Bainbridge, optimism and everyday materials

Whilst in the UK, I developed a taste for the Mancunian accent (“wot?” “ay!?” “is the shoPP open on tchoose-day, or does it close UR-leh”) and Frieze Magazine. The quality of design and content are high, and the content-to-ad-ratio is pleasant to navigate. Two articles in the May issue were particularly relevant for me.

“Future Conditional,” the editor’s note by Jonathan Griffin, makes a case for optimism— while images of dystopia and apocalypse are popular in contemporary art, we could use more images of

convincing alternatives…. A shared image of what is to come is not only healthy but also a form of prophesy; the fulfillment of the only future we can imagine, whether utopian or apocalyptic, is, on some level, deeply satisfying… [but] If a new future is to be developed, is it reasonable to ask art to contribute to its construction?

This seems to mirror Angela Davis’ argument that art must not only act in opposition, but imagine alternative futures.

In “Tales of Everyday Madness,” Griffin also profiles the British sculptor Eric Bainbridge, with this choice descriptions that seem relevant to my interest in the use of the readymade. Bainbridge “works with certain materials, forms and cultural references because he finds them ridiculous, repellant or pathetic,” and maybe these are attributes he sees in himself.

eric bainbridge
Eric Bainbridge at Middleborough Institute of Modern Art
Image Source: Frieze Magazine website, Archives Section, Issue 119, Nov/Dec 2008, Eric Bainbridge review.

In fact, cheap materials “elicit a kind of sympathy, an identification with the viewer that this is what we are.” I was bemused to hear that when Bainbridge showed his work in New York in the 1980s, he felt “utterly deflated at how English it looked, in its moderate scale, self-effacing humor, and domestic frames of reference.” But I would argue that this deflation constitutes not a detriment to the quality of his work, but an affirmation that his work was going against the grain of the spectacular, garish, market-friendly art of the time.

Bainbridge went on to assert that “the sublime could exist in the most unlikely of places…. Even the most exotic, fancy objects conceal the mundane and familiar, and conversely, that the things closest to home can occasionally reveal themselves to be strange, foreign and unknowable.”

This is not the most profound revelation in art—as it’s a fundamental principle behind Surrealism, as well as the contemporary folk-art-influenced naivete—but I love how Bainbridge articulates it. Rather than elevating the mundane, or valorize authenticity with aestheticized faux naif gestures, Bainbridge seems to complicate the act of declaring an object a work of art, and seems to be winking at viewers in the creation of what might be considered campy knickknackery.


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