ALEX SETON: THE RAW, THE COOKED AND THE PERFORMATIVE

BY SAUL OSTROW

Hazelhurst Regional Gallery & Art Centre

 

Alex Seton is known for his carved marble sculpture. Refined yet eclectic, his works draws attention to their materiality, forms and processes, and to the social, political, philosophical and conceptual ideas to which these may be applied. Over the years, Seton has also recorded his greater understanding of the field in which he toils, and the place of his practice within it. In the past, the form and content of his work has referenced pop, minimalist and conceptual art. Now, his confidence in what he does has led him to focus on the ‘else-ness’ of his work those qualities that are taken to be givens, or are considered normative  –  in this case the performativity (the embodied acts of speech, vision, cognition, presence, labour , etc.) inherent in his practices as a sculptor and a carver. 

Seton’s exhibition, Roughing Out, is a response to contemporary  concepts of specificity, which are less concerned with the intrinsic qualities of particular artistic mediums and more with how artworks reflect aspects of the sites and conditions of their production and/or distribution. Subsequently, this recent group of works seek to expose the unstated, unintended or unacknowledged conditions, through which his works speak for and of the conditions they may come to be understood. Seton addresses this aspects of his work in a paradoxically self-referential manner, using his practice as a carver to interrogate their collective and individual identities as works of art that are the product of craft, technology and culture that his work explicitly and implicitly depends upon and displays.   

Roughing Out can be understood as a representation of the expressive actions that Seton psychologically and physically deploys in establishing his work (sculpture) as a definable and recognisable entity relative to other material and immaterial ‘things’. The marble sculptures, video installation and performance and its residue presented in this exhibition can therefore be understood as a reaffirmation, in a contemporary context, of the viability of media specificity, traditional skills and their resulting objects. In this way Seton gives expression to and tests Nietzsche’s argument that ‘things’ are inherently self-contradictory in that there is always a conflict between the general  defining  qualities and the specific manner in which they come to be manifested–  as such the viability of a given thing or act only makes sense if it can be re-evaluated, devalued or re-valued under differing conditions. 

 

The title Roughing Out, like many of Seton’s titles, signals that we should be aware of the potential vagaries of language – a notion that, in part, underlies his entire project. With its reference to the carver’s practice of beginning a work by initially blocking out its broad forms, Roughing Out could imply that the works in Seton’s exhibition are unfinished. Given that all the works in the show are complete in every detail, the title instead refers to the shift in Seton’s oeuvre that the exhibition represents – namely, his first attempt at broadly rendering his interest in the ideas of self-referentiality, language, artistic gesture and technology that inform his practice. 

There is something slyly Duchampian about Seton’s work. Together, the works (and their titles) in Roughing Out form a catalogue of the varied aspects of Seton’s practice and its production, and of his sense of identity. This is most apparent in the performance/tableau The Recursive Time Machine (2013) in which he seems to identify with a pantograph machine because its manufacturer’s name (G.H. Alexander) mirrors his own. Similarly, the  austere post-minimalist aesthetics of Glory Hole, which given that little skill has been expended in producing this work combined with its title, might be understood as referencing both to the sense of importance Seton derives from what he does, as well as identifying it with an anonymous sexual act. 

Like the American illusionists Penn & Teller, who begin their act by explaining the secrets to their tricks, Seton sets out to ‘undo’ the illusion that threatens to make his work a vehicle for deception. By using his skills to incongruous or unforeseen ends, he demonstrates that the trick is in its performance, not in its mechanics. Relative to this notion of making apparent what is operative, Seton uses a strategies similar to those used in the late 1960s by the artist Bruce Nauman who employing ironic, literal and recursive discourses called attention to the material, phenomenal, and linguistic conditions that circumscribe his work. Seton in The Recursive Time Machine and the video work The Alchemist Cycle, uses these strategies to demonstrate the innate conflicts that exist between a thing, its production and its content (meaning the various issues or questions it responds to).

In The Recursive Time Machine an old pantograph milling machine manufactured, as previously mentioned, by G.H. Alexander and dubbed the ‘Alexander machine’, is placed inside in a Plexiglas cube where it mechanically carves marble reproductions of digitally generated, life-size three-dimensional plastic ‘prints’ of Seton’s hands. The machine’s stylus is guided over the plastic forms, the resulting marble carvings half-size and three-quarter-size in scale. In a reverse genealogy this work tells the story of how technology replicates and standardises craft, as well as how more efficient means of production (the mechanical and now the digital) have come to displace the bodily. In a manner similar to the work of artist Jannis Kounellis, The Recursive Time Machine, with its use of the antique, explores the notion that art does not proceed merely from the artist’s practice and skills, but rather is instantiated by the object’s engagement with the varied networks of symbolic play, speech acts and art’s institutional history.

 

The Alchemist Cycle comprises looped video footage of the destruction and reconstitution of a block of marble. The video’s production standards are a cross between an industrial how-to video and an artist’s video documenting a process-based work. The destruction of the marble block begins with Seton using a hammer to smash the block into dust (debris), which is then collected and baked in a kiln. The resulting powder (lime) is mixed with more debris and slaked with water to make white cement, which is poured into a mould made from the original block. The result is a casting of what appears to be a block of marble. Put simply, the work seems to document Seton destroying a block of marble only to make what appears to be a similar block of marble; a process that negates the labour, resources and technology he has utilised. The video (and the marble block Seton produces) focus our attention on the value of the labour and skill expended by some anonymous quarry worker in the production of the artist’s raw materials; on the idea that the sculpture is already contained within the block, à la Michelangelo; and on the possibility that the original marble block is always already a sculpture. But if we take the title of the work into account, Seton suggests that what the artist brings to the table is their search for the philosopher’s stone, which will turn base material (marble) into gold (art).

If we understand The Recursive Time Machine and The Alchemist Cycle to be parenthetical, then the other works presented in Roughing Out come to sit within the boundaries of the endless loop of production and reiteration, and the search for the transformative. These in their aspiration to Brechtian transparency permit him to extrapolate the varied conditions, terms and practices by which he constructs his diverse narratives and commentaries. Accordingly, rather than being ends in themselves, the objects he produces are revealed to be a medium – literally, a means of conveyance. In this context Half (2013) and Recycle Bags (2013), exist simultaneously as  a representation of his  virtuosity as well as a deceptive staging of Seton’s ideas concerning the interplay between mimetic representation, metaphor (symbolic signification) and analogy (analytic comparison.) 

Half is made from a single block of marble that has a natural fault running through it. Seton has carved a glass of milk from one half the block and, from the other, a milk container whose surface displays  the sheen of condensation. The rubble generated from carving these objects has been used to fill a stack of identical milk glasses which are installed in proximity to the carvings. A complementary work is Half Full (2013), which consists of a form carved in white marble that corresponds to the volume of the top portion of a standard tapered drinking glass. When placed in the glass, the form resembles milk levitating, making the glass half-full. Correspondingly, we might imagine the glasses in Half to be half-empty. There is a similar play between the real and the illusionary in the work Recycle Bags, marble carving of a large recycling bag accompanied by an actual recyclable bag, which contains the leftover rubble from making the carving. 

By juxtaposing the actual and its representation these works may be considered as constituting a critique of trompe l’oeil by operatively permitting us to see the realness of the sculpture rather than merely what it images. Subsequently, one is left with the sense that each of these works is haunted by the liminal specter of the others, as well as each having a doppelganger (an unapproachable duplicate self) in the real world. As such, these apparitions and real-world others put into question the identity of each work.

In Dust Hinterglasmerei (2013) Seton again recycles the byproduct generated by his carving technique. In this case he uses it to produce a series of word-images comparable to the word paintings of artist Ed Ruscha in that their graphic (and material) appearance is as important as their meaning or message. In Dust Drawings the words, written in dust, are held in place by a sheet of plexiglass; it makes explicit the playfulness underlying Seton’s practice. The phrases Seton uses are readymade and often clichéd expressions, such as song lyrics, and include: ‘Time is on my side’, ‘Making it up as I go along’, ‘I’m concerned these words will not last’, ‘I just need a little more time’ and ‘I was here’. Many of these phrases have their origins in random notes Seton has scrawled on his studio whiteboard since 2004.

In the context of Roughing Out, the Dust Hinterglasmerei ostensibly appear as if they are meant to give us access to the artist’s random thoughts and musings, drawing out the words that come to his mind as his body is preoccupied (trapped) in the task of producing. Therefore the works constitute an act of ventriloquism, as though they were spoken by the artist and project his cynicism, doubt, vanity and bravado. This question of attitude brings us to Glory Hole, in which Seton implies that what he derives from the act of creation is sexual pleasure experienced as an act of self-gratification and validation. The work – in which a drilled out, dust-covered phallic core lies on the floor beside a rough block of marble with a hole carved into it at crotch height – conjures up images of masculine singularity, as well as the notion of the artist engaged, through his work, in illicit acts of promiscuity.

Although many of the themes articulated in Roughing Out concerning process, representation and language have been embedded in Seton’s previous practice, his present exploration of the performative nature of his work and processes conveys how each quality he articulates contains essential information as to the character of the whole, with the whole, in turn, having a character of its own. This results in this group of works that  index relative to his media the corpus of his sculptural work by  metaphorically and analogously re-presenting the freedom, challenges and limits  he faces.  Subsequently, the Seton’s  works set in motion a vast game of accessible and esoteric quotes and appropriations that reference the complex self-reflexivity of  their  conception and realization as objects of self-expression, experience, and knowledge.