Bodily Presence and Absence

by Robert Atkins

 

"Do they smell?" I asked the artist Daniel Goldstein. "Everybody wants to know that," he laughingly replied. "Funny but they don't." We were discussing the leather work-out-bench covers that now constitute the guts of Goldstein's "Icarian" series. Abraded, sweat-stained, and evocatively scarred, these discarded objects bear the imprint of literally heavy use. They are repositories for the visual-and visceral-scent of bodies.

As unconventional prints they remind us of other ghostly body-tracings in post-war art: of elements in Robert Rauschenberg's mixed-media works (especially his blueprints and "Hoarfrost" series), Bruce Conners' "Angel" photograms, even Yves Klein's "Anthropometries." Their lack of artistic handicraft may also recall some body artworks, such as Dennis Oppenheim's Burn (1970), a negative-image of a book burned onto the chest of the artist by the sun. But unlike the subject/object conflations of body art, Goldstein's found portraits were conceptualized by neither artist nor "sitters". They simply appeared like the Shroud of Turin.

Religious associations are inescapable here. Goldstein mounts his "skins" (his term) in heavy, deep, box-like frames to suggest reliquaries, placing their contents out of reach behind plexiglass. Constructed of richly glowing copper and wood, the frames evoke the preciousness of their medieval and Renaissance counterparts. Set against black panels, the brown irregularly-shaped skins offer not only Rorschach-like images, but metal staples and stigmata-like holes that allude to the passions of martyrs and saints.

In the reliquary, ancient spiritual impulses and rites meet the eternal dramas of possession and power. Fascinated by the notion of the reliquary as "dream architecture" and a "seat of power," Goldstein has put this form at the center of his art since 1991, when he began his "Reliquary" series. Each of its twenty-or-so works consists of a colored, aluminum-mesh box--often a peak-roofed tower-containing an illuminated, revolving vessel or house-form of the same transparent material. Coupled with the Platonic simplicity of both exterior and interior forms, the works' light-shot transparency suggest that these are mysterious containers of spirit, not matter.

What separates Goldstein's earlier series and the reliquaries in the "Icarian" series from their religious predecessors is their abstraction, their hunting lack of specificity. Catholic reliquaries were constructed to house (purported) artifacts of special historical figures or event--the knuckle bone of a saint; a splinter from the True Cross on which Christ was crucified. Such relics remain objects of veneration and the destination of pilgrims who believe that they possess magical powers.

Although partly inspired by the deaths of friends, Goldstein's reliquaries do not portray particular subjects. The works in the first "Reliquary" series are anonymous spirit-houses, while the "Icarian" pieces offer oblique commentary about our plague-ridden age.

Goldstein collected his skins from the Muscle System, a San Francisco gym located in the predominantly gay Castro district, the epicenter of the American AIDS epidemic during the eighties. Each piece in the series is named after the machine from which its skin comes--Incline, Hack Squat, Bench. Until recently, the goal of exercises performed on these machines was the creation of the attractive and healthy body. But AIDS has severed the link between these twin concepts.

For the HIV-infected the goal is likely to be the creation and maintenance of the attractive, healthy-Iooking body as a signifier of normality in the face of a frighteningly abnormal condition. Goldstein alludes to these oppositions in his series title: Icarian is the name of the work-out machine manufacturer whose benches he's skinned, but it also refers to the mythological youth who briefly soared, and then fell.

The gay/AIDS subtext of Goldstein's work is also open to a generational reading. For gay men of a certain age--those born in the forties or fifties--life is divided into the pre- and post-AIDS eras. Friends and work-out buddies have been lost; even the leather skins, Goldstein told me, have been largely replaced by vinyl. Always a favorite--that is, a safe and potentially erotic--meeting place for gay men, the gym was fetishized for commercial consumption during the seventies. Its latent eroticism made blatant, it became a popular setting for porno movies and a standard feature at bathhouses. Like Goldstein's skins and Catholic reliquaries, the mirrored gym offers only fragmentary views of bodies (or, in the case of reliquaries, actual fragments). Bear in mind that the earliest known fetishes--pre-historic fertility figures--are also the earliest known artifacts of both art and religion.

Although the "Icarian" works are among the most poignantly allusive of the enormous number of contemporary artworks inflected by AIDS, they should not be limited by such a reading. The skins are also objects that recall and make literal the qualities of touch and gesture fetishized in post-war, abstract painting. But Goldstein is no ironist. Like Ross Bleckner's similarly romantic paintings of dimmed lights and funerary urns, his works are images of bodily presence and absence, metaphors of mortality. The heavy frames in which the skins are encased cannily double as packing crates, but they might also function as coffns.

Some viewers may be put off by the found-object origins of Goldstein's skins. The use of found objects is by now a time-honored tradition in twentieth-century art dating back to Marcel Duchamp's pioneering efforts just before World War I. Unlike most contemporary artists employing them, however, Goldstein eschews the shiny, new object as a means to critique commodity culture. The patina of use attracts him, as it did such artistic forebears as the Dadaist Kurt Schwitters or the Beat-era, assemblage and collagists Wallace Berman and George Herms. Their potent art supports Duchamp's contention that artistic discrimination and intelligence are more essential to art production than mere craft or technique.

When I first saw the "Icarian" works from afar in the artist's studio, I thought they were x-rays. I now realize that my misapprehension wasn't so far from the truth. They are (figuratively) x-rays of a diseased body politic and reliquaries memorializing an increasingly threatened species. Richly allusive--more is generally more--Goldstein's poetic evocations of our death-obsessed/death-denying culture are both poetic emblems of presence and totems of loss.

©Robert Atkins