Robert Rauschenberg: An American Iconoclast
Through March 18 at Vanderbilt University
Fine Arts Gallery
The gallery is closed through March 14
Robert Rauschenberg is arguably one of the most important artists in American history, helping to transform art by eradicating its classical definitions. Currently on view at the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery, “Robert Rauschenberg: American Iconoclast” contains pieces from his “ROCI USA (Wax Fire Works)” series and allows Nashville the chance to examine what about this artist’s practice has elevated him to the status of art demigod.
Rauschenberg began the ROCI (Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange) program in 1985 in an effort to develop a network for international artistic communication and promote understanding among different cultures. The program allows Rauschenberg to travel to foreign lands, where he spends months collecting imagery and learning the materials and aesthetic qualities of each region. He then collaborates with local artisans to develop huge bodies of work reflecting his observations, which eventually show at one of the host country’s preeminent national museums and then travel the world. As an expression of gratitude and to memorialize the event, he leaves one piece with each country. In the Vanderbilt exhibit, we are privy to Rauschenberg’s visual response to his own homeland and to a new experimental wax screening technique.
Throughout his career, Rauschenberg has demonstrated a unique and defining ability to experiment in a wide variety of media and materials. From his early paintings in the early 1950s, he jumped into mixed-media or “combines,” performance, dance, theater design, printmaking and the list goes on. Regardless of what discipline he might be working in, Rauschenberg has remained obsessed not only with pushing the idea of an artistic lifestyle, but also with the audience’s perception of what materials define the art object/subject. Although the contemporary American viewer has seen “found object” art through its saturation point, when Rauschenberg hung a quilt and pillow dripped with paint in 1955, audiences were suddenly faced with how to interpret the everyday with the artistic. A major shift in the classical art paradigm had been set in motion.
In keeping with the Rauschenberg process, the Vanderbilt exhibit consists of varying media and materials, including chromogenic prints (colored photographs), silk-screened floating Lexan (a type of durable plastic), and large, highly polished stainless steel panels with affixed objects. Rauschenberg worked closely with Saff Tech Arts, a progressive graphic studio known for combining new and old printing techniques, to create unique prints using a very hot colorized wax that gets pushed through a metal screen. The feel is more plastic than encaustic, but does add some interesting texture and dimensionality to the pieces.
Rauschenberg is also known for his dramatic arrangements and his allocation of imagery from varying sources, including the media and his own personal photographs. Thanks to their polished reflective quality, the Wax Fire Works prints in this exhibit also incorporate the viewer’s own image as an active element in the expansive composition. As with Warhol, Rauschenberg engages America’s love of mass production not just through the use of screen printing, but also through the use of recurring images. For example, “The Birth of Venus,” Pegasus and the rooster seem to appear time after time in his workand they show up here as well. Rauschenberg further points to America’s industrial history with the use of large-scale stainless steel panels butted up to one another, highlighting the material’s architectural functionality.
“Swim/ROCI USA (Wax Fire Works),” from 1990, was donated by Ruth and Don Saff; it makes its public debut in this exhibit. Here, we see a photo taken at what looks like a small store or gallery containing art reproductions, including a statue of “The Birth of Venus,” originally painted by Botticelli in 1485. This famous icon of the Italian Renaissance stands in her classic modest pose, unaware that behind her is a large sign reading, “SALE.” The picture summons ideas about the consumption of culture as well as what gets lost in the translation. Botticelli’s Venus, once the symbol of love, abstinence and purity, is now imagined as a sold-out prostitute in brilliant orange wax. The falseness of appearances is similarly reflected in a single strip of variegated brass leaf at the upper right of the piece. To the left of Venus is another screened photo, taken from a low angle and looking up into a structure containing ropes, poles, a pulley system and small platforms. Rauschenberg has cropped it so that we are clueless about the structure’s actual function. This image of construction, containing many converging lines, reoccurs in several of the pieces; it’s not used for literal recognition, but rather implies a sense of perceptual hierarchy and our menial placement in the colossal environment we’ve created.
“Pegasits/ROCI USA (Wax Fire Works),” also from 1990, is characteristic of Rauschenberg’s humor. “Pegasits” is a wordplay on the image in the piece, where the leaping mythical horse Pegasus is seen as an inert object mounted to a pole through his abdomen. This literal grounding keeps him in a perpetual state of still movement, suggesting the climate of our culturestagnant, yet somehow viewed as progress. In the top left corner is an actual chair foiled in silver and mounted horizontally, disrupting its utilitarianism. The viewer is snapped out of the 2-D plane and its mythological reference, and into the 3-D plane and the everyday object. Such crossovers represent Rauschenberg’s questioning of reality and how the mind works with the collision of information.
Rauschenberg does not arrange images to create a story or literal narrative. With his work, we are able to make free associations among the allocated materials, and we are invited to interpret a meaning for ourselves. His use of obscure yet heavily edited imagery has been described as a “vernacular glance.” Rauschenberg’s work is not only reenacting our image-saturated culture, but its heavy reliance on aesthetic composition also speaks to the mind’s desire to map the superficialto take the relationships between objects and create a balanced system.
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