Frances Trombly’s current exhibition “Thinking of Things,” at the David Castillo Gallery, is a careful and clever examination of the art object, which brings up issues that have long been simmering in modern and contemporary art. Trombly’s work includes trivial and derisory stuff, like a collapsed cardboard box, cleaning rags, a blue tarpaulin, a mop and even receipts from familiar stores like Publix Supermarket. Of course, the objects are completely familiar, lying scattered across the gallery space -as if accidentally dropped there. The fact that each one has been carefully hand loomed in woven fabric isn’t discernible until one arrives within a couple of feet of the object. Once you have understood the game, it shifts to an exercise in looking closely at each thing to see exactly how it was made and how it is different, under scrutiny, from the object it mimics. Because these pieces are copies of some of the most insignificant, throw away things one associates with belittling chores, like cleaning up and covering up, and because they have been so meticulously simulated, reproduced (minus even the humble function they were meant to perform), the viewer is obliged to consider what exactly makes an object valuable, worthy of considered scrutiny, inspiring, stimulating, and of course -by their presence in a gallery- worth owning. In the course of the past year British artist Damien Hirst, one of contemporary art’s most mediatic and commercially viable players, produced a solid platinum cast antique human skull, encrusted in diamonds, which he described as “the most expensive work of contemporary art.” Perhaps more importantly, for minimal and conceptual art, Hirst’s Diamond Skull denies the pre-eminence of "the idea" over "the object," (even the execution or craft of the work), placing the craftsmanship of the fine jeweler alongside the cash value of the diamonds and platinum at the center of his creation. Hirst’s Diamond Skull has attracted an enormous amount of attention -if only to be described as “vulgar” and “obscene” in some quarters. In the meantime, Trombly’s objects, perhaps the obsessional equivalent to Hirst’s piece, seem to make the opposite point, that the value of the “art (or non-art) object” ultimately is far more arbitrary. Although Trombly’s insistence on the idea may not be particularly innovative, after Robert Smithson's rocks reflected against mirrors, or Mario Merz’s stacks of newspaper and neon in the 1970’s, there is a quiet and unusually humorous aspect to her handmade objects. The near reverence involved in making them seems to belie their disposability, implying that even the utilitarian might be too good to throw away, or conversely, that disposing of anything, no matter how derisory, is regrettable (which imbues the series with a subtle tinge of “green” in a refreshingly untrendy way). Ultimately, Trombly’s pieces are a more pointed response to an art market that many feel may have over-objectified the art object, and diminished the value of the idea (I’d say more so than Hirst’s Diamond Skull) because her work fundamentally demonstrates the value of the “idea” at the expense of the “object,” whereas in Hirst’s instance, as one critic aptly put it, “the price tag is the art”. That said, it would seem ridiculous to suggest that Trombly’s work would be a better investment than Hirst’s. So, take your pick.
David Rohn is an artist and performer based in Miami.