Visual Arts Center, The University of Texas at Austin

Katie Geha

Amanda Ross-Ho, UNTITLED NOTHING FACTORY, 2011; production still; Visual Arts Center in the Department of Art and Art History at The University of Texas at Austin; photo by Colin Doyle & Adam Schreiber

UNTITLED NOTHING FACTORY, 2011; installation view; Visual Arts Center in the Department of Art and Art History at The University of Texas at Austin; photo by Colin Doyle & Adam Schreiber

Explaining his choice of subject matter, Jasper Johns once said: “Using the design of the American flag took care of a great deal for me because I didn’t have to design it. So I went on to similar things like targets—things the mind already knows. That gave me room to work on many levels.” Amanda Ross-Ho’s brilliant, two-part exhibition UNTITLED NOTHING FACTORY at the UT Visual Arts Center concentrates on things the mind already knows: clay pots, canvases, paper. Such an ordinary conceit lends itself to higher levels and deeper contemplations: labor as art, public participation, the performance of handcrafted objects and the psychic space of simple work.

In the first phase of the project, Ross-Ho transformed the vaulted gallery at the VAC into a casual factory for the physical construction of objects. Circumventing the ever-present crisis of creating—What? How?—Ross-Ho handed visitors an apron, led them to a work station and directed them in the performance of assembling her art. Visitors could make one of three possible objects: a stretched canvas, a pinch-pot vessel or handmade paper. The objects themselves—each a kind of ur-form of art—signify the potential for artmaking. What’s left at the end of the day are the accumulation of these basic objects, the equipment used to create them and the detritus of this production. Thus, the result is less about finished objects and more about the process of making. (Moments where the production seemingly goes awry and the “factory worker” begins to make independent, creative decisions are, perhaps, the exhibition’s most fascinating hiccups, as the vessels adorned with large breasts and wonky handles can attest).

This is a mode of working, a sort of Zen-like zoning out I relate to knitting a scarf or cooking a meal. It’s a form of creativity wrapped around a basic set of instructions. It’s the brain space, I imagine, artists enter when they have mastered their process and addressed the content of their work. It’s the fun part of making. Firm directives allow for an unfocused attention, which can often lead to revelations or moments of closeness. On one visit to the space, I sat down across from an acquaintance to make a pinch pot and within five minutes we were spilling our guts. Going deep. One of us cried. Certainly I could get romantic and relate this intimate interaction to the feel of the clay or the history of the vessel. But really, what makes this installation so successful is the opportunity for one’s mind to wander, to explore other levels of thinking in the act of producing art. Where the brain goes when the hands are making.

A flurry of activity transformed the usually self-conscious white cube of the gallery for a short time. On most days UNTITLED NOTHING FACTORY hummed along as a bastion of craft. In this deceivingly simple exhibition, everything in the space—from the fans used to dry the paper to the pegboards littered with to-do lists—felt functional. However, on February 11 the factory stopped production and the activity of making was formalized. The second phase of the project is what is left over of the work; the paper neatly stacked, the canvases hung in orderly rows up the wall, the pots fired. Production becomes product. It is in this phase of the installation when the “NOTHING” of the title, like Johns’ targets, feels most directly ironic. Clearly, this is something—the index of collaboration and the willingness of a public to produce art.

Katie Geha is a PhD candidate in art history at the University of Texas at Austin. She is writing her dissertation on 1970s art and the ordinary.

This exhibition is on view through March 12, 2011.

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