Darren Bader “character limit” at Blum & Poe, Los Angeles
by Jonathan Griffin
How much of Darren Bader’s art do we need in the world? The world, after all, is already full of the kinds of objects that Bader brings into his exhibitions: art, words, images, personalities, ideas. Its very fullness is arguably the condition that Bader’s work both critiques and thrives on. “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more,” Douglas Huebler famously wrote in 1970. The question of whether Bader is adding more objects to the world depends on whether you consider two existing objects placed together to constitute a new object, or just a reconstitution of what was already there. It also depends on whether you consider a near facsimile of an existing object to be a new object. It depends—crucially—on whether an object can consist of language alone.
Our answers to those questions are probably less important to Bader than the fact that we are asking them. (For the record, my own answers are: yes, yes, and yes.) His latest exhibition, character limit at Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, looks much like many of his recent exhibitions, including more or less at Sadie Coles, London, and E/either e/Either n/Neither N/neither at Andrew Kreps, New York, both earlier in 2018. All are somewhat overstuffed with found-object sculptures, collaborations with other artists, and Bader’s own pastiches of other artists’ work, hacked to transport his own textual content.
character limit is dominated by a loose arrangement of found objects in the center of the gallery: an oven with a wasp’s nest placed on it, a wedding dress, a map, small piles of books, ephemera. This is Bader’s work On (starter kit) (2018) placed next to (or maybe on) a second work also titled On (starter kit) (2018). The On series is a kind of game devised by Bader, in which a conjunction of objects conjures a well-known phrase or aphorism. The magazine Here lies on the magazine Out; the answer is “here on out.” Albert Camus’s The Stranger (1942) on the wedding dress is “stranger on a train.” An NFL football card featuring Reggie White is placed on another for Jerry Rice, “like white on rice.” You get the idea. And if certain combinations are inscrutable, you don’t get the sense that it matters much, really. The salient point is Bader’s act of combining, an allegorical gesture about the act of making, rather than the content itself. If the stakes, and possibilities, of On (starter kit) feel fairly low, that is also probably deliberate: the limitation of language referenced in the show’s title.
Other works in the gallery can also be understood as one object (or image, or text, or idea) placed on top of another. At Bader’s invitation, Jesse Willenbring contributes the painting Torah and the Thermodynamics (2018)—apparently not a collaboration but just Willenbring’s work placed on Bader’s wall. A robotic sculpture by Antoine Catala features the word “(n)e(u)rotic,” also its title. In this case the word is Bader’s, but the sculpture is Catala’s. (Pity the poor editor tasked with captioning images for this article.) Elsewhere, Bader appropriates another artist’s trademark style, as with a wall of faux-Ed Ruscha watercolors carrying inscriptions that are variously credible or incredible. “FAMOUS PEOPLE I WENT TO SCHOOL WITH” could almost be Ruscha; “RAISIN BONER” or “SWEATY BOTTLES” not so much). On the floor beneath these watercolors—once again, two indivisible groups both titled Ruscha starter kit (2018)—is a sizable drift of fortune cookies. Aside from its situation in the middle of a wall, the piece is indistinguishable from Félix González-Torres’s Fortune Cookie Corner (1990) except that this piece, book (fortune cookies) (2018), is, I was told, a book of poetry disseminated one line at a time. I cracked open a cookie. “As we are what we’re not,” it read, gnomically and rather unsatisfactorily. (Again, character limits). Another poem disguised as a sculpture sits nearby: a giant rubber stamp embossed with a long poem, titled Unresolved Poem (2018). After a few lines of deciphering the mirror script (“A room ruminates / Much as caution creates / With its gentle appeal / A comfort more real”) my patience expired. As with book (fortune cookies), it is practically unreadable.
Despite these ostensible failures, I would like to suggest that Bader is actually much easier to warm to as a poet than as an artist. (Although being warmed to, I suspect, has never been high on this Puckish provocateur’s agenda). As far as his output pertains to the ontological status of art—how it is defined, valued, sold, authenticated, and so on—it seems rather narrow. These questions have been asked a million times since the advent in 1917 of the readymade, art-as-commodity having survived innumerable artistic campaigns intent on bringing it to an end. The increasingly absurd contortions of the contemporary art market seem only to testify to the art object’s elastic resilience, mirroring that of capitalism itself. When Bader sells a work, typically he only sells a certificate outlining its parameters and the responsibilities (and freedoms) of its potential owner in realizing it in the future.
What if, however, these certificates—indeed, text as it appears in Bader’s work in all its forms—were considered as speculative poetry? As a radically new substrate for language, Bader’s work is surprising, disorienting, evocative. Romantic, even. The very last work that most visitors will encounter at Blum & Poe is a sequence of illuminated signs fixed to the ceiling of a corridor with a locked door at the end. One glowing-red word per sign reads: “DOGS DON’T LET PEOPLE TAKE THEM HOME NO MORE”. I don’t care where this phrase comes from, whether it previously existed in the world or comes direct from Bader’s imagination. It is a perfect poem unto itself.