Review of Jon Kessler exhibition  

by Joshua Decter

Arts Magazine
January 1986
Page 139‑140
Luhring Augustine & Hodes
October 15‑November 9


In his essay The Culture Industry: Enlightenment and Mass Deception, the art theorist and social critic Theodore Adorno attempted to analyze the transformation of the cultural sphere in industrial/capitalist society. Adorno argued that as a result of the increasing rationalization of life in technological society, the cultural sphere becomes one of the areas through which the dominant socio‑economic norms are insinuated and perpetuated. This commodification of culture leads inevitably to the conflation of the avant-garde (or 'high art') with 'lower' forms of cultural production (cheap fiction and other entertainments producing a 'mass culture'. For Adorno, the type of art formed through this collision and which functions to legitimize the mechanisms of domination is 'kitsch'.

Similarly, for Adorno, the only type of art able to resist 'commodification' is the avant-garde, a position and distinction popularized by Greenberg in his essay, Avant-Garde and Kitsch. Kitsch has no unifying style, its appearance dependent upon the residuals of a particular social period and its products. For Adorno and Greenberg, kitsch was an absolute negative, a sign of the disintegration of culture. Yet it has become increasingly evident that these analytic approaches are no longer as potent as they might have been before 'kitsch' insinuated itself into are highest echelons of cultural practice, as is currently the case.

In the case of Jon Kessler and his kinetic/light sculptures, it is possible to locate two fundamental issues concerning our current sociological/cultural situation. Firstly, as Kessler's work brilliantly illustrates, the 'residues' of popular culture have become prominent features within 'high' art practice; secondly, the distinction between mass or popular and high culture is no longer an aesthetic issue but a continuing socio‑economic one. In other words, work such as Kessler's is important primarily because it allows us to witness the symbolic (and ultimately false) reconciliation of socio‑economic disparities through the guise of 'aesthetic' democracy. Kessler's sculptures, fashioned from a variety of low‑tech materials ranging from industrial plastics to metal armatures and combined with the remnants of popular culture such as plastic toys and bogus orientalized screens, function as palimpsests indicating the transgressive tendencies of our culture.

There is little doubt that Kessler has mastered the ability to produce objects that are formally provocative and captivating, designed to function like multi screened units each unfolding (through computerized sequences of alternating light and object motion) a temporal pseudo‑spectacle of sensory influx and narrative discord. In the exhibit, the artist displayed five 'major' works and four smaller sculptures that are 'multiples' and come in editions of six.

Perhaps the most compelling of the 'major' sculptures was The Art of Tea (1985), a mixed‑media construction with lights and motors. Constructed like many of the other objects, with a frontal compartmentalized plastic grid functioning as a screen through which the silhouettes of various objects and 'scenes' fade in and out, this piece seems to promote a decidedly postmodern position on the waning of effect and the impossibility of consistent 'meaning' in contemporary society. There is an implication of narrative cohesion, yet the plastic plants, flow‑flowers insects, and fake African figurine have only a connection as residuals from a culture that is forced to manufacture 'nature'. The artist foregrounds these mechanisms by allowing the viewer access to the internal workings of the sculpture, thereby dismantling the pseudomysteries of his images.

The multiples indicate a new and promising direction in Kessler's practice. The introduction of the utilization of editions corresponds effectively with the reductive, minimalist, and mass‑produced quality of these objects. The impulse for kitsch is replaced by an elegant and economical presentation of a commodity (a Braun coffee pot in New Achievers or a fake Greco‑Roman terracotta in B.C.). Reminiscent of Jeff Koons' vacuum cleaner or basketball sculptures, these two 'multiples' produce a critical on understanding of how, in the first case, utilitarian objects are aestheticized to increase consumer desire; and in the second, the degree to which our understanding of 'history' is based upon the museumfication of the past.

Illustration:  The Art of Tea, 1985. Mixed media with lights and motors, 741 1/2, x 50 3/4 x 30 1/2,".