ESSAYS Mousse 28
Party Favors: the Work of Kathryn Andrews
by Andrew Berardini
Metal can be quite seductive, as J. G. Ballard has taught us, though it can just as easily take the form of an innocuous hat rack as of a barricade. And chrome-plated metal is a recurring element in the works of Kathryn Andrews, in a way that reminds us of both the ephemeral objects immortalized by Koons—and their historical significance as a hedonistic symbol of Republican hegemony—and the finish fetish of Southern Californian Minimalism. Andrews’ works seem like something left over from a party, or a Hollywood set. Andrew Berardini tries to scratch away their patina…
“Like a dirty little sob
I found a balloon buried in the yard
It was the saddest thing I ever found
Sadder than if it had once been alive
A pet or a grandmother
Leftover from a party I guess
And I don’t like parties
They’re fun I guess
And when they’re over
It’s worse than when they begin
And when they’re forgotten it’s horrible
More absolute than a corpse.”
Steven Jesse Bernstein, Party Balloon, 1990
Has the party begun or is it over?
Kathryn Andrews inaugurates the ball with her perfectly plumped latex and metalized plastic balloons, shimmery with the kind of hope and celebration you can only get for cheap at a party store. Literally lighter than air and for pennies a piece, balloons are an econo way to celebrate. But over the course of the balloons’ lives, those fugitive helium molecules, Patron Element of Squeaky Voices and Rentable Birthday Clowns, diffuses through the porous membrane of the latex and slower, but still resolutely, leaks through the less porous metalized plastic (commonly known by one of its trademark names, Mylar). The balloons, each in their own petty pace, begin to warp and collapse, the latex skin puckering and sagging, like the thin decay of old skin, elasticity stretched by a lifetime of gravity; the chromed Mylar goes down slower, losing its robust tightness, its perfect shine denting and sinking. Such seemingly indestructible synthetics lose the bloom of their youth, even if some of them are about as biodegradable as spent uranium.
Party balloons, the bright and cheap things endemic to kid’s birthday parties, got cleanly claimed in art as the domain of Jeff Koons some time ago, who has long had an affection for making pricey and permanent the cheap and easy consumables of modern life. Andrews seems duly aware of the freight attached to some of her aesthetic choices: Koons for balloons, Nauman and Kelley for clowns, other referents combining the dual hangover of Pop and Minimalism (a brutalizing cocktail I might add in Andrews hands, more on this a bit later).
There’s a caveat to the deal of the sculpture though. (Andrews is apt to insert such caveats, rules of the game, century long rental agreements, etc.) The collector has a choice of what he or she to do with the balloons. Below are some of the tenets, outlined by the artist, of the birthday sculpture:
The Owner May Add New Balloons
The Owner May Replace The Original Balloons
New Balloons May Or May Not Resemble The Originals
The Owner May Acknowledge The Work Differently In Different Years
The Owner May Allow A Third Party To Acknowledge The Work
Acknowledgement May Take A Form Not Mentioned Here
Those are rules that come with purchase, however loosely inscribed. On the birthday of the piece (its title), they can leave the originals to sag and die, corpses hanging from bright plastic strings on the end of bright, chromed metal bars; or, they can replace them with new balloons, the live-in maid dropping by the party supply store (after the dry-cleaners and before the jeweler’s) to switch them out, even to add new balloons if they want. The collector gets to elect which is the best implied message: the dead sag of the afterparty or the buoyancy of the perpetual frolic.
Given the scenario of inevitable decay or interminable party, you know what at least Koons collectors would choose: the perfect metal spheres of an endless, illusionistic celebration. Koons’ sculptures embody that completely shitty era that history will have a hard time forgiving us for, Americans especially, the three decades that stretch from Ronald Reagan’s nomination to George W. Bush’s Oval Office check out (with a brief slowdown during the Clinton years): rolling tax-cuts for the rich, the middle class getting flushed, unions busted, corporations and banks getting wildly unregulated, military marching in those weaker than us to protect corporate interests, and on. For the rich, once Reagan cut taxes for the top bracket from 74% to the low 30s, the corks were popped and the party didn’t stop (except for maybe a brief hiccup in the early 1990s and another perhaps these last couple of years). Don’t get me wrong, the rest of us, especially those in art, got splashed with a few glasses of celebratory champagne while the ship of state was sinking under the weight of unfettered greed, but those splashes didn’t offer any reprieve from our student loans or grant health insurance as it were. Just as every boom has its concomitant bust, every party sooner or later has its hangover, or so one would think.
Sorry about the historical aside, but for a moment there, it felt like the party of a frothing economic boom might have been over, the Great Recession as some have called it finally putting an end to these last decades of decadence. But is the party over? Economic liberals (in America we call them conservatives) dominate global politics from Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy, and David Cameron in Europe to anti-democratic Chinese capitalists and Japanese corporatists in Asia, in the US, the wealthy rightists (embodied by the Koch brothers) are working hard to keep their bank accounts from taking a Democratic hit. I hear for art that the recession is over, dealers starting to churn some money, even if the unemployment is still high and life for most at the bottom can be pretty hard, even if we all still have shiny new Ipods. Andrews has some critical nostalgia of the 1980s that seems to permeate, which appears to me as a commentary on political and cultural era, but feels more difficult to properly nail down than that.
There’s that question again that Andrews seems to asking collectors in her caveat. Is the party over?
And then there are the bars. I’ve been thinking specifically here so far about the work (one in a series) January 23, 2010, a clutch of party balloons tied to a row of wall-mounted chrome bars. The bars here are literally the barricading kind, though metal (pipes, bars, chrome) appear here and again in Andrews’ work, as components of sculptures from a delicately angled pipe stuck through the handheld rings of a coterie of lawn jockeys, an adult playpen, a chromed hanger tacked with some borrowed euros, a gilded mannequin that moves around LA as a Hollywood rental occasionally finding herself, chrome scuffed, back into an exhibition as a work by Kathryn Andrews.
The shine of polished metal seems like a designating cast for many of them, the mantle of magic to the industrial material to make it just so, but it also makes them shiny fetish objects, another Koonsian trick, obviously deployed by artists and artisans since shiny bits of metal got traded around by powerful people, but has its apex recent times in local Los Angeles art in the 1960s so-called SoCal “finish fetish” of techno-savvy minimalism.
The bars in January 23 (and in other works mentioned) mark an industrial material common enough around Los Angeles on the windows and surrounding as fences many of the houses in the cheaper, shittier neighborhoods around the city. Or perhaps even as a more diffuse symbol, the bars of prisons everywhere. At once an industrial material (some nod to the minimalists) with a specific relationship to class and power, its chroming along with its party props makes it sexy, flashy pop prop. But perhaps that might be overthinking it a bit, people like shiny stuff and Andrews is playing with that, the chrome inviting you to reach out and touch its cold shine even if doing so means leaving some criminal fingerprints.
Andrews interrupts this simple art-money equation of the fetish object with her rules and choices, the forced complicity of the owner having to make an active choice about the artwork: are the balloons changed or are they left to rot? Or what does it even mean to own a sculpture that is regularly rented out as a prop? (Practically there are real answers to this, conceptually it appears a little trickier to resolve.) There’s some obvious play in the rentals with the symbolic transference of the magic of Hollywood and the magic of art (explored in different ways by LA-artist Alex Israel and for Andrews most clearly expressed with the prop wedding ring of Ashton Kutcher that finds its way into her sculpture Ashton, 2010). One wonders how much a work of art is a prop to the theatrical set of someone’s life, an otherwise empty object invested in actual and cultural capital, adding the necessary frisson of magic or at least status to its owner’s life. The more striking lesson here for me however is Andrews’ rules of exchange, the price of ownership, what it means to “own” an object as a work of art that goes back to the world to continue its task as a regular object or as a sculpture that forces a specific choice to its content, or perhaps more pointedly, the illusion of choice.
Are the pure forms of minimalism with its reliance on industrial materials a kind of prison, does pop offer any real kind of escape? Do the choices Andrews offer us between the party being over or not over any real kind of choice? Andrews sculptures stick us wholly into that game microcosmically that we already exists in the world, one in which the most sophisticated political economies offer few alternatives. Placated with bread and circus, the humiliated repetitions of catchy culture always needing to be new, this social, political, and economic moment often offers enough seduction to always draw us in, capitalism, that abusive boyfriend, strikes again and it feels like a kiss.
Perhaps all that is too large and too sinister, it is after all some shiny bars and some balloons, a few rented props. Meaning can be differently inscribed by anyone who glances at it and is what we bring to art individually. In this moment where US hangs investing in the greater good of the many or continuing to protect the entrenched wealth of the ever fewer, I can imagine myself at the party, champagne glass in hand, wanting to draw my fugitive finger along the slick chrome of a sculpture by Kathryn Andrews, and to feel no matter what the political and economic realities of where and when I was, poverties suffered or witnessed, that there was still some reason to celebrate.
Originally published on Mousse 28 (April–May 2011)