Two kinds of ritual structure our lives. First, we all have our own regular rituals that give each passing day a sense of consistency and continuity: we may use a particular kind of soap every morning or we always tune into a particular radio station while getting dressed. And there are also those kinds of rituals that and exist outside of life’s mundane trivialities: Thanksgiving dinner or a wedding celebration. These sorts of special rituals provide context and meaning for our daily grind. At a basic level, then, “ritual” incorporates both banality and singularity.
Leigh Ann Hallberg’s PCC&D (Portable Contemplation Cube & Drawings) (2013) not only engages and enacts both aspects of ritual, but also shows their inextricability. Through her repeated graphic variations of a plastic cereal bag and her engagement with the white cube associated with exhibition of modern art, Hallberg’s work shows the surprising interchangeability of the ordinary and transcendent.
Breakfast is an important daily ritual for Hallberg, and for her and many others, this is almost always a bowl of cereal. While the particulars of the ritual may change – Grape Nuts, Shredded Wheat, or Frosted Flakes – the parameters remain constant each day. She opens or re-opens the cardboard box, rips or unfolds the interior plastic bag, empties some cereal into a bowl, and then adds some kind of milk. Hallberg’s friend, the painter James Rosen, suggested something else that she should do every morning: draw. Following this advice, Hallberg chose to draw cereal bags, as if to suggest the daily and mundane nature of this fundamental act of visual representation. Her collection of eighty drawings of these cereal bags in this exhibition implies time; each drawing is like a daily return to the cereal bag.
And these drawings are remarkable for their diversity – one a Schwitters-esque collage of overlapping black and gray planes, another a collection of fleeting lines which recall the tenuous structure of Brice Marden’s calligraphic paintings, and a third whose charcoal and organic solidity is reminiscent of Matisse’s muscular Back sculptures. A few are even indexical prints of an actual bag. Put another way, each is a cereal bag, as well as consciously a graphic translation of that bag into an image. These are exercises in perception, a daily dose of de-familiarizing a plastic bag. These serialized (or cerealized?) images call attention to the wondrous processes of representation: how is it that a collection of diverse marks signify anything at all? Is any single drawing in this exhibition any more a cereal bag than another?
And let me reiterate the strangeness of Hallberg’s diverse renditions. The cereal bag is a banal readymade, but in some of these agile drawings it is also transformed into something completely foreign. A hollow skeleton of sparse contours. A robust collection of voluminous strokes. An uncannily organic orifice worthy of Eva Hesse. Presented in an overwhelming wave of visual information, with all these shifts in strategy and medium on display on a single wall, these works show the diversity and contingency of daily perception. If the morning ritual of drawing can defamiliarize a known object, then we need to think about the importance of close looking for an already impossibly complex visual world. Considering that a cereal bag can become such a conundrum, what would happen if we applied this level of rigor all day, every day? We might better understand the visual contingency and chaos of everyday life, but we might also lose our grasp on reality and ability to comprehend signs and their socially agreed-upon meaning. In these drawings, Hallberg reminds us of this dialectical nature of a sustained heightened perception: we might desire this level of visual acuity and the insights it would foster, but in a world of visual bombardment, such a practice would also paralyze us as active subjects.
The uncanny nature of these bags, how they are made both familiar and strange through acts of perception, also finds expression in the other component of this ambitious installation: Hallberg’s Portable Contemplation Cube (PCC). This is a gallery-within-the-gallery, an eight-foot modular cube with translucent walls that visitors can enter. If the cereal bag drawings implied close looking, then the PCC makes this mode of contemplation explicitly bodily and concrete. Once inside (and the seamless door is closed), viewers are confronted with another bag drawing and, on the opposite wall, an actual cereal bag. Scrutinizing both the object and its graphic representation in this quiet, modular environment dramatizes the simultaneously secure and tenuous links between Hallberg’s marks and visual mimesis, between her art and an everyday object.
Brian O’Doherty wrote eloquently in 1976 about the ideology of the modernist white cube – how the seeming neutrality of this exhibition space is a construction, a fiction. Its bare walls perpetuated the idea of art’s inherent distance from actual lived experience. Carol Duncan later called art museums, especially those modernist white cubes, “ritualistic spaces,” places consciously divorced from the outside world and all of its mundane distractions. Viewers would enter the gallery and be able to focus on the form of the artwork – be it a painting, sculpture, or readymade – away from the sights, sounds, and smells of chaotic everyday life. Hallberg’s cube is certainly in dialogue with O’Doherty and Duncan, but with key formal, structural, and chronological differences, each of which I will briefly touch upon.
Formally, it is important that Hallberg’s cube is not white and solid, but translucent and open at the top. As such, it is semi-autonomous, suggesting a place of dedicated and concentrated perception, but it also offers a warning to not lose oneself in a solipsistic, hermetic exercise of close looking for close looking’s sake. One can see shadows of those standing outside the cube and hear their conversations. Structurally, the PCC is a gallery-within-a-gallery, recursively referring to the very idea of the gallery. This doubling – crossing a gallery threshold while already in a gallery – reminds viewers of the white cube’s inherent artificiality, as does its modular and portable nature. Hallberg puts this mode of display itself on display, leaving it too open to scrutiny and criticism.
It is also important to note the historical shifts since O’Doherty’s initial essay. He was writing in the aftermath of Vietnam, a moment when critics were questioning the efficacy and ethics of modernism and its need for a pure, visual experience. The logic went something like this: Why focus on formal shapes and relationships in a white cube while there were riots in the streets? But now we are at a point when art and life have become increasingly interchangeable, with once-alterative artistic practices have been absorbed into marketing strategies. Some shops look like modernist art galleries and some galleries look like grocery stores, for instance. Hallberg’s PCC rescues something still essential from modernism and its desired (yet impossible) perceptual purity: the contemporary need for sustained close looking, a slowed-down vision. While such traits were viewed as reactionary in the 1960s, they again have an important role to play: visual rigor, reminding ourselves of the ambiguities of perception, can be a symbolic politics. In his book about looking repeatedly at a pair of paintings by Nicolas Poussin, T.J. Clark notes that such critical thinking about works of art – being open to the richness and ambiguities of interpretation inherent in a work of art – is a political act. While he deems it a “weak politics” he also implies it is all we have left within late capitalism.
Hallberg’s PCC&D, then, collapses two kinds of ritual – bringing the purity and refined qualities of the modernist white cube into the realm of the everyday – as a means to recapture some politics of heightened perception. Such rigor might not change the world in a direct manner, but it can lead to a critical understanding of the visual chaos of the contemporary moment.