Minimalism en Masse
Jacob Dahlgren’s Sculptural Practice
Since when in fact have Minimalism and abstraction crept into our everyday lives in such an all-embracing manner? So plainly obvious, so comprehensive, and yet so subtle that scarcely anyone notices? Although the latter cannot be said about Jacob Dahlgren. The man is hot on the trail of the phenomenon – and to that end has set up an impressive collection. His target: the striped T-shirt, with the pattern going sideways; a design concept that can be associated with certain currents in abstract art and which the garment industry seems to have in countless variations. As of now, Dahlgren’s collection includes 1300 items, and by all accounts the collection is constantly growing.
Even if the very mention of the word “collection” is already part of the staging – because it implies and stirs up images of things that have a sound and solid aesthetic, that are at home in museums, and that are quite assuredly well established – Dahlgren’s stock first yields its discursive potential after being linked and bracketed with minimalist pictorial traditions and the formulaic readings these produce. As a logical consequence, the artist has taken the growing accumulation as point of departure for several series of works and participatory projects – as in Peinture Abstraite (2013): the title contains a reference to abstract painting, without it being specified in any way with regard to the style or the artists. The work itself consists of a large number of digital prints for which Dahlgren has “painted” each of the stripe designs on his T-shirts per computer. Hung in tight rows, they open up an astonishingly broad field of formal variations which, seen in such numbers, are nevertheless curiously homogeneous: stripes, hoops, lines in every breadth and colour scheme and rhythmic sequence, all arranged horizontally. (ill. Peinture Abstraite) Even if one is not quite sure at first what is on show here, already the label “painting” trains our eye in the direction of certain art conventions. Moreover, the title, (ironically?) elevated to posh French, allows the gaze of the expert, or indeed the connoisseur to spot connections that recall the striped paintings of a Bridget Riley or Agnes Martin, of Kenneth Noland, Anselm Reyle, Max Bill or Günter Fruhtrunk – and doubtless one or two others.
The humour of the artistic idea becomes apparent with the realisation that the abstract patterns are not the result of personal pictorial endeavour, nor indeed paraphrases of artistic styles, but are reconstructed T-shirt patterns, second hand compositions, as it were. Peinture Abstraite consists of (to date) five boxes each with 250 21.7 × 30 centimetre prints, every one depicting a T-shirt pattern from Dahlgren’s holdings.
Generally a large selection of these is put on display at exhibitions, with Dahlgren often including specific contexts in which they are used in the presentation: at Museum Ritter, for instance, he has put up a selection of 190 prints, which corresponds to the number of days the exhibition lasts (including set up). To the temporal aspect comes a performative one: every day Dahlgren will wear one of the T-shirts whose patterns are on show here, and document this with a photograph. The self portraits that accumulate during the show will be presented one after another on the rear of the wall bearing the Peinture Abstraite prints.
So is this a wearable version of Concrete Art? Should mass produced designs à la H&M, Woolworth or C&A compete with modern painting? Clearly Dahlgren’s art is steeped in humour and playfulness. Yet Peinture Abstraite and indeed the artist’s work as a whole is not simply intended as an exercise in irony or fun. The shift in context brought by the gaze, which here demotes abstract art to what apparently is a mere repertoire of patterns, will always work the other way round. With that the patterns – also sometimes tasteless in the shirt version – reveal themselves as images of surprising beauty, rigour and stringency.
The link between stripey shirts and self portraits also extends into other series of works, such as the “curated” situations: here Dahlgren asks individuals to devise a special set-up that is mostly explored over a number of days, and which he himself realizes and documents in photographs – such as I Sea (2016), a scenario which was curated by Solveig Lønseth and carried out on site from 16 to 22 July 2016, including travel to and fro and the daily photos. (ill. I Sea) In this instance the piece revolved around a playful mimicry of a sea view, because one stripe on the shirt forms a line with the horizon. Particular mention must be made here of the ongoing project in which Dahlgren poses each day in a different T-shirt from his collection and takes a photograph of himself, thus creating a diary-like sequence of pictures that already stretches back many years (see: peinture-abstraite.tumblr.com). The artist places himself every day in the same pose at the centre of the photo, looking straight at the camera with as little expression as possible. However, the character of the surroundings changes greatly from one picture to the next, sometimes showing Dahlgren indoors, sometimes outdoors, sometimes alone, and sometimes flanked by others – gambolling children, family members, anonymous passers-by, and what presumably are art fans. With an unmistakable “take my photo” look in his eyes, as we all know from private snaps, he seems to stand out curiously from his background. But Dahlgren is thinking big here: while his stripey formations and surroundings have undergone a steady change over the years, the artist remains the constant – and visibly grows older before the viewers’ eyes. The ever-identical pose is thus more than helpful and informative, as on some occasion when Dahlgren might make a film-like sequence from the photos – a kind of autobiography in fast forward.
The aspects of accumulation and repetition that determine these stagings of “quotidian abstraction” can be viewed in sum as the main principles in Dahlgren’s work. Almost always the artistic form arises from a repeated action or the large-scale use of identical or similar objects. With this Dahlgren often forges links between art and (everyday) life: the fact for instance that the T-shirts are shown in abstraction, but are also of course worn, becomes a completely different statement, assumes a quite different quality through the sheer quantity involved and in view of the life-long – which is to say personalised – continuance of the project.
This imbrication of art structure and open-ended action serves in a comparable if, in formal terms, completely different way as the factor behind I, the World, Things, Life (2004/2017). This work, which was shown at the Venice Biennale in 2007 and now appears newly staged at Museum Ritter, consists on the one hand of a wall-filling array of dartboards: a total of 312 pieces with concentric black and white circular stripes, all tightly packed on the wall in a strict vertical and horizontal pattern. (ill. I, the World, Things, Life) At the same time, the piece also consists of the game itself. The wide-ranging Op Art pattern that arises from the serial arrangement is brought to life by the element of action it elicits. And as with the stripey T-shirts, whose use – wearing them – introduces a vital agency to the work, here throwing darts completes the artistic form. Dahlgren has once again worked the idea of the objet trouvé through to its logical conclusion: each board is sold complete with six darts, which is why the number of red and blue darts set out for the users is exactly 1872. Over the course of the exhibition, the roughly five by ten metre large wall picture will gradually be covered in splashes of red and blue, a kind of action painting by other means. Thus Dahlgren allows the strict regularity of the initial structure to converge precisely with a kind of chance drawing – as two contrary figures of accumulation. As such, I, the World, Things, Life is literally an open artwork: through audience participation, an unforeseeable, individual, and in fact unclosable openness emerges from the work. And what about the likewise open, philosophically far-ranging title? As Dahlgren says, it simply entered his mind before he even set to work on the piece. Be that as it may, it nevertheless seems like a universal phrase for a typically Dahlgrenian entanglement of thing and person in living action.
In some pieces, though, Dahlgren also employs everyday objects in an abstractive pictorial manner, without drawing the viewer into the formative process. As in Unit of Measurement (2017). (ill. Unit of Measurement) Yet even this work has a hidden subjective element when we find that our perceptions suddenly swivel around: the parallel, horizontal, uni- or poly-chrome stripes appear on first sight to be a minimalist wall piece that structures the space. This kind of work, as Dahlgren has said about an earlier but similar construction, “has an Agnes Martin-like presence, in both colour and grid-pattern”. But as we draw closer is it clear that the artist has nailed a number of standard folding rulers to the wall at regular intervals. Once again it is solely the means of accumulation and repetition by which Dahlgren has generated this minimalist visual pattern. Numbers and millimetre lines mutate to become an abstract drawing, the slight bump on the slender hinges forms a serial relief, while the overall execution modifies the impression of space. Admittedly a bit of ironic-cum-purist legerdemain was involved, for he has made an exhibit of the very thing that is needed to measure and position pictures and sculptures at an exhibition. Even aligning the works in the Unit of Measurement series is scarcely conceivable without the help of a yardstick – which probably delights Dahlgren as a humorous comment on minimalist self-referentiality. The regular, coloured stripes, “composed” according to colour gradients, act very much like the striped T-shirts as minimalist mimicry in which everyday object and art expectations rub up against each other.
Dahlgren has re-invented this modification-by-accumulation time and again using other objects, such as rip saws in Endless Cut (2011), or coat hangers in Porto 1968 (2011). For Subject of Art (2017), unpainted wooden pencils were sawn to different lengths at their blunt end, and placed upright on a square base so that the points of the (various length) pencils form geometrically structured reliefs. Glued together in compact blocks, the now a-functional drawing implements are presented as wall pieces. (ill. Subject of Art)
That the original purpose of such utility items is still recognisable, although they have demonstratively (and wittily) been robbed of their use, marks a strong visual line of argument in Dahlgren’s works – unlike say Peinture Abstraite and I, the World, Things, Life, which are based on particular aspects of their use or on active audience participation. It is noticeable that often with such reassignments of an object’s meaning, Dahlgren has taken items that are used as tools for preparing exhibitions. In this way the self-referential recourse typical of Minimalism to the basic conditions of exhibiting (one’s own) works is given an ironic and practical note.
It all comes down to looking at everyday life with the eyes of a Minimalist, and using this productively in art. A good example is Dahlgren’s video Non Object (2013): the roughly 90 minute film shown as a loop is a both radical and humorous re-adjustment of the daily perspective on life by means of art. In formal terms, it is completely in line with classic conceptual works by for instance Vito Acconci or Stanley Brouwn as the camera spontaneously pursues spontaneously chosen passers-by through open municipal territory. (ill. Stills, Non Object) While we look at various people’s backs – anonymity is guaranteed, and none of those involved is aware of their pursuer’s persistence, which only the viewer-made-accomplice senses by proxy. But soon it becomes obvious what exactly these actors all share: every one is wearing a horizontally striped T-shirt! Dahlgren projects an eye schooled by his Peinture Abstraite onto the realities of inner urban life. The title Non Object can be taken as a reference to traditional Minimal Art à la Donald Judd or Carl Andre – for ultimately it was concerned with developing the classic notion of sculpture into space-related objects which focus not so much on the originality of their own make-up, but rather on assuming an active relationship to the architectural (and social) setting. His gaze steeped in this metier, Dahlgren set out into the pedestrian precincts. While Non Object, filmed with a shaky hand-held camera, is almost a caricature of a Minimal Art statement, it strictly adheres to the self-imposed concept of tracking down the compositional schemata of abstract stripes in the “fashionable” day-to-day world of his contemporaries. With characteristic humour, Dahlgren liberates Minimalism from the deadly seriousness of the museum: “The colour this season is abstraction” – a marvellously absurd gesture that re-interprets the usual streetscape as a mobile exhibition in public space. The playful reversal of the gaze, projecting the patterns from art into a pragmatic everyday world – contains a grain of the Minimalist mindset that grasps art as spatial-aesthetic argumentation. Dahlgren takes this impulse beyond the pure museum context and with that playfully embroils art in concrete life worlds.