By Sarah Kleinman
Character Armor, Douglas Rieger’s solo exhibition at 1708 Gallery (September 2 – October 22, 2016), asks us to explore how our human idiosyncrasies seem to mimic the automatic repetition of machines. Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, a pupil of Sigmund Freud, coined the concept of “character armor.” According to Reich, personality is expressed in the way the body moves. Certain traits, including tendencies to be dominant, submissive, withdrawn, stubborn, or petulant, for instance, constitute the fabric of our character. Coinciding with these traits, we develop psychosomatic defense mechanisms that condition our responses to others and to life experiences. This metaphorical armor choreographs human behavior to such an extent that intrapersonal communication and daily actions may become habitual and even mechanical. Using the body and inanimate objects as prototypes for his sculptures, Rieger reverses Reich’s reasoning in his exploration of the ways mechanical, inanimate objects may be fashioned to evoke anthropomorphic personality traits.
Rieger is a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, home of Pop artist Andy Warhol, the Kraft-Heinz Company, and the renowned Carnegie Museum of Art. Proximal to the Golden Triangle, factories and industrial plants evidence the city’s history as an early-twentieth-century manufacturing hub. During his first year of college, one semester each at the University of Pittsburgh and at Indiana University of Pittsburgh, Rieger recalls exploring deserted lots of former steel and ironworks: “I would explore abandoned scrapyards. There were massive mounds of discarded industrial materials: scraps of steel and iron; tires; bolts and screws. It made me wonder what happens to the refuse. There is a certain mystery in the accumulation of detritus—a certain quality of desire.”
In 2015, Rieger transferred to Virginia Commonwealth University, where he cultivated his knowledge of and tact with materials. Post-BFA, Rieger worked for four years as a studio assistant to a New York-based sculptor who idolized such minimalist artists as Donald Judd, Robert Morris, and Anthony Caro. Rieger expanded his knowledge of metal casting and welding—skills that transmitted through his own studio practice, which he cultivated alongside his full-time job.
During his first semester at Yale University in fall 2014, Rieger adopted new ways of seeing and responding to objects. In studio critiques, silence and introspection took precedence, allowing the work to communicate before participants’ critical insight. Art historian Tim Barringer’s seminars on art of the nineteenth-century British Empire resonated with Rieger’s interest in the enormous changes in manufacturing, technology, and labor onset by the Industrial Revolution. Industrial and manufacturing catalogues, literature on philosophy and theory, and high-circulating contemporary art publications supplemented the artist’s research-driven approach. By his May 2016 MFA Thesis exhibition, Rieger had notably refined his use of materials in an intensified exploration of the anthropomorphic and mechanical.
Rieger’s most recent work is System of Utility System of Desire, which he fabricated in a basement in the Lower East Side for a 2015 exhibition titled Basement Youth. Removed from its dim, musty place of creation, System of Utility System of Desire becomes a metaphor for physical and psychological maturation. Against the white gallery walls and light oak hardwood floors, the installation broaches Duchampian irony. Truncated pyramidal and ovular forms are suspended from a matrix of rusty, paint-splattered Safway System scaffolding—a device typically obsolete in bright and pristine galleries. The repetition of singular geometric elements recalls Constantin Brancusi’s Endless Column (1918), yet whereas iterations of the Column are cast in bronze, System of Desire is fabricated in high-density industrial foam coated in fiberglass, Roll-a-tex (a texturing medium used for popcorn-textured ceilings), and opaque aqua spray paint. Black leather belts, nods to the body and to restraint, are looped through rings at each vertical axis. A curious juxtaposition of buckling devices, the belts and scaffolding joints are rendered equivalent.
Freestanding sculptures and foam canvases surround System of Utility System of Desire. In Pierced, lumber has been cut, glued, gouged, and sanded so as to evoke a human likeness. Akin to the visual language of sculpted marble or molded clay, the sculpture may be read as an organic, growing being. Though unprimed and unvarnished, the impossibly smooth surface beckons to be touched. Its “noodle” (Rieger’s neologism), a thick tube of turquoise silicone rubber, is threaded through three protruding knobs. This material penetration and apposition seems perverse and phallic, the exaggerated scale rendering the accessory outlandish and quirky. Other sculptural personalities include James and The Leaner, which fondle their noodles and parade stiff, wooden protrusions mimicking human arms, feet, and genitals. A Pepto-Bismol pink sculpture, The Lounger, rests on a single wooden peg and ingests a blush-colored noodle in a gesture of vulgar humor. Its Pepto-pink surface ironizes the chalky elixir’s associations with gastrointestinal distress and pressing anticipation of relief. The wall pieces, thick rectangles of buff-colored foam sealed in heavy-duty plastic, narrate a collision between body and machine. Here, too, a playful juxtaposition of nut-and-bolt darts with shiny, slick surfaces melds the mechanical and corporeal.
In his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” German philosopher Walter Benjamin proposes that modern technological reproduction results in a loss of aura—the originality and authenticity that makes a work of art unique. Benjamin’s argument suggests that the modern experience of art has irrevocably changed. Rieger’s work, however, seems to parody and redress Benjamin’s theory. System of Utility System of Desire frames machine-made objects as a product of the human hand—the aura is restored by means of the artist’s calculated decisions. Caricaturing human personality traits and gestures, Rieger’s freestanding sculptures invite viewers to separate humor from cynicism, and facetiousness from pensiveness. Not only does this art recapture the aura, it augments it. In so doing, this honest, unabashed exhibition allows us to readjust our character armor, prompting conversation and thought that might even aid in loosening its grip.
Sarah Kleinman is a doctoral student and teaching assistant in Art History at VCU; she is writing her dissertation on former MoMA curator Kynaston McShine. She specializes in Modern and Contemporary Art and Museum Studies. She received her BA in Art History, Studio Arts, and Political Science from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2010 and her MA in Art History and Museum Studies from VCU in May 2016. She is currently a curatorial intern at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Photo Credits: Terry Brown Photography
ext. 1708 is an on-line journal funded through a grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, which also supports 1708 Gallery’s exhibitions. 1708 Gallery’s mission is to promote new art, a mission achieved via a rotating schedule of exhibitions that presents a diverse range of projects. In relation, 1708 Gallery strives to educate the public about Contemporary art and employs artist talks and didactic text panels to illustrate the exhibiting artist’s issues, themes, and modes of working. In an effort to further expand opportunities for education, this journal features essays, interviews and other writings that provide context for 1708 Gallery’s exhibitions and promote further dialogue about contemporary art. 1708 Gallery works with a range of writers, from graduate students to professional writers, to allow for multiple voices and experiences to contribute to this project.