Given the plethora of things produced, shouldn't invention yield to salvage?
Clay Ketter's artistic practice takes its material from the immediate surroundings as well as an art-internal context without exaggerated faith in Utopian visions or fixed guidelines. He has to try out theories for himself before accepting them. "Visionary Pragmatism" is how Joshua Decter has defined this method(1), and as a consequence of such an attitude Ketter has recently turned his gaze to what has classically been regarded as the highest of the arts, architecture, and shaken its deepest foundations. The point of departure for the work is a package for a telephone handset, Telia 900. With this work the result of sensible, functional packing technique has become – what it looks like – an architectural model. At present it is being used as a sketch for a building planned for realization on a scale of 200%. One can find the same impulse and spirit as this type of copied design behind the visionary formal experiments of the Bauhaus, and perhaps it is not so strange that a further development of such a Zeitgeist concept can function as architecture?
Ketter was born in Brunswick, Maine. At the close of the seventies he went to art school in New York. During and after his student years he made his living as a construction worker and carpenter and at the beginning of the eighties love brought him to Sweden. There he immediately profiled himself as the drummer in a talented Talking Heads-inspired pop band from Lund with the apt name Self Made Man. Now he has settled down in the countryside and started a family with the above-mentioned love, Jenny Mark, and keeps the music alive with a few old musician friends in a more science-rock and blues-based band, The Art Farmer.(2)
The art world knows Ketter from a different side, but the background outlined here still says a lot about him as an artist, since his schooling in a liberal art tradition with roots in the America of the seventies has left its mark on his fundamental values and overall view of society. He has a pragmatic attitude to life and regards art as work. Even though it would be an oversimplification to claim that it was his practice and reflections during the construction working time that made him the mature artist he is today, this is still very present in his work.(3) As a strong individualist independent of pre-determined guidelines and ready-formulated theories he seeks consistent credibility for his ideas and activities within himself. This does not mean he is ignorant of the tradition he works within; on the contrary, in his artistic activity he is preoccupied with exploring the idioms and values of modernism, and his marked pragmatism confronts its increasingly fading perfection. Needless to say, central pioneers of the last century like Marcel Duchamp (with his innovative thinking about the relationship between art and reality), Andy Warhol (with his statements about the death of art) and Clement Greenberg (with his remarks about the emergence of American abstract painting) are crucial to his explorations.
History of art
His real breakthrough, the sheetrock "Wall Paintings", can also be said to refer to Greenberg and his classic argument about how all painting strives towards absolute, pure and perfect form, the ultimate consequence of which should be a painting empty of content. Ketter's answer to this statement is expressed in two joined and plastered gypsum wallboards, each executed in the standard format 120x250, resulting in a work that oscillates between being a wall and a painting – "...Ketter's work takes place before and after painting" as it has already been so aptly put by Daniel Birnbaum.(4) In retrospect the idea – in the light of the development of modernist painting- seems inevitable and quite in the spirit of an artist like Robert Rauschenberg. Yet the fact is that when the work was presented in a one-man show at Pictura in Lund in 1992 it was by pure intuition. The exhibition was to have the look of a construction site and among other things was to point to the invisible labour-intensive work that is embedded in our institutions. It came to include representatives of all conventional artistic resources such as sculptures, objects and installations all done in ordinary construction materials. The painting genre was added at the last moment.
A few years later came Trace Paintings, "made ready-mades" that very closely resembled a piece of wall, including its normal layers of paint, wallpaper, paste, traces of wiring and junction boxes. The painting simulated a temporally limited section of a human life seen in a compact version which, as much as a fictional play, can be a realistic image of a reality where memories, experiences and thus the biographical and the everyday are put in focus. With the works "Renovation Trace Paintings", Trace Paintings are mounted into more of a built flatness, where an emphasis on the surface – the frontal – underscores the formal and painterly side of the object, while the "Trace Paintings" epitomize painterly flatness. After this wall between art and reality had been torn down, Ketter continued his questioning of the foundations of art, now with his point of departure in a construction situation. The exploration involved the traces and formal structures of three-dimensional objects which are rendered visible by installation, demolition or other dismantling of fixtures, and goes back to 1994 and an exhibition that was held in empty apartments in Rosengård, a suburb of Malmö. Ketter participated there with among other things, a deconstruction of kitchen furnishings in the form of cupboard doors and drawers. The associations, viewed through Ketter's modernist critical filter, were spontaneously drawn towards minimalism, constructivism, neo-plasticism, Donald Judd and Piet Mondrian's compositions. Ironically, this play on art history had its starting-point in objects belonging to the same tradition of Utopian modernist impulses as his painting. The objects have become a whole series of works around an overall kitchen theme with titles like "Surface Composite", "Surface Habitat" and other variations, compressed or expanded versions, hybrids.
For these kitchen sculptures Ketter uses IKEA's well known module system. That our consumption of IKEA's products is a pragmatic, not an idealistic choice, I think most people would agree. They are cheap and easily accessible, so one of their absolute classics, the Billy shelf, has become the best-selling item of furniture in the world. "The shelf that you find in everyone's home" has become a symbol or a cultural signifier which today, with IKEA's wide geographical distribution and incomparable impact, has come to represent an almost global standardization hysteria and in some contexts is treated with a certain degree of idiosyncrasy. Although Billy has become a norm it is not a design of the type that the Bauhaus for example advocated; for it is obvious that the idea behind IKEA's success is based more on economics and marketing than on a well considered choice of materials, function and good form. Nor is there any patent on IKEA's products, so anyone is free to copy them. In "Big Billy-Bob" from 1998 we see a D.I.Y. version of Billy, drily confirming not only that buying IKEA furnishing is cheaper and simpler, but also that it looks better than making it yourself. The title's hillbilly-sounding name is an unequivocal reference to Ketter's own background in the land of the pioneer settlers, America.
In connection with the Sydney Biennale Ketter used the city's IKEA store as a catalyst for finding place-specific ideas. Up on a wall, as an illustration of the construction of the leg system, hung a pair of office desks in an ominous-looking formation, which for Ketter inevitably evoked associations with a swastika. This presentation was then interpreted in the exhibition, and the title of the work, Effektiv, was taken from IKEA's name for the office furniture, deliberately underscoring these lugubrious associations. The insinuations of the work are not confirmed by any actual political statement from the artist. Ketter does not claim to be a political artist, but he does think – not without a certain ambivalence – that the mission of the artist is to send out signals and that the reaction is the concern of the observer (in an apparently apolitical Australian art climate the swastika was passed—over without comment). That Ketter still has a hidden political agenda is something that Birnbaum has pointed out in his texts on art production in relation to the IKEA phenomenon.(5) Briefly, IKEA's hard-selling ideology tries to standardize and uniformize the formal perception of the world, and this is hardly made less dubious by the fact that its founder, Ingvar Kamprad, has in the past had connections with the extreme right. One finds parallels in the Art & Design movement, which also came close to a not wholly unproblematical formal dictate, and generally speaking it is not an unfamiliar problem that architectural and construction policy - whose mission is to shape public opinion, shared values and lasting cultural goals - has a strikingly undemocratic tendency.
In industrial production the harmonious measuring system of the Golden Section was once used, but today there is a new, more human-adapted, ergonomic approach to proportions and dimensions. One could claim that the welfare of the body has triumphed over the aesthetic that was more dominant, for instance, in the beautiful ideal world of the Bauhaus. Despite the well-meaning, but nevertheless studied planning concerns of the Folkhem (the "People's Home" of the Swedish welfare state) movement, a harsh summary of posterity's evaluation must be that modernism and humanism did not go hand in hand in it. In America at that time one had the spirit of Ralph Waldo Emerson's humanist idealism and a New England with its persuasive pragmatism, based on the idea that the exterior should be viewed as an overall plan – a framework – without which one cannot become a free, properly functioning human being. In the inter-war years the architectural and design idiom was not substantially influenced, and after World War II, when the soldiers, that is to say the purchasing power, came home, the consumer economy arose and thus the world as we know it today. In Europe inspiring new thinkers like Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto left their marks on contemporary cultural debate and social planning, but in America the attitude was that everyone should recreate the world to his own liking, with little belief in norms, especially concerns like government and state planning. Ketter, who had to learn to live as an expatriate in a new country, stands with one leg in each of these historical camps; a standpoint that both poses difficulties and provides perspective. In Basic Building Data - an American construction bible from 1949 which (according to Ketter) appears upon rereading today to be strikingly antiquated – he has found material for a new work, "Graf 324" from 1999, named after the author of the book. The dimensions and look of the piece stem more or less from a drawing and technical data found on page 324.
In line with the issues touched on in the IKEA-related works, Ketter takes up in his latest group of works a sociopolitical discussion of the growing globalmonoculture that is leading to an ever-greater stereotyping our lives, and of an ideologically determined construction of reality and normality. The work consists of a series of monochrome-oriented paintings on masonite panels, some of which are however decorated with a rosette motif. The motif recalls archetypally Swedish rural paintings and the panels were in fact taken from a Swedish home. Their size and composition are (quite pragmatically) determined by the original placement of trim panelling which frames them like finished pictures in their original place. It is crucial to the issues dealt with in the work that these are not originals, but signifiers of a cultural heritage. This means that the decoration, which according to the artist is in principle pure kitsch, can be perceived as nostalgia as well as painterly gesture, and reinforces the notion of a Nordic nature-romantic art. The paintings will be shown this spring at Angles Gallery in Santa Monica with Swedish names as titles, such as Larsson, Svensson and DalaLars confirming the exoticism that the centre often expects to come from the periphery. In our society, closely interconnected by the media and electronics, it is certainly problematical to talk about a geographically centred art, but one can talk about cultural heritage, and in this work Ketter takes up Scandinavia as an element in Modernism and an idea of folk painting taken from the thirties.
Lars O. Ericsson has summed up Ketter's artistry by saying that he "explores the historical boundaries, claims and conventions of art; twists, turns and stretches concepts like image/object, abstract/concrete, architecture/ sculpture, high/low, art/house-painting." (6) At the same time, with a Duchamp-like twist, he maintains the view that art, design and architecture lie latent, ready-made, in things and objects around us – the trick is simply to find them and make them visible.