Brian O’Doherty was the first to deconstruct, in his 1976 series of Artforum essays, ‘the placeless modern gallery’, and today artists continue the effort to restore geographical and historical context to the ‘white cube’ by various means. Witness this show by Josh Tonsfeldt’s , which combines manifestations of places from the geographically distant past with the ‘present’ past of Preston’s gallery space and with hints of the exhibition’s future venue, creating a virtual continuum derived from nothing more than a series of compelling material relationships.
A point of departure is an abandoned Iowa family home, which burned down several years ago. For the exhibition the artist retrieved objects and photographs from the house, and documented his recovery visit with video and photos; he also recreated the space and layout of the house in the gallery by erecting partitions made of plaster and fibreglass panels that he cast from the gallery’s floor. Inside these partitions we encounter a water-damaged table and chair that are both sawn in half and affixed to the wall, evincing a debt to the architectural interventions of Gordon Matta-Clark that is also echoed by a square excision of the rear gallery wall that reveals an ancient window. For a previous show at this venue, Tonsfeldt unearthed a newspaper article about a doctor who had been robbed of his horse and carriage while living at the address in 1906, and the excised wall harkens back to that story. An adjacent partition maps the floor plan of the Galerie VidalCuglietta in Brussels, which is hosting an exhibition of Tonsfeldt’s works this summer.
While these spatial and temporal juxtapositions are relatively forthcoming, the two-dimensional works hung along the walls are more hermetic, and more open to chance. A series of pigment ink prints on the reverse side of Fuji crystal archive paper overlay pigments and faintly discernible drawings and text, declining to reveal any image that may be on the side that faces the wall. Another group of foamcore and Hydrocal panels, faced with spraypainted spider webs and found objects, charts a path between aleatory and deliberate composition, including three nearly identical photographs Tonsfeldt found at the burned house, each showing a pig marked with the numeric code 25–1, as if one of his relatives long ago decided to make a work of conceptual art.
Walking through the exhibition, you might kick a worn volume of the Reader’s Digest Practical Problem Solver that Tonsfeldt salvaged from the remains of the house, and this seems like a key to the show. It evokes a pre-Internet economy of information, skills and habits that feels impossibly removed from the international network of galleries and exhibitions in which the book now has meaning. Looking at it and the other remnants of the house, I couldn’t help thinking of Walter Benjamin’s 1925 insight that ‘allegories are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things’. Tonsfeldt’s ruins are dispersed, but they reconstitute here, to varying degrees, according to the ways of meaning available to them today.
This article was first published in the Summer 2013 issue.