What’s Not to Like?
How Darren Bader has pushed the readymade to its extreme
By: Domenick Ammirati
What? You’re a cat person? No way! So is Darren Bader.
During his 2011 show at Andrew Kreps Gallery in New York, Bader released a statement explaining why his attempt to feature cats in the gallery hadn’t worked out: the artist realized they wouldn’t get along with the goats that would be wandering through one of his characteristically tidy arrays of incompatible objects. ‘Some instinctual cat thing,’ he wrote, ‘cat predator, goat prey.’ The notice turned into a Public Service Announcement for the adorably named East Village cat shelter Social Tees – and any cat you adopted would be a Bader artwork. Aww-inducing, in a weird sort of way.
The research-inclined would learn that this missive loosely reprised a 2004 text piece, titled cat, promoting cat adoption presented in a solo exhibition (also titled ‘cat’) at New York’s Rivington Arms. Which is not to say that the gesture was insincere or lacking in upside, only calculated, in its softening of Bader’s affectless and radically flattening work. In the long run, cats and other animals turn out to be a Bader staple, most elaborately, perhaps, in his 2012 solo presentation at MOMA PS1, New York. Titled ‘Images’ and described as a show of sculptures, the exhibition included an adopt-a-cat room and a collection bucket with proceeds going to help ‘create new homes for animals in shelters’. Bader was also, the wall text declared, having salad served twice a week. The vegetables had a room to themselves and rested on plinths in between meals.
A prototypical solo show by Bader comprises myriad unrelated readymade objects, some of them artworks or reproductions of artworks, arranged on the floor and walls, plus some text, perhaps an enigmatic but recognizable looped sample from a song or video, and maybe a performative gambit that frames it all. Bader is a master selector and arranger, subjecting his Conceptualism to everything from numerals to condoms and exercising great wit along the way. Writing is a vital part of his practice, dating back to his 2005 book James Earl Scones, a collection of leg-pulling correspondence directing a range of comic and deranged requests to subjects including NASA and Tom Cruise. This crank-yanking, and the dissolution of meaning his work seems to revel in, is tempered by his press releases, wall texts and interviews, often seemingly at pains to imply that, really, he’s a slacker softie instead of an art-world troll.
The co-curator of ‘Images’, Peter Eleey, wrote: ‘With Bader, the sewing machine and the umbrella meet again on a dissecting table, now joined by some guacamole, a French horn, pizza and a dishwasher.’1 Indeed, Surrealism makes a cosy fit for his work, particularly in the guise of neo-Surrealism – a designation that’s recently arisen in response to the bafflement elicited by much Post-Internet art made along principles of collage. His output, with its reliance on colliding pairs or groups of clashing images and objects, and with its occasional distortions of scale (see: The Gardeners in Paradise, a lawnmower in a giant teacup for Art Basel Parcours, 2014) and sexual drumbeat (breast with/and camera and the strangely suggestive rattlesnake and printer paper were included in his 2013 show at Blum & Poe, Los Angeles), definitely employs tactics pioneered by the Surrealists. But ‘neo-Surrealism’ has to be wrong in the end. It’s just too boring; in 2014, neo- isn’t remotely new enough.
For one thing, the Surreal is firmly oriented toward an art object. What Bader does is not. His attitude toward objects is highly informed by Conceptualism (which helps explain the central role of language). In person, his works offer very little in the way of physical presence, emphasized by their precisely desultory installation. In a group show at Zach Feuer in New York in 2013, he contributed a bicycle leaned up against a wall; it might as well not have been there – and, in fact, cleverly, as if to reinforce the indifference to the object, at times it was not. It was the gallerist’s bike, used for personal transport. A pizza in the dishwasher (shown in ‘Images’ and elsewhere) is not a thing but an idea someone has had – it looks like an idea, feels like an idea – as opposed to an object. Under the terms of Bader’s unnervingly radical equivalency, the lawnmower might as well be that Gustave Courbet reproduction or that fake-looking-yet-real lemon. But, whatever he’s doing, it’s not Surrealist, precisely.
Bader also relies heavily on juxtaposition, a Surrealist tactic par excellence. For one photo, he even dialled up a lobster, pairing the crustacean with a stiff-looking kangaroo. The best understanding of what Bader might be up to comes from his show at Blum & Poe. Gamely titled ‘Heaven and Earth’, it consisted entirely of pairings, a number of which existed solely as JPEGS or phrases on the gallery’s website. All titles were literal and, with very few exceptions, included the conjunction ‘and/with’ or ‘with/and’. To choose just a few from a list of more than 60: Rushdie and/with rösti; kale and/with Braille; 4428 ½ with/and 4428; hornet nest and/with turmeric; penis and/with zombie movie; audio file and/with audio file; perfume with/and trapezoid; glasses (eye) with/and glasses (drinking); oysters and/with peanut butter; Bogart and/with Bacall. It’s hard to make a selection since, in context, they’re all good.
Which is precisely the point. Bader’s fundamental organizing principle is the array; the curious pairings achieved their full power only in proliferation – the visual and verbal rhymes and puns, the play among different categories of signifiers and media – and in the context of the types of relations between signifiers he uses. The corporeal gross-out (foods that decidedly don’t go together); the quiddity of difference (you can shave the space between two integers infinitely); the existential difference (perfume, a material intangible, versus trapezoid, an Platonic ideal represented in two-dimensional form); and so on. What Bader is going after is logic and/or grammar, the rules of thought and/or language. The implication of Bader’s of-the-momentness is that these rules are under stress.
One of the few rote-feeling aspects of Bader’s work is its engagement with art-market critique. Unsurprisingly, Bader does reasonably well by it. He has often complicated his shows by using other artists’ work, with their cooperation but without openly crediting them – from big names like Hiroshi Sugimoto, John Wesley and Christopher Williams to his lesser-known peers. As of 2008, the terms of this arrangement were – according to a solicitation reproduced in his very good book Oaint (2010) – that other artists would consign works in their ‘signature styles’ to Bader to sell as his own at his own prices, but with the profits and acknowledgment ultimately going to their original creators. Extending his readymade approach to other artists’ works has bearing on the market. How to value such works? And by how much will that value be inflected long-term by the career success or failure of the artists whose works have been appropriated? Is their purchase a bet on one artist or two, and can that confound the operations of capital?
Yet one can’t ignore the project’s potential to be more prank than critique. An email reproduced in Oaint, dated 17 September 2008, attempts to recruit ‘well-established’ artists for a meta-appropriative Bader installation at Art Basel: Miami Beach. He includes only one response, from Gary Hume, who replies with such wild invective that it seems likely provoking such a reaction was the whole point. ‘Dear Darren,’ Hume begins, ‘I have to wonder if you are mad. If I was to agree to your proposal, I would be giving the buyer of the work an unbelievable discount, they would surly [sic.] start to shit themselves in their avaristic excitement […] I would hope that your gallery is aware that art is traded in a capitalist world, and will purchase the whole show, then retire to the beach umbrella for champagne and canapés.’ (To give Hume a tiny break, 15 September 2008: Lehman Brothers goes bankrupt; 13 October: the RBS bailout. Stressful times.)
For his 2014 show at Andrew Kreps Gallery, Bader hung around 60 photos on the walls, some by familiar artists, many just familiar – Is that a Boris Mikhailov? Is that a Wolfgang Tillmans? – in an installation called Photographs I Like. The other half, To Have and to Hold, comprised numerous objects on the floor that came with instructions for those who might take them home. It was ‘prescribed’, per a handout available at the desk, that the owner of the object should study it for one to two years, considering its origins and ramifications, and then start collecting more objects of the sort – not just similar but ‘identical’ ones. The upshot seemed to be to turn art collectors OCD, crowding pied-à-terres with numerous identical pairs of garish Nike sneakers, travel guides to Colombia, ergonomic vibrators, DVD copies of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966) or blue plastic bottle caps.
The crux of To Have and to Hold is the great relief it offers our highly overstressed faculty of choice. What Bader does by leveraging selection is pose the collector as an everyman, paralyzed by having to choose between options that seem arbitrary and meaningless, and further paralyzed by recognizing that the ability to make truly important decisions, and even the ability to separate an important decision from an insignificant one, has been eroded by their proliferation in the current landscape of instantanaeity and overload. The best we can do is react safely and lukewarmly – not Photographs I’d Die For, just Photographs I Like. The art collector, a figure (at one time, at least) of discrimination and taste, is the person most luxuriously beset with choice.
At the 2014 Whitney Biennial, Bader etched this problem in terms subtly but clearly ethico-political. In the museum cafe, he installed two large, clear plastic collection bins, one reading: ‘All donations will go to something.’ The other: ‘All donations will go to nothing.’ His choice of cat adoption as a ‘cause’ begins to seem not merely cynical but rather an embodiment of an environment of meaninglessness. Where do you stand on the burning issues of today? Which side will you take? Dogs or cats?
Underlying all of Bader’s work, secondary but inescapable, is persona – which is, of course, highly intertwined with the delights of artistic button-pushing. The character Bader chooses to reinscribe through his oeuvre is surprisingly soulful: loves cats, gives to charity, supports alternative transportation. And he’s got a spiritual streak:
I came to like art because it made me believe in something greater than myself (even if in my cloister). I don’t know if the art I see in its contemporary quarters makes me believe in that something-greater. Much like with the images I see online, it’s quite easy to ‘like’. And yet, the infinity of images online does give me faith, just as the spiritual infinity of art keeps me company.
This snippet from his text, ‘Photographs I Like’, included in the gallery handout that accompanied the show, underscores tendencies visible for years. Perhaps Bader has concluded that the freshest, or even only, way to épater the bourgeoisie of contemporary art is to chiaroscuro the blank field of his art with a contrasting character, a wise guy with the heart of John Keats who gets Jesus, or an alternative metaphysics at least.
The internal conflicts in Bader’s work make it rich; they also complicate its reception. (At the Whitney, someone dropped a dollar in his donation bin with the inscription FUCK YOU DAREN [sic.] BADER.) Part of the consternation no doubt has to do with being funny; it’s rare that genuinely witty work is taken seriously. It may also be the paradoxical nature of what he’s up to, at once all in plain view and occult. The work is rather Pop, and crude. Maybe he likes porn a little too much. Or maybe, given the trend towards austerity of contemporary taste, he might not be sufficiently afraid of looking like a clown or of wearing his heart on his sleeve.