At an exhibition with a number of works claiming to respond to the paintings of Édouard Manet, you might expect to see, at the very least, pictures. Instead, “(TO THE SPECTATOR:),” staged by the anonymous collective Studio for Propositional Cinema, presented a series of texts, plus a performance, concerning spectatorship. Though the four main works offered oblique commentaries on different canvases by Manet, their art historical points of reference, at least at first glance, appeared much more contemporary, as evinced, for example, by fragments or statements painted directly onto the walls in an obvious nod to Lawrence Weiner. On the whole, the exhibition successfully distilled and digested a variety of influences, including Michael Asher, Christopher Wool, K Records, Jeff Wall, Jean-Luc Godard, and Barbara Kruger, among others. The Studio’s use of daylight added a distinctive dimension to what might have otherwise looked like mannered neo-Conceptualism: All of the gallery lighting had been removed so that the visibility of the works depended entirely on sunlight reaching them through windows, adding a temporal element to otherwise static pieces. The daylight itself, one might say, transformed the texts into a kind of propositional cinema—duration and light being two essential elements of the seventh art. UNFURLING WITHIN NETWORKS OF GAZES / REFLECTIVE PLANES OF & IN TIME CATCH AND CONTORT / BEFORE & BEHIND & BESIDE THEM & FOLDING OUT LIKE SKINS (all works 2016) exemplified this quality of relative, temporally differentiated light. The piece consisted of the words and ampersands of the title applied to the wall, accompanied by the directions and specifications for installation, similar to those included in the titles of Christopher Williams photographs.
UNFURLING WITHIN... was painted along the corner edges of a passageway where natural light could rarely reach the entire piece uniformly. The silver with which the letters were spray-painted was meant to approximate the reflectiveness of the mirror in A Bar at the Folies Bergère (1881–82). By substituting words for image, the Studio invoked the renowned painting while simultaneously offering a critical commentary on it;Manet’s “network of gazes” became similarly available to spectators as sunlight shifted across the surface of the walls.
A performance on the day of the opening, at one of Tanya Leighton’s two adjacent storefronts, both of which were used for the exhibition, consisted of the raising of the gallery’s security gate—but only to the same level as the shuttered windows, so that the door was partially obstructed. Visitors, uncertain whether the gallery was even open, had to bend down under the gate to enter a dimly lit space with its windows still shuttered. In this way, the viewer activated the work, even if only through the simple process of entering the gallery. Inside, the large work from which the exhibition took its title, TO THE SPECTATOR, appeared: a text spray-painted with stencils onto one hundred sheets of paper, taped together on the wall. It spoke from the edge of an approaching catastrophe: LIKE AN OCEAN ATTEMPTING TO BECOME A CLOUD . . . LIKE A SEWER RAT RECATEGORIZED AS A TOY . . . WITHOUT YOU WE ARE IMMATERIAL & WITHOUT US THERE IS ONLY ABSENCE IN UNKNOWABLE FORMS.
But who is this “us,” this Studio? The artist or artists in question request anonymity. They tell us who we are as viewers and participants, but never say who they are as agents. To dedicate an exhibition to the spectator, to make a series about that concept, and to hold us as viewers accountable by requiring us to complete it is a delicious and beguiling strategy, a kind of sleight of hand or disappearing act; meanwhile, the Studio’s identity remains hidden within a hall of mirrors of conceptual and poetic gestures. They tell us that we make them real. Instead of being simply about spectatorship àla Manet, this difficult yet vulnerable and seductive work needs a spectator. It is, after all, dedicated to her.
– Aaron Peck, Artforum