Aaron Van Dyke

Jonathan Mason / Mark Wagner: overlooked and looked over

Aaron Van Dyke

Mark Wagner recently claimed that dollar bills were one of the cheapest media an artist might use—far cheaper than paint, for example. This is just the type of irony his work seems to seek out. The material itself contains many ironies. As a symbol, the dollar bill is not just visible, but you might say ultra-visible. As an object, however, no one pays that much attention. Considering how many times as one sees a dollar bill, even the more observant among us seldom looks at this object closely, at least relatively speaking. The dollar is also the preeminent symbol of monetary value, but it’s not worth much (three minutes forty-seven seconds of work at the average wage in the U.S. for 2001, according to the Social Security Administration’s Web site).

This irony is reflected throughout Wagner’s work. He has been described as a conceptual artist disguised as a book artist, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, to put it in the more conventional analogy. He uses very traditional craft techniques. Some of his forms might even be said to be overly recognizable as art. At first glance his work often looks traditional, or at least comfortable in its artistic subgenre. This seems to leave little room for the experimentation and formal exploration demanded of contemporary art. But behind this familiar facade is a conceptual framework that contains twists, ambiguities, and contradictions that call for careful investigation.

Both Mason and Wagner are culture miners, a practice going back at least as far as Pop art, if not Dada (think of the collages of Höch and Hartfield) or further. They both are exploring the overlooked; in Mason’s sense the low-grade visual ephemera too abject to be looked at, and in Wagner’s case, the too familiar, too charged icon of value (the dollar bill): overlooked and looked over. This kind of referencing of certain cultural material is commonly practiced today. However, there is a sense that a critique of some of these practices is also being carried out by both Wagner and Mason. So often there is a tendency for current art to reference only stylish and/or fashionably out-of-date cultural phenomenon, relying only on the content of that referenced, as if the cache these references carry will transfer transparently to the work of art. Both artists rifle abject cultural forms, mining them for their content without ignoring their formal structure. What is created, or maybe it is better to say opened up, are connections, networks, interdependencies. The effects of art radiate far afield, and always somewhat unpredictably, through these connections to the world-at-large.

Both Mason and Wagner “do” portraits. Mason collects them from the yellow pages. This is perhaps the most degraded public form of portraiture (only the driver’s license and other i.d. photos, especially some of the digitized versions, are of lower quality). They are also stunningly void of meaning. What is a portrait supposed to tell you about a chiropractor or attorney? In some ways these portraits are the last gasp of the idea that a portrait tells you something about what is behind the picture, something about the person depicted.

These portraits are wholly banal, but they are not the same; they differ largely in the conventions they use, the stylistic clichés they employ. Smile or look serious, formal or casual pose, should the background be a photographer’s backdrop or an office, individual or group portrait? … The differentiation of an individual seems to be made through a series of binary choices one makes, or a series of clichés that are deployed.

Wagner’s portraits are collages made of thin strips cut from dollar bills. They are “made of money.” In a sense the surface is reduced to a uniform material. The representation is covered over, residing behind a money mask. But we know this is not true. There is no face behind the mask. The currency is called upon to do double duty as a representation of a face while continuing its task of symbolizing value in our capitalist world—all this, while at the same time Wagner is claiming money as an artist’s cheapest medium! In one sense these portraits are a direct spoof on the idea that, in the end, all objects are judged by their monetary value.

Painting Without a Surface
An argument could easily be made that much of twentieth century painting was obsessed with surface. Painting is a two-dimensional medium and because of this, the surface of the painting comes to almost entirely define it, or so the argument goes. But what about a painting without a surface? This is a modernist impossibility, or so it seems. Mason has succeeded in devising this impossible picture, which in this case turns out to be a crystalline form made of layers of paint bonded together with heat and pressure. This is one of those formal twists on painting that helps keeps the medium alive.

During a studio visit with Jonathan Mason, a piece he was working on caught my eye. He had taken images of trees out of the yellow pages and placed them all on one sheet of paper in the same position they had originally appeared—the phonebook’s idea of a forest. Mason’s trees, wrenched from phonebooks, transform the idea of recycling from a bucolic, circular meander into an insane vortex, pulling apart the flimsy logic behind the social use of these icons, as well as that supporting the material on which they are printed. This is not a purely destructive process, of course. The outcome reveals a poetic and quite beautiful logic that results from the twist of this process.

And the forest is quite beautiful too. It’s more of a park, actually. Trees pleasantly spaced across the page, occasionally forming clumps. It is a bit surprising that such a roundabout process could result in something not only beautiful, but also plausible as a sort of diagram for a park. Despite so many of the icons in the yellow pages being clumsy and vacuous clichés, there is an incredible beauty in some of these small trees. On the other hand, these are little more than ink smudges. The enormous amount one has to read into these stains in order to see a tree, let alone a beautiful one is staggering. These works bring out the ambiguity of these images, the tenuousness of the meaning they purport to carry, and the assumptions we bring to them. The question that arises is, if we are required to bring this level of assumption to these icons, these smudges, what do we bring to the larger world? What do we see of the larger world and what remains hidden behind a façade of clichés?

This essay was published for Jonathan Mason & Mark Wagner's exhibition overlooked and looked over at Occasional in Saint Paul, MN, September 20–November 23, 2003.