The Persistence of Mme Récamier: Ceci n’est pas une pipe (Dream)
The original Mme Récamier was a real woman—Juliette—whose portrait was painted by neoclassical master Jacques-Louis David in 1800. In the painting, her figure relates exquisitely to the chaise longue she graces; their lines follow each other like skates. Their congruence is so striking, and became so iconic, that the name is now an eponym: récamier now designates the type of couch Récamier adorned. Language immortalized the quiet symbiosis between person and thing.
In 1951, surrealist word-clown René Magritte spoofed David’s masterpiece by re-painting the scene with Récamier pictured, indeed, as object. Specifically, as coffin. The coffin retains the woman’s iconic pose, and may contain her: it works as a case, as language, as a reminder that characters can hide in things. Magritte offers a model for customizing the lifeless: the coffin expresses Récamier perpetually. So our shapes need not melt into generic horizons; they can be preserved specifically.
This history of precision persistence informs Clint Neufeld’s oeuvre, and pervades the body of work installed at General Hardware Contemporary as the Koffler Gallery’s off-site exhibition, Pipe Dreams of Mme Récamier. Neufeld’s sculpted Récamier, Are You My Mother? (2006), is visible from the street. Resting on a chaise longue, she is a cast-wax excavation bucket with a creamy complexion, lit by a chandelier and upturned to catch its rays. Several shelves of replacement parts stand by on the facing wall. Her slope repeats the seam of the récamier perfectly, which tempts further concentricities: a continued rippling outwards or a flurry of nesting inwards.
These fantasied expansions and contractions could be auras held over from Neufeld’s elastic process. He extracts machine parts from vehicles and disposes of their middles, then reconstructs them by pouring various sculpting batters into their cored insides; the casts shrink away from their original shells as they set. The newly formed outsides are often coated with paint, which ornaments and seals, and sometimes overlaid with decorative hand-painting. All of this is set in—and offset by—ornate Victorianesque furniture that is sometimes found, sometimes custom-built, and sometimes custom-cast.
The sculptures are at minimum pseudo-diptychs, and probably more parted than that, if we consider all the pieces they fuse, or the way their sites—his farmhouse studio in Saskatchewan, this hardware store turned art gallery in Toronto—complete them. Neufeld’s halves are sometimes molded to each other; sometimes the concentricity is less snug and more abstract. Cream Before Tea’s (2012) ceramic cushion is permanently dimpled with impressions that fit the carburetor it grounds; Pink 350 is a transmission that grows like a stalagmite off its flat table; One Yellow Rose’s (2012) engine becomes congealed data across the stylized axis of its plush loveseat.
In each case, the setting lends the work a social aspect. Neufeld’s art is often read as portraiture, and his fixtures certainly cue us to expect dandies and coquettes in the “salon” of the gallery. But the punch of the work is that Neufeld’s casts are equally not human figures. As much as the furniture evokes notions of home, the sense of not belonging pervades. We still find objects (a récamier, for one) lounging where we expect people (a Récamier, for instance) to be present.
These things represent people. Each layer is underwritten by technological prowess, and each underscores the degree to which we, as a species, specialize. The vehicle parts, the furniture, and their dovetailing as art all testify to fundamentally human drives and desires. The engines and buckets evoke us, more and less directly, by our own layers. Perhaps they are us, cloned or interpreted as the equipment that the architect Le Corbusier wanted our houses to be: “machines for living.” Of course, Le Corbusier meant that our dwellings should be minimal and efficient; Neufeld shows that we are conflated with our surroundings: we are machines for living, in living rooms, where beauty often twists efficiency. In their settings, Neufeld’s glossed machine excerpts are as much precious stones in a ring as they are gadabouts in a drawing room. In the salon, the varied blues evoke parachutes of prairie sky, collapsed and compacted but somehow also etherized, like Prufrock’s patient upon a table (See T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”)
Gathered around, how do we treat this art—as magicians would? As surgeons do? In his seminal 1936 essay on aesthetics, Walter Benjamin used these figures to discuss two radically different modes of audience engagement, cleft by the advent of mass reproduction. The work of art is the patient, whom the magician of antiquity heals from a “natural distance” that respects the patient’s character and uniqueness. The modern surgeon, by contrast, intervenes in the patient’s body with alienating technology; his contact is penetrative but not spiritual. This latter figure represents audiences who reach art through mediated reproductions that privilege being seen over being used, and make moot the very notion of an original.
Neufeld may proceed more gingerly than he allows: a magician with a surgeon complex. Describing how he eviscerated an old grain truck for One Yellow Rose, he noted having “felt like [he] was stealing its soul.” And yet the truck was retired, inanimate. The excavation buckets were mainstays of Neufeld’s former cityscape, often found lying by the side of road, already inert. Trailer Queen (2010) is named after slang for a car so fancy it’s not driven, but carted around for show. The sculptor’s interventions don’t precipitate the inutility of these parts, but draw attention to them in a situation of idling. In this way, Neufeld invokes the hot-rodding culture of the mid-twentieth century: a practice of car enthusiasts pausing their vehicles and gathering around them with tools, to eke out more personalized rides.
Beyond bridging qualities of the mass-produced multiple with that of the original singular, this ritualized rejigging is important for Neufeld because of the community it conjured. Amateurs—typically male, typically silent—assembled around the car parts and crystallized, perhaps, around the ideal of masculinity as silent. Those ideals have since slipped away, and if Neufeld is reverent about their relics, he’s not necessarily nostalgic. He liberally inverts gender-coded traits in the work—what is rigid is conspicuously fragile, and even dainty; aspects that contain are uncommonly sturdy.
The exhibition in part resurrects a world from decades ago, nearer to the time when Magritte painted and Benjamin wrote, when General Hardware—not yet Contemporary—was a place where locals already congregated around the potential of equipment. Pipe Dreams of Mme Récamier is, in this sense, a period piece. But it is also contemporary: hot-rodding exists today, for example, as low-riding. [In the basement gallery, three light boxes act as a kind of illustrated subtext to the show. Depicting icons of obsolescence and ostentation (a Trans Am, a chandelier, and a peacock), their relationship to the work above is as ambiguous as was Magritte’s contention about a painted pipe: Ceci n’est pas une pipe. As captions to the work aboveground, these images both underscore their ornamental quality (these objects don’t work) and point to the way their context modifies their function (they work as art).]
Interestingly, while the enthusiasts are new, the cars remain old, as models rolled out since digitization severely stifle the possibilities for hands-on customization. The iconically tricked-out Gypsy Rose was built and rebuilt in the 1960s, and remains one of the jobs to most influence the subculture. Like several of Neufeld’s sculptures, her exterior blooms a painted floral motif, and, like the gallery, her interior boasts a chandelier for lighting. Recently, Rose’s (male) builder was buried in a coffin that was custom-painted to match her.
That this exhibition works as a fulcrum between a typically working-class hobby and semiotics-infused high art history testifies to the glossings that Neufeld performs. Sometimes sharing his garage with other workers, he parallels current art practices wherein artists integrate themselves into communities of “non-artists” and produce art that is sometimes indistinguishable from labourers’ work. Admittedly, those projects often boast an educative or interventional aspect, while Neufeld labours much more stoically.
The dream of wordless communion has, of course, often been shaken; after all, the automotive’s golden age shared an era with North America’s embrace of the talking cure. Neufeld’s reclining Récamier is recast as patient for a third kind of healer. Not the magician or the surgeon, but the psychoanalyst, said to relieve ailments by evincing streams of monologue (the extra teeth stand by lest her originals erode). In this last light, her gaping frame connotes an emotional openness. But if these machine-parts are concatenations of unspoken stuff, of codes and ideas and memories formed in silence, they’re unlikely to change easily. Their particularities are set, and endure. Like symptoms, they’ll persist because they are, in some crucial way, working.