Sheetrock is basic to the people who live in square boxes, which is quite a few of us in the industrialized world. We fill the boxes with picturesque and pragmatic stuff, each in our own individual approximation of comfort and utility. But like the ubiquitous drywall, the primary elements of our dwellings are amazingly similar: bed, chair, table; wall, floor, ceiling. We are similar too: backs, butts, elbows; bones, muscles, organs. Because of all this you can draw on your skin, crash at a friendís house, exchange a glance, get a kidney transplant or pass the potatoes. There are lots of other possibilities too. If you are Chris Sauter and you are preparing a project at ArtPace, you can make some templates and get a laminate trimmer and part out your family dining room by cutting holes in the gallery walls.
His 1999 work Graft, like its title, is an effort to occupy a space with contents made from the walls which physically contain that space. He has created patterns corresponding to the various parts of a dining room table and chairs and has fabricated those parts with flat, half inch sheetrock cutouts laminated to become table legs, chair backs, cabinet doors and the like. All of the pieces are lifted from the gallery walls in groupings according to ease of assembly after cutting. These cut-clusters tattoo the walls with a strange, backward Braille for the sighted and read not so much as a code or hieroglyphic, but as traces of our human preoccupation with modularity. This modularity is not especially modern, but the proliferation of it is.
The false wall completing the white cube which houses the work, also serves as the plane through which you enter the space. Thus, an artifice is implied, just in case you think creating an object out of space means something. The entry portal, appropriately enough, is an oval, which not only readies you for transport, but is also the hole left by the top of the dining room table. This is reminiscent of the experience of moving a refrigerator into a house through the window because the doors are too narrow; or on the other pole of modular life, the opposite of what you would do if your home was besieged by zombies: you wouldnít cut the furniture out of the wall so the flesh mongers could get in, but you would nail your table over the window.
Windows have traditionally been associated with the illusory space of painting and in real life function as membranes between the chaos of nature and the controlled interior world we each create for ourselves. Sauterís work then simultaneously challenges the white cube and satisfies the sculptorís urge to demote painting, while calling into question the degree to which any of us can maintain the illusion of control. Submerged as we are in nature, civilized culture is the comfort zone we cling to with concepts such as home and the hearth. If the zombie, dead to the world, is that part of ourselves that canít be coerced into the collective illusions of culture, then it is no wonder that the dining room table is such a handy item for keeping it at bay.
Sauterís replicant dining room, complete with cabinet covered walls and floor, is not a participatory environment. Visitors are instructed not to walk on the floor or touch the furniture. It is before you tentatively, like a memory or wish, a mock up for a possibility that will probably go unretrieved or unfulfilled. It is a blank screen, a skeletoid mirage folded out of the walls like so many ironing boards with tales to tell. But these walls donít talk. The narrative is blank and must be renegotiated with each visitor.
Viewers of the work, unlike Basil Rathbone, wonít find themselves shouting, ďItís alive,Ē or even thinking the words, but it might occur to them that this benign vivisection, both inventive and bland, bears witness to a bit of the mad scientist in the artistís process of cutting the art out of the gallery. This objectless-object, cut-space project is a rabbit made out of the hat with a utopian edge. Itís gleeful use of power tool as drawing instrument is related in confidence to the same full employment optimism that, ironically enough, sees utopia as a place where there are lots of mass produced objects. But actually, it is not ironic at all. Sauterís Platonic-void version of his parentís dining room isnít proposing an esoteric commodity and the mass production items found on anyoneís dinner table arenít putting an object in the gallery either.
Ultimately, the workís power lies in the way that it strips the veneer off our idealism about family and domesticity in general. These chairs are too fragile to sit in, but we could dance on the table, even as it collapses beneath us. It would only stir up a little dust.
Copyright Hills Snyder, 2000 / appeared in Artlies #25, 2000.