Karsten Grumstrup: people make tings here

Melvile Library Gallery, Stony Brook University, October 18-31, 2006

Must art tell a story? Must there be a clear narrative in a work of art? K. Grumstrup’s exhibition, ‘people make tings here’ seems to answer these questions with a resounding ‘no’. Each of the works appears to be capable of telling a story, yet none of the works have a clear narrative. We must decide for ourselves how to read the pieces, and how to determine their meaning, if any such meaning exists. After viewing this exhibition for the first time, I found myself wanting more, as if I expected the work to give me an experience or tell me a story. This is not to say that Grumstrup’s exhibition did not provoke thought or encourage viewers to linger in front of the works; it’s only that he refuses to tell us what to think or how to look.

Near the entrance, a cartoon rodent (or is it a beaver? a squirrel? a chipmunk? a bunny?) stares into the gallery space, looking intently at something just below and to the right of the viewer. A companion piece abstracts the rodent, filling the bold outline of the original with some flower-ish, sand-dollar-like, pomegranate-ish forms that serve both as decoration and as a means to frustrate our viewing. In the opposite corner of the gallery space, two lozenge-shaped figures appear, one cylindrical, the other more of a cube, with ‘couch’ and ‘cough’ printed on them. To me, they look like plastic-encased cough drops or candies, though Karsten informed me they were meant to be keys or buttons. An interesting reading, here, is the play between different meanings of ‘couch’: one, a noun, as in something you sit on, another, a verb, as in hiding an object. Could this work be a commentary on political spin? Our illustrious president sits with his finger on the button, while his advisors couch his actions in lies and half-truths, telling us that Mr. Bush is merely relaxing on the couch. Suddenly, the president coughs, his finger jerks, and we find out what he is really up to. (Perhaps this reading goes a bit too far.)

My favorite work in the exhibition is an assemblage of small squares of paper, on which Karsten has drawn cartoonish forms in solid red marker. Some of the shapes are easily described- tongue, stump, fire, cloud, cape, flag- while others are more difficult to define. There seems to be a story here, but without more information in the images, without some connective tissue, the tale is indeterminate, empty. Is this the end of history, where signs exist, but we no longer have the tools to read them? Could it be the simulacra, the copy without an original, the sign without a signified? Probably not. It seems that Grumstrup’s only intent was to force us, as viewers, to use our imaginations. There is nothing inherently apocalyptic or negative about his work, only a desire to force viewers to do more than merely look.

I suggest visiting this exhibition with a friend. Walk together around the gallery and create tales from the images you see. This might make for an interesting lunch date: pick up sandwiches from one of the fine spots on campus and head over to the Melville Library Gallery for lunch and story-telling. You might learn a lot about each other though the stories that you tell.

 

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