Articles by Vik

Landing Pelicans

Text by Vik Muniz
For Holt Quentel Exhibition at the Aspen Art Museum-
Nov 15, 2013- January 19, 2014
Published in the catalogue accompanying the show.

I first heard of Holt’s chairs in 1989 as we both attended a group show at the now defunct Meyers Bloom gallery in Los Angeles. After the press conference she asked me if I wanted to drive with her to Malibu to watch the pelicans. What about them? I asked. They can’t land right, she said. We spent an entire afternoon watching the comedic creatures crash land while talking about what things were meant to be as opposed to what they actually were and how one notion obscured the other. Hearing Holt talk about meaning as expectation, and the hypotheses of the pelicans landing as gracefully as starlings if we lived in a world of language made all the sense in the world. Well, Holt would not get to these delicious logic quagmires from the pelican end of the bargain. While watching that aviary slapstick, between every disastrous touchdown, her intimidating diatribe would tap into Marxist theory, Adorno, Lukács and Jameson, weaving it through Buster Keaton, Freud and Monty Python, mainly for my comfort. That’s why I am doing the chairs, she said: there’s more to it than intention. Things do not necessarily become what they are supposed to be on the onset, even language can’t accomplish that, let alone political systems and cultural movements

For nearly a year, I followed the chairs’ development, as she rummaged through used furniture stores in the tri-state area looking for Eames chairs and consequently amassing a large quantity of them in her West Village home-studio. Holt’s studio looked like a huge car repair shop with a large enameled bath tube in its center. For over four years she had been working on a sort of twisted brand of conceptualism that involved over-burdening signs with materiality and history. Her pieces were something right out of a Lucy Lippard’s nightmare. It was like reading Tom Wolfe’s “The Painted Word” backwards. The degradation of meaning was a constant theme in Holt’s mind and that somehow did not align with the predominant discourse of art’s itinerary towards immateriality at the time.

The fact that her soiled, mended panneaus with a single letter or number divided a lot of opinions right upon her arrival in the New York art scene in the late eighties, immediately propelled her to the critical limelight. Legend says, she had already been a concert pianist and a highly ranked tennis player, and at twenty eight, she was one of the main precursors of what was later named “scatter or abject art” and became one of the most sough after names by private and museum collections around the country.

For us, artists, she epitomized the character of a post-modern superhero. She always looked like an Ivy League tornado survivor with her unraveled hair and her worn out preppy brand name clothes. Her battered shirts with Polo logos seemed like an extension for her enigmatic tarpaulins. For Holt, all signs and conventional symbols were markers on a complex conceptual gauge to monitor semantic entropy. The fact that she lived precisely and uncompromisingly the way she thought and worked left a lasting, profound influence on me. I would visit her often. She always had pizza and beer around. She spoke in fast riddles, with a soft voice and a disarming sweetness that seemed to settle all the paradoxes and the hypocrisy of an art world I was so terribly trying to understand. It’s been over twenty years and I still miss her as a friend.

She would stare at the modernist chairs, as if asking them to tell her their stories, to talk about their former owners and their former surroundings; one of them could’ve belonged to a freight elevator operator in a Garment District sweatshop, another to a 75-year-old Wisconsin widow. Three seats had been adapted to a bar and could’ve been the ones placed outside a gas station near Nogales or an airport in Panama City, another two samples, could’ve come from a kitchen of a childless young couple from Sacramento and another from a Greatful Dead teenage fan from upstate New York. She would distress them, make them cute covers and pillows, apply stickers to their backs and change their bases. She was doing to the modernist icons exactly what she did to her numbers and letters; she humanized them. The chairs were mass-produced, with a few color and base variations, but every single buyer, had a different name, a different body and a lived a different life. Holt’s perspective was not from production, but from the absorbing end of cultural utopias.

Wittgenstein once said that no matter how powerful a telescope could be, one of its ends would always be the size of a human eye. The art of the late 80’s was about self-projection and the re-mapping of the role of the individual in an expanded media environment. The art of the nineties shared similar philosophical concerns but within a radical shift in dynamics; instead of focusing in the objective, it emphasized the eyepiece. Two exhibitions in 1990 set the course of things to come: Mike Kelley’s “Arenas” at Metro Pictures with its diagrammatic Freudian tableaux comprised of play blankets and plush toys and Holt Quentel’s Eames chairs. In both cases, the mass produced object had encountered its redemption in its staining contact with humanity. The Inherent ambiguity of Kelley’s suggestive psychological schemes and Quentel’s traceable decadence of conventional aesthetics marked a clear break from the formal, language-based conceptual and political art that was produced at the time. It was conceptual art, but it had a smell, a patina, an ergonomic logic and a story that would seduce by its ambiguity and lack of closure.

Like the hard landing pelicans, Holt’s chairs were about what things tend to become if they divorce themselves from their maker’s intentions. While history heralds Charles and Ray Eames’ high modernist icons as universal standards bound to have a place in museums and books, Holt’s versions seem to tell a myriad of other stories. Since then, customization has become a luxury, not a consequence, and yet, these objects still have the power to make us think about the long forgotten symbiotic partnership between maker and user. Holt’s working process had always involved amalgamating the ends and their means. They were individual stages that while originally designed for apathy and restraint, streamed an eloquent verve of possibilities.

The chairs not only mark Holt’s most conclusive body of work, but also the consummation of her quick stint in the art world. More impressive than her vertiginous rise in the art scene, was her Google-proof disappearance. Unlike Duchamp, she did not announce or market her retirement. She pulled a Pynchon and simply vanished from the grid. She has since become a myth. Whenever I talk about Holt, even if I manage to fully control my nostalgia, people who know me, suspect that I am inventing the artist I always wish I were; a fearless ideologist, so unbearably connected to the world around her that she did not care about which role she would play in it. The writer, pianist, tennis player, artist, they were all versions of an individual deeply devoted to find a real bind between the self and its cultural context. She is a different bird at every landing still teaching me how to become a better pelican.

Vik Muniz
Brooklyn June 2013