Combine This: Art as Life in the Strange Archives of Robert Rauschenberg and Friends

Layo London
Oct 21, 2014 1:17AM

Combine This: Art as Life in the Strange Archives of Robert Rauschenberg and Friends, focuses on the strategies employed by artists working in modes of assemblage, collage and mixed media installation. The artists in this exhibition use found objects to create multi-layered archives that desacralize the past, destabilize the present and re-combine the future. This carnivalesque re-combining of reality allows the viewer to join Barthes in murdering the Author, whilst becoming empowered to re-construct a personal understanding of art as life.

Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines are heterotopias in which his personal life, and the detritus of quotidian life are curated into cannibalizing archives of the extra-ordinary. Works such as Collection (1955-1959), emphasize the ability of artists to re-member the world, a notion that” is apparent in Hannah Höch’s photomontage, Untitled, from the series: From an Ethnographic Museum (1929).  Höch’s work presents a strong critique of authoritarian structures, her aesthetic approach disrupting and re-combining archived representations of life. The disrupting forces of Kurt Schwitters’ mixed media work, Merz Picture With Rainbow (1920-39), can be read as a reflection of the turbulent and worsening state of early twentieth century Germany, reinforcing the concerns of his fellow artist, Hannah Höch.

The raw aesthetic of Schwitter’s work is seen in Anselm Kiefer’s Black Flakes (2006), which presents a sparse, ripped ragged scene that reveals Germany's history in all of its ashy horror. Christian Boltanski’s works also reference German history; Monument (1986) is a somber memorial for child holocaust victims that illuminates an archived past, that few can ever forget. Like Boltanski, Kiefer’s works archive a difficult history, one that persistently looms on the horizons of collective memory – just like the dark form at the center of Black Flakes. Kiefer’s paintings are darkly seductive – one becomes absorbed in them, drowning in the lush aesthetics of richly textured works such as Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom (2006), ever buoyed by the knowledge that history forgotten leads to tragedies relived.

Equally seductive are the grotesque forms in Wangechi Mutu’s Once upon a time she said, I'm not afraid and her enemies began to fear her The End (2013). The sinister felt landscape is made out of blankets donated to refugees. Mutu makes mythology from the dire consequences of forced human migration, suggesting that these unfortunate histories may one day become things of myths.

The mythological resonance of Monogram (1955-59) makes strange the world from which its disparate elements emerge. The placement of Monogram on the ground invites the viewer to experience the work in an atypical manner. Similarly the works of David Hammons, The Door (Admissions Office) 1969 and Chris Ofili, Pimpin' ain't easy (1997) inaugurate the viewer into a mythological world, with mixed media works that are playful but subversive in their reference to the difficulties of lived experience.

This exhibition brings Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines into a compelling conversation with artworks that use the archives of the natural world to deconstruct reality, even as they re-construct strange and carnivalesque archives that re-member history and re-combine our multi-faceted world.

Layo London
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019