Fiction: Laocoon Strikes Back
Not so long ago, it seemed that narrative had been occluded in art, compressed into optical instantaneity in modernism, and stalled as post-historical pastiche in postmodernism. In architecture and design, too, the supremacy of spectacle and predilection for slogan tempered narrative’s linear drive. Yet narrative has returned, in various guises and often with a vengeance since the 1980s: first with the diaristic sequences of Boston School photographers, then more pervasively with a range of figurative sculpture and painting from Kate Clark’s anthro-mythic creatures to Hernan Bas’s comely mix of Pre-Raphaelite and futurism. Today, it has reached an apogee with visual artists who publish novels, romans à clef, and (semi-)fictional memoirs in accompaniment to, or as, work (Nick Herman, David Maroto, and Sean Monahan are three who immediately come to mind) [1]. Why this narrative impulse and whither this fictional drift?

The current narrative tendency might continue one major strain of the 1970s, elaborating the textual turn into a literary return of sorts [2]. Yet contemporary handling of language seems different in goal and in form from the fervent politics and pitched debates surrounding what Craig Owens brilliantly described as allegorical art in that nascent, heady postmodern moment [3]. If the 1970s moved away from the visual toward the textual, it was not back into the fold of traditional narrative that Clement Greenberg assiduously expunged from art a generation earlier, but rather into discourse. And if that discourse had an aim, it was not to convey a story (or progress the history of abstraction) so much as to implicate the beholder and to imbricate an artwork—in appositely literary terms, to shift from a third person mode of enunciation to a dialogue between first and second persons [4]. In this way, art—now occupying not an absolute sphere but a radically contingent one, not a timeless space but the here and now—might actively engage in social transformation and political change.

By comparison, contemporary narrative seems less accurately discursive than prelingual; indeed, the exhibition’s inclusion of Trenton Doyle Hancock via Dubuffet intimates a culling from folk, regional, and/or vernacular art. Consider also Randy Bolton’s Cross Road (2011), an eight-by-six-foot digital print on canvas affixed to the wall accompanied by sundry three-dimensional objects. The scene, canopied by car-dealership pennants, tempers class commentary—a sometime feature of Bolton’s work—with a laconic, borderline anomic, timbre. Rather than pointed polemic, Cross Road constitutes a proscenium that generally and loosely connects what is unconnected: nature (tree stumps), avant-garde art (bottle rack), and suburban landscaping (concrete flagstones). Here, the bracketing of random objects momentarily slows and stabilizes allegory’s continual elision of meaning, returning if not to narrative proper, then at least preparing the conditions of possibility for narrative’s emergence [5].

If the contemporary espousal of narrative does not precisely concur with allegorical art’s textual turn, neither does it fit comfortably into conceptual art’s roughly coterminous “mapping of the linguistic onto the perceptual” [6]. To be sure, Jennifer Catron and Paul Outlaw’s Fish Fry Truck (2010), evidences what Benjamin Buchloh summed the “elimination of visuality” (the piece is, literally, a functioning food truck) [7]. As well, like its conceptual predecessors, it experiments with and reconstitutes artist, object, and audience relationships. Yet the shift away from traditional hierarchies of perception toward linguistic conventions of signs does not automatically broaden into a critique of institutional power and economic and ideological investment [8]. Thirty years after institutional critique’s high noon, the artist may be collaborative, but is also unabashedly entrepreneurial; the object may be ephemeral, but is also and perhaps only consumable; and viewers may be active participants, but are also willing clients. Fish Fry Truck is more do-it-yourself than “administrative,” more proto- than anti-capitalist, more hippie laissez-faire than academic Marxist [9].

This sampling suggests that the literary return’s motivations are distinct and that, despite a range, projects share commonalities (indeed, fiction seems less an emergent category or genre of art than a recently legible approach to art). They do not revoke representational totality and provoke institutional authority so much as recognize that such totality and authority are already, perhaps irretrievably, eroded. They may be laconic and/or atavistic, but not nostalgic or melancholic in the way that, say, 1980s paintings by Ross Bleckner and Philip Taaffe were (a point the exhibition obliquely makes via Bridget Riley’s ostensibly similar but fundamentally different Shih-Li from 1975). In sum, they privilege creation over critique, discovery over deconstruction, and synthesis over analysis, and point to something other than a textual or structural-linguistic basis. If they conjure a paradigm, it would be that of fiction, re-prompting the initial question: Why this narrative impulse, now?

Fiction as History without Truth Claims

When Greenberg cleaved apart the literary from the pictorial arts in “Towards a Newer Laocoön,” he did not jettison narrative entirely, which remained as history: a succession of canonical works inexorably if unevenly evolving toward pure abstraction [10]. At its weakest, fiction is a shadow of this ever-more-ethereal residue, or a symptom of longing for the adjudication of paternity after a decades-long moratorium. More forcefully, however, fiction obviates the objections of Greenberg’s detractors by reprising the form of history (linear, causal, coherent) while waiving its attendant claims (of objectivity, universality, and immutability) [11].

Sometimes aggressively fantastic, as in John Dunivant’s Theatre Bizarre, fiction can also be subtly speculative. Dana Schutz’s Turtleneck (2011), for instance, recalls the artist’s 2003 Self Eaters series, which documents a race that regenerates by eating its own feces—a witty transposition of the modernist call for self-sufficiency into narrative content through a sci-fi lens. A related 2007 series of paintings with subjunctive titles (How we would give birth, How we would talk, How we would dance) approaches history through the future anterior; the constituents collectively record human conventions for anthropologists and historians to come. Through idiosyncratic storylines and a prospective orientation, Schutz posits a third option between the post-historical condition of pastiche—in which the world becomes a vast shopping mall of signs disjoined from referents, of signifiers devoid of signifieds—and the fixed meanings of a symbolically replete, and possibly completed, tradition of modern painting.

Fiction as Time without Progress

Figurative painting may be the dominant manifestation of and vehicle for fiction in art today (a partial list additionally includes the aforementioned Bas as well as Heather Leigh McPherson, Anna Conway, Sean McCarthy, Angela Dufresne, and Vera Iliatova), but it is not the only one [12]. Consider James Turrell’s Untitled (4LIGB+AG) (2008). As is often the case with the artist’s work, it derives from Roden Crater, a gigantic swath in the Arizona desert that since 1979 has served as a residence, studio, and project. Ostensibly about light, Roden Crater is equally and emphatically conditional on time: the time it takes to arrive at the site, the time it takes to view, the time it takes for daily and seasonal light shifts to transform, and the time it takes to make. Further, its temporal referents—ancient forms, tectonic movements, celestial rearrangements—cannot be comprehended so much as imagined. (One intriguing point is that the work’s completion date will likely come after the artist’s death.)

No Object Is an Island’s inclusion of Turrell in the Fiction section highlights another key attribute. Just as fiction distinguishes history’s form from its claims, it conceives of time separately from the exigencies of progress. Fiction’s temporality differs from the (outmoded) ideal of Antique and Academic art, the (discredited) teleology of modernism, and the (misguided) post-historicism of postmodernism [13]. Under its temporal rubric, forces like “imagination,” “creativity,” and “invention”—long banished by critical theory—may once again be appropriate, even essential, to making and viewing art. Indeed, through the prism of Turrell, contemporary sculpture, rather than obdurately progressing from phenomenology to institutional critique, might realign on a crooked axis that originates from John McCracken’s atypical minimalism (which concerns UFOs and time travel [14]), connects laterally to Jo Baer’s post-1974 paintings (which teem with metaphoric fancy), traverses James Surls’s prints and sculptures (which embody southwestern mythology), and concludes today with Peter Coffin and Shana Moulton’s quirky constructions and New Age performances.

Fiction as Agency without Authority

Fiction also pinpoints a subject position between author and reader/receiver: that of the protagonist. Here, it is not the Studio 54 Warhol of fifteen minutes who inspires, but the Pittsburgh Andrew Warhola of life reinvention. In No Object Is an Island’s suite of Warhol snapshots (1970s and 1980s), boldface names mix with regular folk who take the guise, in the moment of the camera’s flash, of whomever they would like to be: thinker, dandy, rich girl. The black-and-white images suggest that projecting the self as protagonist (perhaps a particularly American privilege) enables a subjectivity unencumbered by lineage and identity—a kind of subjectivity-once-removed.

This conception of subjecthood might in turn productively inform and nuance prevailing, and thoroughly problematized, iterations of artistic authority: artist-as-ethnographer (Hal Foster), artist-as-organizer (Miwon Kwon), artist-as-remixer (Nicolas Bourriaud), artist-as-curator [15]. The license it offers—a literary license—certainly explains the proliferation of alter egos in contemporary art: Joe Scanlan’s Donelle Woolford, William Powhida’s “William Powhida,” Alan Oei’s Huang Wei, Jimbo Blachly and Lytle Shaw’s Chadwick family, as well as multiple characters by Ryan Gander, Patrick McDonough, and Dannielle Tegeder, and Philadelphia’s Machete Group [16]. More concretely, consider Tony Matelli’s hyperrealist The Hunter (2002). Here, as often, the artist appears life-size in somewhat parodic or exaggerated form. Apropos this and other proxies, including those represented in Sleepwalker (2001), and Josh (2010), the artist writes: “I wanted a more humanizing, more subjective art, one in which I am completely represented…. The subjective as metaphor, the artist as foil” [17]. It is perhaps fiction’s contouring of artist-as-protagonist, here and elsewhere in contemporary production, that seeds the possibility for this “foiling” of artistic agency [18].

Fiction as Suspension of Disbelief

Matelli’s hyperrealism points, in this brief overview, to fiction’s fourth and final aspect, which approximates what Michael Fried called “absorption.” For Fried, an artwork’s “supreme fiction of the beholder’s nonexistence” is paradoxically necessary to secure the beholder’s attention and to maintain the audience’s suspension of disbelief [19]. Significantly, his thesis was developed largely through an examination of Realism: In Courbet’s Stonebreakers, for instance, the workers’ preoccupation with their labors—their utter disregard for our scopic apprehension—rivets us before the image. Something like this occurs in contemporary realist Duane Hanson’s Bodybuilder (1989/1992), a to-scale tanned and buffed dirty blond with downward-cast eyes whose vaguely narcissistic activity emblematizes self-absorption [20]. Encountering Bodybuilder in a gallery evinces less a sense of contiguity than of brushing up against a radically separate, yet fully formed, parallel world.

Through “absorption,” fiction reintroduces through a back door old-fashioned notions of artistry, long discarded with the avant-garde deskilling of the artist; by definition, the suspension of disbelief requires at least some level of internal coherency and relational complexity. Take for instance Bob Turek’s Microstages (2010), a group of outsized seats/diminutive stages for musicians. Here, absorption assumes the form of sonic envelopment, and artistry that of melody (an affiliated project, Bent Bench from 2009, encourages the listener’s attentiveness through its angling and proportions) [21]. With others (Daniel Bozhkov, Marin Abell, Troy Richards, Matthew Brannon, Chad Stayrook, Cameron Keith Gainer, Alex Waterman), the “fiction of the beholder’s nonexistence” manifests itself as a mild disregard for accessibility; the production of their multicomponent works often involves mastering specific skills and acquiring specialized knowledge, commensurately making reception a challenge. (In this way, fiction may be an antidote to a conceptual art frequently reduced to a series of legible, single-note gestures [22].)

Whither fiction? About the time Greenberg was writing “Towards a Newer Laocoön,” Carl Milles was in the middle of his tenure at Cranbrook as head of sculpture. Whether or not then fully apparent or consciously positioned, works like Europa and the Bull, installed in 1935, presented a viable alternative to the ascendant model of reductive abstraction proposed by Greenberg in New York. No Object Is an Island’s salient feature—the creation of new and overlapping genealogies—points to a similar opening up, a loosening of institutionalized past that remains one central task of contemporary practice. Indeed, much as fiction constitutes a mediating term—between singular meaning and total relativity, linear evolution and post history, the death of the author and birth of the reader, and between autonomy and engagement—the exhibition’s unique format encapsulates Cranbrook’s adept negotiation, then and now, of an art academy’s sometimes contradictory missions: to preserve disciplinary knowledge and to foster new, inventive narratives.


[1] Nick Herman’s Fatland (Los Angeles: LAX and Anteprojects, 2011), David Maroto’s Illusion (2011), and Sean Monahan’s Blonde Girls
 (Tokyo: Booklet Press, 2011). Criticism, too, has seen a turn away from explicit polemics and toward a more belle lettristic tenor, as well as toward the diaristic, as in the case of T. J. Clark’s The Sight of Death (New Haven: Yale, 2006). For a take on fictional artists from writers’ points of view, see Koen Brams’ The Encyclopedia of Fictional Artists (Zurich: JRP Ringier, 2011), recently translated into English.

[2] The first term is Hal Foster’s. See “The Passion of the Sign,” in The Return of the Real (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996).

[3] Craig Owens, “The Allegorical Impulse,” in Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture (Berkeley: University of California, 1992).

[4] See Owens, 75.

[5] In this sense, narrative today relates to one aspect of what Hal Foster recently termed “the archival impulse,” with the caveat that fiction, as sketched below, is less mnemonic. See “An Archival Impulse” in October 110 (Fall 2004), 17–19.

[6] See Benjamin Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962–1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions” in October 55 (Winter 1990).

[7] Buchloh, 107. After this essay was drafted, the artists’ opted to contribute a new work—a staged photograph inspired by Carl Milles’s Europa and the Bull—to the exhibition.

[8] Buchloh, 136. “And just as the work negates the specularity of the traditional artistic object by literally withdrawing rather than adding visual data in the construct, so this act of perceptual withdrawal operates at the same time as a physical (and symbolic) intervention in the institutional power and property relations underlying the supposed neutrality of ‘mere’ devices of presentation.”

[9] The term is Buchloh’s.

[10] Clement Greenberg, “Towards a Newer Laocoön” (1940), in The Collected Essays and Criticism, vol. 1, ed. John O’Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1986).

[11] Separating form from ideology is, to say the least, fraught if not impossible. But fiction at least signals an easing of current conceptions about painting, a momentary lapse that opens up possibilities before new (doubtlessly equally objectionable) ideological positions congeal.

[12] I owe many of these insights into the relationship between fiction and painting to McPherson herself, who wrote about it perceptively in regards to Schutz as well as Angela Dufresne and Pamela Fraser, in an unrealized exhibition proposal from 2007 titled “Fake Fiction.” For figuration to be cast as generative and speculative rather than cynical or ideologically regressive manifestations of reactionary power (or, equally pejorative, extraordinarily belated iterations of kitsch) might suggest that the medium has (finally) completed “the task of mourning.” See Yve-Alain Bois, “Painting: The Task of Mourning,” in Painting As Model (Cambridge: MIT, 1990).

[13] In conjuring this other temporality, fiction might be both the privileged and symptomatic form of art in our contemporary era of sustainability, defined loosely by critic Jonathan T. D. Neil as time without cumulative and/or entropic direction, and that is beyond the scope of individual consciousness. Neil’s “Art in the Age of Sustainability” was given as a lecture at Cranbrook Academy of Art on November 11, 2010. See also Pamela Lee’s Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s (Cambridge: MIT, 2004).

[14] See in particular “Otherworldly: Interview with John McCracken (May 1997)” in Dike Blair, Again (Chicago: White Walls, 2007).

[15] See Hal Foster, “Artist as Ethnographer,” in Return of the Real; Miwon Kwon, “Unhinging of Site Specificity,” in One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (Cambridge: MIT, 2002); and Nicolas Bourriaud, Postproduction (New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2002). For an examination of the artist-as-curator, see my “What Is an Independent Curator?” in Arco Magazine (Winter, 2004).

[16] Curator Eriola Pira, who alerted me to Alan Oei’s work, also pointed in conversation to a corollary: the proliferation of fictitious galleries and art dealers.

[17] From press release to the solo exhibition Sexual Sunrise at Leo Koenig (December 6, 2001–January 13, 2002).

[18] Another extremely provocative examination of fact and fiction is Rosalind Krauss’s “Bovary model,” in which the latter underpins the former. See particularly “Dime Novels,” in The Picasso Papers (Cambridge: MIT, 1999).

[19] Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1980), 130.

[20] Subsequent to this essay’s completion, Hanson was pulled from the Fiction section of No Object Is an Island. This passage remains, however, because the Cranbrook Museum’s Bodybuilder is one of this critically overlooked artist’s strongest works, and because it exemplifies one key aspect of fiction.

[21] Indeed, Fried writes of sound facilitating the imaginative space opened by absorption. See Courbet’s Realism (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1990), 109–110.

[22] As well, it distinguishes fiction from what Carrie Lambert-Beatty recently described as “parafiction” in “Make-Believe: Parafiction and Plausibility” in October 129 (Summer 2009).