Ariel Brice: Dispatches from the World of Things

In Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, written during his exile in America during World War II and published in 1951, the philosopher mourns that in contemporary life, there is “life no longer.” Adorno asserts that a good life is no longer possible in a world in which violence, alienation, and mediation have turned every quality of human life towards the inhuman. The unitary subject—that indivisible, autonomous being who fully inhabits his or her thoughts and experience—has been categorically dismantled by the catastrophes of history. But where does that leave us, we who still perceive ourselves to be subjects? Through what actions can we approach, critique, and reveal the world? One possibility, Adorno’s chosen avenue and mine as an art historian, is to write, using the compromised medium of language as a tool to piece together meaning. Another possibility—one in which Adorno notes the potential to express an authentic subjectivity, if one no less wounded by history—is to make art. It is this path that Ariel Brice has chosen, creating plastic, assertive forms that counteract the insidious effect of a non-immediate world that constantly demonstrates (in Adorno’s words) “a loveless disregard for things.”

Brice is interested precisely in these overlooked things. To be sure, his oeuvre is made up of objects; no other word could adequately describe their presence and factness. And yet his objects are insistently functionless, performing no clear service to no clear end, existing not in the realm of craft but obstinately in the realm of art. They cannot be acted with, or acted upon; they do nothing, produce nothing. In fact, Brice frequently uses formerly functional objects—plates, for example, in Artifact Stack or an Aerobie flying disc in This is Why—to find out what might occur when an object’s function becomes undone by art. For Brice, to give the object a purpose is to circumscribe its possibilities, to negate what Adorno called the “surplus” that could “survive as the core of experience” if pure functionality could be avoided.

For a show he curated at Cranbrook, Brice selected the title “Necessity: Mother of All Invention,” referencing inevitable forces that inherently drive all creation. But the exhibition’s name is telling, and points out a preoccupation that has motivated much of Brice’s work: that of the horizons of possibility contained in the act of making art. For Brice, what is interesting is not the putative freedom of the artist as form-giver. He does not believe that his role is to coax meaning out of the yielding, pliant world of materials. Instead, he sees his task as the location of the limits that are to some extent predetermined by the material he uses, whether ceramics, fabric, or paint. In one sense, his work is conceptual, trading in ideas that are set in advance of the work’s creation; like the conceptual artists of the 1960s, Brice frequently depends on a set of rules fixed in advance of the work’s creation and then carried out to their natural conclusion. Take the diminutive ceramic stack that is Untitled, in which he melted three different kinds of clay at different temperatures, smashed the slabs of clay on top of each other, stretched them out, folded the mass on top of itself, stretched it out, folded it again and stretched it again, cut off a small section, and then fired the end result. Certainly, it is significant that (as Sol LeWitt famously declared in his definition of conceptual art, appearing in the June 1967 issue of Artforum) “the planning and decisions are made beforehand” in much of Brice’s work.

And yet, the outcome goes beyond the conceptual to a poetics of materiality. In Untitled, for example, Brice notes that his process was ritualistic, artisanal, like that of making a bronze Japanese sword or a Murano vase. The execution was not “perfunctory” (LeWitt’s word), nor did “The idea [become] a machine that makes the art” (LeWitt again). At the last minute, Brice swiped his thumb across the stack of foliated clay, leaving a disconcerting indentation suggestive more of Jasper Johns’s highly erotic Painting Bitten by a Man (1961) than of a conceptual coolness. Working with ceramics is a process of accrual and accumulation, in which the final product becomes the record of all of the bodily actions performed on it; this is the nature of the material. Perhaps, then, it would be more accurate to say not that Brice seeks to set limits in advance, but rather that he aims to find limits through the act of making, to locate the boundaries of what is or should be possible in his material.

By probing these limits, Brice also creates a subtle language of contestation. In “Ideally, It Would Be,” Brice deploys the ubiquitous Facebook “like” symbol, a digitized, pixelated thumbs-up. The image is iconic in more than one sense of the word: it is an icon, immediately recognizable, an image beyond language, and it is a computer icon, which allows “activity” to occur at the lightest tap of a finger. Click here to “like” this. Ashley Jones “likes” this. This status has three “likes.” Brice’s use of the thumbs-up registers the surreality of a world in which the most basic form of emotional response is experienced via a click of the touchpad. It is easy, in every sense, to “like” something on Facebook, demanding little thought and even less action. Yet Brice recalls learning from the faculty at Cranbrook that it is insufficient to declare that you “like” something. Using one’s critical faculties to articulate why reflects the complexity of the world into which that like or dislike enters.

But “Ideally, It Would Be” also acts as a statement of resistance to a political environment in which we vote for American Idol in the same spirit we bring to the polling booths—an ersatz democracy, a surrogate form of consensus reflected in the work Unanimous, a blank grid of 8-bit thumbs. Brice notes that the initial result of Unanimous was too shiny, too cheery. To flatten it back out again, he coated the slip-cast ceramic in mass-market white paint from Home Depot and then applied the same paint to the wall supporting the piece. The thumbs now cling mutely to this leveled surface, rendered inert but no less iconic for it. This work is especially potent in a year in which both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney campaigned assiduously online through social media like Facebook and Twitter. Moments after Obama’s reelection was announced, a photograph was posted to the President’s Facebook profile of Obama embracing his wife Michelle on the campaign trail in August. It quickly became Facebook’s “most-liked” post of all time.

Brice’s work insists that there are consequences to our “loveless disregard” of objects. He insists that our withdrawal from the object world does not nullify its existence nor does it alter the implacability of our bodies, objects that share space with other objects. In fact, some of his work suggests energetic action or even a kind of brutal force. Untitled, after all, has a secret; it is mounted by way of a blade-like extrusion of clay on its back, stabbed into the gallery wall. A series of twisted wads of clay that Brice titled 32’, 15’, and 30’9” (the length of the gallery walls enclosing them) shows the relentless record of their making, in which a length of material was forced through an extruder and then rolled back on itself. In Almost, the material seems to be on the edge of collapsing, brittle and fragile after being attenuated by Brice’s hands, swooning delicately in the gallery corner. Yet this force is an ethical action, allowing the viewer to encounter the tangible and tactile realm that constantly reorders human experience. Brice is not alone in seeing danger, even peril, in our increasing lack of engagement with objects. To Brice, as to Adorno, the mechanized, mediated world ensures that all experience is screened rather than bodily. Adorno says, “Technology is making gestures precise and brutal, and with them men. It expels from movements all hesitation, deliberation, civility.” Technology, that is, disconnects us from actions and complicates causality. Push a button to activate a missile from hundreds of miles away, and never see the consequence. Therefore, for both, the object-world offers the possibility of literal moral substance, in which our smallest bodily actions have clear outcomes, whether the closing of a car door or the gouging of a thumb into a hunk of layered clay. Consider two passages, one from Minima Moralia and one written by Brice in 2010. Adorno claims:

“The new human type cannot be properly understood without an awareness of what he is continuously exposed to from the world of things about him, even in his most secret inneverations. What does it mean for the subject that there are no more casement windows to open, but only sliding frames to shove, no gentle latches but turnable handles, no forecourt, no doorstep before the street, no wall around the garden?”

And Brice:

“Objects, whether making them, handling them, using them, or perceiving them, anchor us in our experience of reality. They designate and predict our actions and locate us within space. We, as users of objects such as door handles, stairs, and teacups, constantly rely on our assumptions about them in order to function essentially. However, as technology reproduces the world with unprecedented convincing clarity, exploring our perceptive proclivities gains newfound importance.”

These passages echo each other with uncanny resonance. Objects—whether garden walls for Adorno, teacups for Brice, or door handles for both—act as tangible, corporeal conduits between the subject and the material world, the only world that is real. A yearning for reality winds its way through Minima Moralia—Adorno looks for the “real book,” “real taste,” and “real experience”—and yet what he discovers continually is the fundamental difficulty of accessing that reality. Similarly, Brice explores the conflicted status of “real experience” in a virtually real, digitally mediated world, claiming, “We make plans, set up scenarios, hold high expectations, and invariably we deal with the rub of reality—the slightly or sometimes vastly altered version of what we imagined things to be.” And yet both sound a note of optimism, suggesting a recuperation of real experience possible through the world of things. Perhaps the survival of the human in an inhuman world lies not in great change or sweeping acts of political or economic reform. Perhaps, instead, there can be redemption in the little actions and “little ethics” of the subject, however dis-integrated, in primal, exhilarating confrontation with the real object.

Julia Walker
November 2012

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1. Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott (London: Verso, 2005), 15.
2. Adorno, "Commitment," in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, ed. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt (New York: Continuum, 1985), 312.
3. Adorno, Minima Moralia, 39.
4. Ibid, 40.
5. Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” Artforum vol. 5 no. 10 (June 1967): 79.
6. Ibid, 80.
7. Adorno, Minima Moralia, 40.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid, 51, 205, 130.