Thoughts on a Non-Minimalist
"Are you not the knot, or not?" asks the woodsman, axe
Since the painter Manet, modern art--defined as "a search for the ideal"--has proceeded in what might be described as an "... action, reaction, rereaction, action ..." type of linear thought--as has Western philosophy. This means that things proceed one after another in progression, reacting to the thing which came before it, then reacting to itself before being reacted to by something new or contrary (reacted against). In the late '50s, American artists were asking: "After Abstract Expressionism, what?" Like the froth on a beer at the Cedar Tavern, the movements came bubbling up: Pop Art, Op Art, Color Field, Hard Edge, Minimal Art, Postminimal Art, Installation, Happenings, Body Art, Earth Art, Kinetic Art, Conceptual Art and Photorealism.
For artists making two-dimensional or three-dimensional art, however, and not working with a camera, minimalism was the end of the linear road, so to speak. Minimalism did away with a lot of assumed thought in art-making. Minimalists needn't a subject and needn't even make the work themselves. The sculptor Donald Judd created designs which were then given to skilled industrial craftsmen to complete. Sol LeWitt made this concept the focus of his work. Most all criteria for aesthetic judgment was attacked or ignored through the artists' desire to rediscover visual experience. The pursuit of balance or harmony was abandoned in principle. The philosopher Michael Fried called it literalist art because it could be demonstrated in words, even without the art object. But perhaps the idea that beauty itself, in its pure form, being too illusive to capture, was at the scientifically poetic heart of these artists. As in Edna St. Vincent Millay's sonnet: "Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare."
Now in the 21st Century, Minimalist thought is nothing new but rather has been relegated to Postmodernism's box of historic, appropriable tricks--postmodernism being the logical art movement after the end of the search for the ideal (modernism); supposedly the last linear thought at the end of linear thinking. Anyway, anything resembling "minimalism" or "postminimalism" could not be such historically, if created today, or could it?
Ahren Ahrenholz is not a minimalist. Though he had always been involved in "rational thought" in visual design, as pertains to architecture and furniture-making, about a decade ago he made the decision to relieve himself of the "huge burden" of rational thought. Like the sculptor Brancusi, he went from craft to art, freeing himself from the restrictions of utilitarianism while bringing a craftsman's feeling for materials to the activity of pure art-making. Somewhere between these two things lies what Gauguin would call his "sensation."
For Ahrenholz's exhibit at Brooks Memorial Library this October and November, there is a homogenous (not homogenized), milk-like coating of white paint over all of the works in the show. The effect of this white coating over strings, ropes, wood, nailed-on bottle caps, croquet balls, etc., is reminiscent of the lime coating sprayed in dairy barns as a pestkiller, coating--as it does--everything in the barn. Ahrenholz thinks of historic precedents in marble and, in an effort to "cloak" a piece's "disparate elements," to make it as "neutral as possible," he may elect to dip or cover the work in a single color. White "absorbs all the ambient light around it," allowing "the piece to speak" in the "softest light possible."
In observing the work, one senses a drama but then, not. It is the act of making the work, pure and simple, which one experiences. The nailing. The nailing carefully; the nailing in rhythm; the nailing mistake; the metaphoric implications of nailing; the nails; the hammer; the nailer (the un-nailer). Or the wrapping....
The artist wishes to do away with or not involve referential elements in the piece. This explains the "sameness." Ahren calls his oeuvre "articles of inquiry." Unlike an artist who creates, in their work, their interpretation of a tree, Ahren creates his own tree. His own not-a-tree.
The artist wishes to "seduce instead of stimulate" and seeks a "playful yet vulnerable" quality in the work. Comparing his art to music, he said: "We don't look for a message in free-form Jazz, it just is." That jazz may have a quality but not one we would define. It takes Ahrenholz years to finally define certain pieces himself, which may sit in the milieu of his studio collecting dust for some time while waiting to be realized. He makes much work.
Scale was a consideration in the selection of the work for the library show, and small pieces were chosen for the library's front panels. He wanted these works to be of the fewest elements, extremely simple, to have as little as possible, that the experience would be "like the wall which holds the wall." They are, however, intensely tactile and quite personal in the handling of materials and in the selection of those materials, which reflect much about the rural environment the artist works in. These pieces feel like the barns and yards of New England, a place where life can be as hard as a knot. And where rough-skinned hands work in bitter cold with measured patience and dexterity.
The artworks, when at their best, do seduce, taking the mind of the viewer into a quizzical contemplation of the unusual combination of materials and their relationships within the confines of a particular example of the physical evidence of Ahrenholz's artistic activity.
In spite of all the ivory tower rhetoric, in fact, Ahrenholz's work exudes a rare love of, and familiarity with, materials, a sense of joy in the usage of them, and a deep curiosity and love of contemplation itself. It was obviously with a love for art that he came to art. This said, anyone who acquires one of his existential creations would be cheating themselves not to have a conversation with him. In the meantime, we suggest that you take out a book at Brooks Memorial Library during November, and while you're there, well, don't do anything Ahren Ahrenholz wouldn't do....
Copyright 2004, Gallery Walk, Brattleboro, Vermont