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Inside the Artists Studio—Sean Duffy

Inside the Artist’s Studio is an-ongoing series exploring issues  on contemporary art through direct encounters with the artists themselves. 

Dude-entity –

Consider the American garage. Besides its primary purpose as storage for automotive maintenance supplies and providing year round protection for our economy’s most important commodity, the 21st century garage might be analyzed in the same manner as Walter Benjamin examined the deteriorating 19th century Parisian arcades. According to Benjamin, the 20th century was foretold in the demise of the 19th century shopping malls with its often absurd contents. Catacombs of surplus and obsolete consumer items, like the arcades, the garage reveals the fashions, consumption patterns, and media trends that define the era but also as importantly, functions as a kind of “dream space” allowing for those who inhabit them to imagine future narratives. In the U.S., the garage has always represented a kind of populist studio space for hobbyists and tinkerers who, surrounded with the overflow of commodity capitalism, nevertheless have used their garages as places of self expression and discovery. In that sense the American garage has become the site of a kind of romantic identity construction in the face of totalizing consumer capitalism, a place where he/she can regain a feeling of autonomy and liberation in an increasingly controlled and programmed society. With the ostensible goal the handmade or artisanal production rather than the mass produced, the garage studio exerts a powerful pull for pursuing solitary creative activities. In California the garage also has assumed mythic proportions as the cocoon or incubator of genius inventors like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates who benefited from the secret nature of the garage where ideas can flower securely for later capitalization free from corporate pilfering.

Please click on all images to enlarge and for artwork details.

Many serious contemporary artists use their garages as affordable workspaces as well. Providing a more intimate, almost voyeuristic, look into such a space, Los Angeles artist Sean Duffy in an act of installation bravado transported the contents of his personal home garage/studio in its entirety for his 2011 exhibition Garage Sale to Susanne Vielmetter Gallery in Los Angeles. Drawings, paintings, small sculpture projects, commercial signage, casual family photographs, zines (including boxed stacks of old Artforums), pop/kitsch figurines, books and manuals, old records, a collection of 90210 dolls, sunglasses, plastic crates of stuff, Grandpa’s soft-core pictures, a bicycle, furniture, several clocks, festoons of jumper cables and bungee cords, to name just a few items, comingle in a semi-chaotic state. Even the most cursory perusal, however, evidences an unabiding and overarching interest in music and cars, influences which also informed his sculpture and painting exhibition earlier that year at the Laguna Art Museum. Garage Sale was intended to raise money through the sale of any items in the show to support the creation of new art – specifically his planned project of becoming a race car driver this spring for a 1000 mile race through undeveloped Baja California land as an homage to his father who loved off- road racing.

Duffy owes some of his exhibition moxie to the late Los Angeles artist Jason Rhoades who rose to notoriety in the early 90’s with installations like Cherry Makita—Honest Engine Work, a gallery constructed garage-like shed composed of duct taped cardboard, drywall and shelving strewn with crude facsimiles of tools, drawings, piles of Polaroids, sawdust, a basketball hoop among many things. Johanna Drucker observed, “The poor construction, disregard for skill, parodying and bracketing of work/labor as functional…non-aesthetic funky form, anti-artfulness, and boy machismo—had potent value as significant elements. The “badness” of this piece is precisely its point.” Such installations “undercut the seriousness and self -seriousness of art in a dismissively playful sense”; Duchampian quotations abound in Rhoades as they do in Duffy, but with “readymades” in the form of commercial and industrial products co-existing or “collaged” alongside more traditional artist-made endeavors. Superseding traditional  Duchampian declarations that any (single) object can be art by declaring it so, Duffy has in effect designated that a wide range of things pertaining to the artist’s life qualify and can be included in an art experience, bringing into play debates about what constitutes true realism in art. With Duffy, much relies on the transparency about who he is. By exposing the more private aspects of his life, he demystifies artistic production and implies that the artist is part of a complex system, not just simply expressing his or her inner thoughts or formulating acts of resistance to established artistic norms. Drucker continues in her discussion of Rhoades: “It isn’t an “art for art’s sake” object. The work pushes past those limits. No more moral values. No work ethic. No redeeming formal qualities. No inherent value. Just an incidental and ephemeral work of timely expression.” These artists have come a long way since Duchamp, however. Duchamp’s gestures functioned as a radical, avant garde opposition to the status quo, particularly painting, opening up artmaking to infinite possibilities. Drucker sees relieving art of its function of opposition and recasting fine art as a cultural practice of complicity has allowed for an even further expansion of art’s possibilities. Consequently, these artists are deeply engaged with and embrace commodity culture, long marginalized in modernism (but ironically often inspiring it). A modernist artwork was embedded with a critique of existing values by the novel, original forms it assumed and its self imposed separation from bourgeois life and values. By contrast, in installations such as these the materials are familiar, humble, and easily obtained from hardware stores and malls; even their arrangements mimic display norms. Commodity capitalism is seen as simply natural, all around us and the artist signals his/her immersion in this world rather than perceiving and judging it from a distance. An artwork’s meaning ensues from its interconnections and interactions with its entire environment and with other visual domains like design and mass media. Moreover Drucker describes a theatrical quality “calling attention to the presence of the viewer, the temporal dimension, and the situation of viewing—becomes something far more connected to and complicit with an image mediated society…the dense realm of visual and material culture.”

In this realm of visual culture, then, with traditional boundaries eroded, art cannot be understood or appreciated apart from the wider culture and is sometimes indistinguishable from it. For some historical scholars like Svetlana Alpers (who coined the term visual culture) and Michael Baxandall whose analysis of artworks explored peripheral aspects in image making such as science, societal beliefs and values, the emphasis in the end still remained on artworks themselves as privileged bearers of the culture’s identity. Although more inclusive than Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse who critiqued mass popular culture for its role in promoting a consumer culture that actually prevented an engagement with “authentic art and culture” through its escapist fantasies, the work of these scholars, although not denying the existence of hierarchies, sought a less totalizing interpretation of art. So within a somewhat disorienting installation like Garage Sale, whether primed by the expectations of being in a gallery where single artworks are supposed to engage us intellectually and aesthetically, or whether the brain naturally seeks order in chaos, the video monitor running Duffy’s video Windmill does stand out. The rest of the installation seems to act as a kind of framing device and qualifier for the actual artwork. What is crucial here is not so much that the video grabs our attention most, but that the context of the “universalized” sterile white gallery room is now unseparated from the mediation of external social factors, systems, ideologies and the everyday environment where it was created. Because the garage is inscribed with geographical, social, sexual, cultural and economic traces, there is more transparency about the person making the work and the experience of the video is multiplied exponentially. As we leaf through the stacks of Artforum, we are invited to compare Duffy to other “significant” artists and trends. We see him as a suburban, car freak dad with a working class ethos – the opposite of the loft-invested, urban dwelling, curator-schmoozing successful artist. We get to know him through his sometimes lowbrow taste in music, books, leisure time activities undercutting high art assumptions about genius-hood. Less “accomplished” artworks like scattered sketches and candid snapshots offer glimpses into his diffuse artistic practice and we intuit this space as highly gendered but with occasional out of place girly items like dolls, and as such, it influences the interpretation of the video. Conversely, the video as an accomplished piece of animation, adds “value” to other objects in the room. The artwork assumes a relationship with a world of commodities and lifestyle choices and is not produced independently of these things or in spite of them, but because of them.

Sean Duffy – Windmill – 2010

Windmill begins with the upright front end of a dismantled car jerkily spinning around on the garage floor to a tinkling, music box rendition of “Windmills of Your Mind”. As it turns, the half-car performs a kind of striptease, throwing off all its parts, including the windshield which is shattered in thousands of glittery shards amongst the drills, hammers, and electrical cords used in the demolition. All that remains is a piece of the iron chassis which now appears as an ice skater’s muscular legs slowly executing his final pirouettes before stopping. In a burlesque of macho “chop and channel” car customizing TV shows, the car as phallic embodiment of strength is comically transformed into a dancing “fairy”, offsetting the identification with male power that has driven the economics of much of the auto industry.

Just as feminist and queer theory have explored definitions and aspects of gender and homosexuality, Windmill is an interrogation of masculinity vis a’ vis car culture’s construction of the American male. Duffy’s display is markedly different from Los Angeles artist Michael McMillen’s 1981 faithful recreation of a 1960’s garage, The Central Meridian (aka The Garage), at The Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Full of clutter, an inventory of oddball objects, a vintage car and shelves of dusty tools and paint, and definitely a male zone, McMillen’s garage was an exercise in nostalgia, an homage to the oily, musty garages of our childhoods. Unlike Duffy’s garage, it was a set piece where nothing could be rummaged through or purchased. cheaply. It was sold in its entirety to a collector. Similarily, Californian Edward Kienholz’s dark and evil smelling epic tableau Five Car Stud ( 1969-1972), concurrent at LACMA with Duffy’s installation, was a Civil Right’s era re-enactment of a nighttime lynching party. It shockingly punched through the wholesome image of America’s car culture to reveal the car as an instrument of aggression, racism and terror and undermined the glossy image and myths of progress signified by the automobile in American life. Indebted to artists like Kienholz who expanded the scope and scale of contemporary art, Duffy’s garage transposition and video confront stereotypical masculinity, bringing into focus the underlying commercial interests invested in dominating and controlling the male image. In addition to one of the garage’s roles as “man cave” or male preserve–the place to reconnect with one’s inner male but also to rediscover/recover one’s authenticity — we have the opportunity to reflect on the beer and spark plug ads, the power tools, as well as the products and signs of an individualistic male artist who is regarded in relation to those symbols and definers of American manhood. Unlike Kienholz and McMillen, however, Duffy actually dares to indulge his feminine side in the process, as the stripped down car in Windmill demonstrates. It is perhaps Duffy’s revelation of his personal life throughout the entire installation—his ode to intimacy–that is the most feminizing and deconstructive of prefabricated male identity.

The planned 1000 mile expedition funded by Garage Sale is previewed in a video, in which a black and white zebra striped Toyota Landcruiser—“Car 23”– has been reconditioned and fitted for the trip. As we see the animalesque car racing and bouncing through the desert landscape, we are reminded of countless car ads that provide the illusion of male mastery over nature and other humans. The hunting and roaming instinct are evoked; the car becomes the emancipator of trapped American manhood, the space launcher or safari into adventure and excitement. Duffy speaks, though, of his desire to come “to understand his father’s passion (who recently died) by recreating it.” ….” I tapped a childhood enveloped in exhaust and dust.” Duffy will act out a male fantasy of racecar driver for this tour, an act of near mythical dimensions when one speculates on the obstacles and dangers such a venture might involve. The car itself has been in museum exhibitions and as it leaves the art world for “real life”, the journey itself becomes, like Garage Sale, an expanded site, an all inclusive artwork. Given how Garage Sale was, among many things, a metaphor for setting aside spaces for revisioning and dreaming, for casting off the unneeded and attaining the new, this trip will most likely uncover the forces, influences and desires that have shaped masculinity then and now.


Johanna Drucker, Sweet Dreams, Contemporary Art and Complicity( Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2005)

Matthew Rampley, Ed. Exploring Visual Culture, Definitions, Concepts, Contexts, (Edinburg, Edinburgh University Press Ltd. 2005)

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