Tom Sachs: Boombox Retrospective 1999–2015

Jan 24, 2015 - Apr 19, 2015The Contemporary Austin, Austin

On View at The Contemporary Austin's Jones Center and the Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park at Laguna Gloria through April 19th, 2015

While it can be argued that the persona of an artist should be separate from an interpretation of the work, Tom Sachs poses an exception. The look of Sachs is unmistakably his own: an art world provocateur with a youthful visage, dressed in what could be called “smart boyish” attire—oxfords buttoned to the collar, pants rolled, stylish sneakers—with his signature mop of curly hair, facial scruff, and round glasses. With wit, charm, and a mischievous grin, Sachs scans his surroundings for potential fodder for his work, pulling a myriad of everyday references into his creative orbit. Playful intent, combined with a desire to upend comfort, social mores, and elitist systems, constitute the artist’s bread and butter. Sachs also articulates particular phrases and mantras that accompany his artistic persona like sound bites to a manifesto. Prior to stepping foot in his studio—a highly functioning “teaching hospital”1 of sorts with a cadre of assistants who tackle projects with almost obsessive rigor and intensity—the artist insists that all visitors watch Ten Bullets, 2010, an over-the-top, entertaining, and deadpan short film by Sachs and director-producer Van Neistat. In pseudo-documentary style, the narrative outlines the commando rules of his domain: statements such as “work to code,” “creativity is the enemy,” and “always be knolling” ring as philosophical clues to Sachs’s aesthetic and conceptual premise, while others, such as “be on time,” “keep a list,” and “persistence,” outline basic functional tactics for any successful operation.2 At the core of this universe, the artist acts as auteur of an art-as-life practice in which fashion and consumerism meet the aesthetics of militarization.

DIY, lo-fi, punk: these are all words frequently used to describe Sachs’s work. Using materials such as plywood, foamcore, batteries, duct tape, rudimentary wires, hot glue, and solder, the artist and his assistants fabricate inventive gadgets, hardware, objects, and architectural constructions translated into a unique homemade aesthetic. Though difficult to box into a single category, Sachs’s practice can perhaps best be contextualized by the term bricolage, or the use of everyday objects and things found in one’s direct surroundings as a means of constructing work (and therefore articulating knowledge). Hovering somewhere between art and science, functional and mythological, Sachs as bricoleur brings to mind the use of the term by the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who wrote that "mythical thought is … a kind of intellectual ‘bricolage’."3 Alongside figures such as Sarah Sze, Manfred Pernice, and Isa Genzken, Sachs operates among a select group of contemporary artists who have successfully synthetized a conceptual and assemblage aesthetic with intelligent formal critique.

Early work by Sachs from the mid-1990s combined iconic fashion brands and elements of military equipment (aka violence) into fetishized, controversial objects, as in Tiffany Glock (Model 19), 1995, a gun constructed of baby blue packaging from the jewelry company Tiffany & Co., and Chanel Guillotine (Breakfast Nook), 1998, a sculpture that conflated society’s ultimate luxury brand with a medieval form of execution—killing in style, so to speak. Pop culture brands also make appearances, as in his appropriation of the Japanese pre-adolescent-girl character Hello Kitty, first rendered by Sachs in a modestly scaled 1994 nativity scene for Barneys department store, then large-scale, in foam core, and, finally, in bronze. Or his riff on McDonald’s, hybridizing self-constructed elements of the fast food chain with guns, car racing, and drugs, as in Nutsy’s, 2002 and 2003. More recently, the artist seems to specialize less in individualized objects than in elaborate, self-contained worlds. Sachs’s best-known iteration within this realm is his creative appropriation of space exploration, an ongoing project that took its most expansive form in Space Program: Mars, 2012, a massive installation at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City. Occupying some fifty-five thousand square feet, replete with objects, architectural elements, and live performers, the exhibition contained Sachs’s versions of all aspects and components of a space mission to Mars, including equipment for exploratory and rescue flights, space suits, launch control, food delivery, and even human-waste disposal. Following on the heels of the closing of NASA’s storied Space Shuttle Program in 2011, perhaps the exploration of the unknown, couched in the story line of one of mankind’s greatest modernist achievements in science, becomes the quintessential artistic boyhood metaphor.

For The Contemporary Austin, the artist presents Tom Sachs: Boombox Retrospective 1999–2015, an immersive, interactive assemblage of sculptures, objects, and audio elements riffing on the “boombox”—the 1980s pre-iPod, hip-hop street badge of honor, and a nod to Sachs’s love of the genre. At the Jones Center, a series of working ceramic boomboxes of varying sizes and scales, including a selection made at the museum’s Art School at Laguna Gloria, feature curated playlists from pop icons and friends of the artist (at the time of this writing, Kanye West has already submitted his list). Other objects—including a classic version of his Hello Kitty sculpture, two large-scale oratory speakers (which the artist has said reference those used by Hitler)4, a bronze battery tower, and an interactive bodega—activate the remainder of the gallery space. At the Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park at Laguna Gloria, iconic Sachs imagery appears in the form of large-scale, outdoor bronze works, including a riff on Dick Bruna’s beloved cartoon character, Miffy Fountain, 2008, and a work that references modernists’ great towering monuments but renders it Duchamp-style, in the form of an interpretive stupa. The artist has also invited the ceramicist and sculptor JJ PEET to exhibit in tandem with him at the Gatehouse Gallery at Laguna Gloria. Although historically Sachs’s work has been deliberately made with everyday, cheap construction materials, more recently, as seen in much of the work in this exhibition, he has increasingly moved into bronze and ceramics, two very different (and traditional) media. Regarding the latter, as the artist points out, “Ceramics is just clay treated with heat to become stone, and thus the only material that exists today that will be around in five thousand years. Everything else—steel, wood, plastic—will all decompose and revert back to the raw elements.”5 Taken as a whole, the artist manifests an expansive and creative playground where anything can be art, no topic is off-limits, and Pop and modernist icons are toppled from their proverbial pedestals and transformed into fantastical constructions of a proto-Sachsian world.