upside‐down bicycle wheel mounted on a stool, literally standing.

For no good reason we trust our eyes; the ironing board is of course no ordinary ironing board; a one‐off, fabricated from high‐tensile welded steel, constructed so that it can just hold the weight of the stone, and the stone itself is completely hollowed out, leaving just a thin skin of stone to plead the monolith’s case for solidity. However, just as knowing the material facts that lay behind Toren’s previous work does not confound their philosophical and visual impact – only adds to it, so too, being shown how the ‘trick’ is done with Golem is incapable of undermining its power as a post‐surrealist object, one that is all at once Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel, Man Ray’s Le Cadeau, Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe, and Lautréamont’s ‘fortuitous meeting, on a dissection table, of a sewing‐machine and an umbrella’.

THE SLEEP OF REASON

An old man in a chiselled trilby kissed by an antelope, a parody of an Arab eyeing an approaching wooden interloper, a little Dutch girl sticking out her tummy for a long‐necked Freudian goose to rest its head there, a Dutch clog inscribed with the artist’s date of birth – 1945, a sock‐mending mushroom and a meat mallet shearing the same shape, old Mother Hubbard’s boot crudely carved from gnarly wood, an African warrior whispering in the ear of a Greek Orthodox priest crushed under the weight of monkeys and monkey‐gods, Buddhas, lions, owls and pussy‐cats, pink‐eared pigs, hippos, tribal masks – and a tooth‐pick‐holder fashioned in the form of a fish, why a fish? The curved tops of broken walking sticks and wooden spoons, an ashtray in the form of a human foot, a candlestick whittled from cheap wood inscribed with the artist’s place of birth – Jeruselam – in Hebrew and English, a snake, two recorders that one can actually blow into and make a note, of sorts, if not actually play, a dolphin in the lightest, ashen wood, a black elephant treading on the head of an ebony Indian cow. A wooden ‘sculpture’ of a pipe, which is not a pipe, or a painting, a sculptural prototype of Magritte’s ‘ceci n’est pas une pipe’ – and all this, resting on an architect’s drawing board, complete with T‐square. Hoards of wooden simulacra, rising up from the slanted wooden plane, like the vertiginous three‐dimensional imaginings of a dreaming architect whose reason sleeps.

The totemic form of Plan B (2004) arose, as it were, directly from Golem. The notion of a three‐dimensional form arising from a two‐dimensional plane has been extended into a hallucinatory cornucopia of wooden ephemera. Again, as in the ‘Armchair Paintings’, Toren demonstrates his fascination with kitsch, the concrete expression of ‘popular’ taste, and once again he transforms these banal and irritating artefacts into art by means of a conceptual and material sleight‐of‐hand; the second‐hand band of hand‐crafted animalia is herded into a corral of new meaning by judicious stacking, sly and witty juxtaposing; itching image with meaning, reassembling rough resemblance into a semblance of mammalian minimalism, as if the carefully crushed cars of César and Arman’s accumulations had anthropomorphised into an atrophied, holographic core‐sample of hand‐crafted popular culture.

OFF THE WALL ART

Although originally fabricated in 1996, Neither Bread nor Painting was shown for the first time at T1 + 2 artspace, London, in 2004. That most basic and mythic of substances was used as the material for this work; the prisoners’ banquet, the staff of life and its liquid companion, bread and water. Toren hollowed out five loaves – no fishes? – and mixed the resulting doughy plasma with water. The resulting ‘paint’ was spread, with both hands, over each canvas, roughly in a circle, resembling the form of the original loaf, and the empty shell of the bread was placed on top of the horizontal canvas. Eventually varnished for preservation, this work constitutes one of Toren’s most succulent tropes for the self‐reflexive condition of painting. The eviscerated loaves resembled nothing less than amateurly fashioned clay pots from some archetypal adult education evening‐class. The artist emphasised this chance resonance with the underside of art by painting one of the ‘bread‐pots’ in the fanciful colours and decorative indulgences of just such an artefact.

As with Plan B and the ‘Armchair Paintings’ series, Toren is setting up a dialogue between high art and that art which is considered ‘beneath it’, the popular, the amateur, the home‐made, and the products of hobbyists and craft‐workers. However, in Neither Bread nor Painting he literally and metaphorically inverts this relationship by placing the carefully decorated ‘Sunday painter’s’ pot on top of the seemingly minimalist painting, which has already been ‘debased’ from its position of authority as ‘high art’ by being taken off the wall and placed flat on the gallery floor.

Once again the painting is a rendering of the object being painted using the substance of the object itself as the paint to make the image of the thing depicted. But here, by using such a fundamental substance as bread, with the addition only of water, Toren evokes the intricate confluence between matter and form, object and image, symbol and substance.

If a loaf of bread can be posited as the primary object par excellence, the originary trope of the physical and the real, the Chardinesque signifier of the quiddity of ‘objects in the world’, then here it is deconstructed in order to re‐present itself to the world, afresh, as it were, as ‘a painting’, the stale bread has become de‐realised as bread, and is now ‘paint’, and this unique tension, this doughy dynamic, is one that is particular and peculiar to humble substances and ordinary objects, to the un‐regarded until necessary, the incidental until sanctified as a luxury item by the proximity of death; and here that death which is proximate is nothing less than the death of painting itself.

ART WITHOUT A LEG TO STAND ON

A Cloud in Trousers by Vladimir Mayakovsky, a poem of lost love, unrequited desire, and dismal failure. The phrase could be Russian slang from the revolution, meaning ‘a fart’, the expulsion of the unwanted. The unrequited dream of socialism? The recurring failure of art? How to represent ‘the body’ in art, without rehearsing all of those tired scenarios: the sexualised body; the suffering body; the dehumanised body; the mechanised body; the cyborg; the simulacrum; and the cipher.

A simple boiler suit, as worn by artist and artisan alike – one leg is split and becomes a canvas – is shifted into another order of existence by being stretched over a frame; now it is no longer a protective skin for the artist who is producing the artwork, but part of the artwork itself. ‘Pictures’ are painted on these new ‘canvases’, banal, idiosyncratic, inept, and at the same time intense, sincere, innocent, and ironic by turn. Art trying hard to be art. The excess paint has been carelessly wiped on the remainder of the boiler suit, continuing Toren’s practice of repositioning the marginal at the centre, the peripheral and discarded again being included in the finished work.

The ‘Clouds in Trousers’ (2001–) hang from the gallery wall, like a line of bloodied and pigmented écorché, the sloughed off skins of so many workers – read paintings – toiling away at the task of ‘being paintings’, the husks of the bodies of the history of art, dangling like the lynched corpses of slaves to the various academies. Why so many dead? Why so many swinging on the gallery gallows? Have they not learnt their lesson? The white canvas reigns supreme, there is no room for the dream of romanticism; there is no space for the lyrical, no place for the spiritual. Beyond the modern, we yearn for the pristine surface of the emptied canvas, the aching jolt of the end of art; which is like, as Mayakovsky said: ‘The stroke of twelve [falling]/like a head from a block.’

CONCLUSION

So, is Toren’s project nihilism? Tautological suicide? A mirror gazing at a mirror…? Or something more serious, more enquiring, risky and altogether richer and compelling?

In effect, it is nothing less than an attempt to map the inner cartography of the meaning of art, using painting as a central figure to address key concerns of a practice which has, over the last five hundred years, slipped from illustration to decoration, from decoration to autobiographical revelation, from there to cerebration, and finally to the dead‐end of commodification.

Toren’s key praxis – the construction of an art‐historically valid artefact from the very constituents of that artefact, no matter how humble its origins – points to more than a mere one‐liner, more than an ironic admission of defeat in the face of mass‐media marketing, the cinematic and the ever encroaching tide of ‘the real’ into the arena of art. His work is in fact the purest demonstration of painting painting itself, of art becoming the real it ‘stands in for’, of the skeleton telling the story of the body.

If painting has anything left to do, then it is this: to tell the story of it own life – and death. And possibly, through the telling of this inner story, a new path will be found, new reasons to continue, new ways of seeing.


Richard Dyer, Third Text, volume 19, issue 2, March 2005, pg 155-168


︎︎︎ Appendix