How Tom Sachs Uses Art to Put His Fingerprints on Industry
The concept that we’re living in a cargo cult—object-based religions that developed when isolated communities first came in contact with the West and its products—may seem absurd to the plugged-in world, but artist Tom Sachs has made a career out of proving that notion wrong.
In two shows currently on display in Austin, the New York artist explores the very real, almost religious obsession many of us have with product culture today through his intentionally messy handmade objects.
At the exhibition “Nuggets” at Lora Reynolds Gallery, and the concurrent “Boombox Retrospective 1999–2015” at The Contemporary Austin, Sachs looks at the mysterious, nearly totemic power that certain commercial objects hold in the contemporary imagination, and then turns them on their heads, making lo-fi recreations in epoxy, wood, and ceramic, that both exalt and satirize the originals. “The only advantage the artist has over industry is his fingerprints,” Sachs said during a recent talk at the show’s opening at Lora Reynolds Gallery. “I could never make anything as perfect as an iPad and Apple could never make anything as shitty and flawed as any of this great stuff.”
Such interests have been at the center of the artist’s oeuvre since before he even considered himself an artist, when, as a child, he made a clay camera as a stand-in for an expensive one his father wanted. And though he may not have realized it then, in the decades since he has continued to explore this double-edged sword of desire and the shame of buying into consumerism. “When I critique culture, I’m often complicit. I eat at McDonalds. I shop at Chanel. I love these places as much as I hate them for wrecking our world,” he has said. “But the point is it’s out there, it’s real, and it’s not going away. So the more we can be in touch with what’s going on with ourselves and the world, the better we can avoid being a victim of it.” As such, he confounds elements of high and low culture in works like 1,000 Years (2011), a Chanel-emblazoned Styrofoam ice chest, or a recreation of a Glock pistol in Tiffany blue.
This dark sense of humor pervades both the exhibition and Sachs’s studio practice. His assistants are encouraged to do a messy job and learn from doing; they are discouraged from going to grad school for art. In the gallery it reveals itself in works like African American Express (2015), a clever work made from a high-limit credit card that is intended, Sachs says, solely for paying strippers and chopping up lines of cocaine. And then there’s what may be Sachs’s most personal piece in the show, a roughly hewn plywood Barbie doll with a mouthful of a title that tells the story of Sachs’s beginnings as an artist: hidden away in the basement, painstakingly recreating the things that he wanted but couldn’t have. Today, the artist has no such restrictions, but he’s still tinkering away, confronting us with our own desires.