Things that look like other things 

Things that Look Like Other Things
an essay for Amir Nikravan’s exhibition Passing at Natalie Karg Gallery, fall 2020 ︎︎︎

A threshold is a strip of wood or metal at the bottom of a door that marks the passage between two rooms. It’s also the point at which something changes, or comes into effect, or one thing becomes its opposite. From a distance, Amir Nikravan’s objects resemble the large, metal sculptures of our public parks (like a Chamberlain or a Serra) but small, shrunk down to the language of interior design. As you walk around the object, look, and move closer, a threshold is crossed, and the streaked, oxidized metal surface collapses into its faux finish opposite: speckled paint on a thin wood veneer. Big becomes little, heavy becomes light, and real is fake. The objects are like toys or games, optical illusions that illicit a little pleasure and delight as something changes, magically, into its opposite. The faux finish surface enacts the threshold between authenticity and illusion.  

Amir and I grew up in the 1990s, at the peak of faux finish interior design – sponge-painted walls that were supposed to suggest leather or some kind of fancy metallic surface. Suburban living rooms and foyers were decorated in stippled tones with stenciled borders around the edges. The faux finish is a sign of the middle class striving of my childhood, 90s DIY luxury. Faux finish is always a little unserious, even when seen in the art gallery, removed from the visual language of middle-class domesticity. Amir calls these sculptures “low tech approximations of objects that would cost tens of thousands of dollars to fabricate.” Faux finish is a cheap solution to a social problem. It’s trying to pass when you don’t have the resources, or the right look. You don’t belong.

Writing on Vaginal Davis’s drag performances of the 80s and 90s, Jose Esteban Munoz writes, “Passing is often not about bold-faced opposition to a dominant paradigm or a wholesale selling out to that form… The subject who passes can be simultaneously identifying with and rejecting a dominant form.” To try to pass is to protest against an exclusionary system while at the same time acting on a desire for that which has excluded you. Passing is contradictory and uneasy. It isn’t a pure politics of us against them, or victim and oppressor. It acknowledges that the “bad thing” – the desire for power and privilege – the thing that hurts – is not only out there, but also in here, inside me, in my desire to be recognized, to achieve success, to be loved. I remake myself to try to look like the thing that I want, to try to get a little piece of a system that has rejected me. 

Amir’s sculptures look like patinaed bronze and brushed steel, but the illusion is tenuous. As your body moves closer to these objects their depth and organic texture is revealed to be surface treatment. If you look even closer, the hand of the artist is visible, in the too-careful application of painted speckles. Faux finish is an ancient technique. In Roman interior design, a fake marble surface would be reproduced on top of a real wall. But these fake walls (“faux marbre”) were not meant to mimetically reproduce actual marble; their colors (green, red and purple) were too showy and artificial. This duplication of wall on top of wall was meant to produce three distinct categories: 1. actual wall, 2. fake or represented wall, 3. the idea of “wall.” Replication moves us from the actual to the conceptual. Once the “real thing” becomes one in a line of potential duplicates, we can grasp it as a concept – it becomes discursive. It’s not that Amir’s sculptures simply mimic the big metal sculptures of the 20th century, but, by reproducing them in faux finish miniature, they invite us to think about the idea of “big metal sculpture,” who has access to that kind of production, and who has can only strive for that thing, while never quite achieving the thing itself.

These objects produce desire, in part because they look like nice things. In mimicking heroic 20th century sculpture, they stir in us our desire for those objects, the sexiness of masculine power and authority. When that illusion is taken away – when the “nice thing” collapses back into its acrylic, painted simulation, we feel tricked. Not just tricked in an illusionistic way, but tricked into admitting our own desire for big, nice things, and the way that desire implicates us in power. Passing isn’t a politics of queer visibility. It doesn’t announce defiance or celebrate difference. It’s a grey space in which rejection and attraction merge.

Roger Caillois’s 1936 surrealist essay, “Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia,” is about mimetic insects: bugs that resemble sticks, tree bark and leaves. According to Caillois, mimesis isn’t a survival strategy. He tells us that, if anything, more mimetic insects are found in the bellies of predators than regular bugs, since most predators hunt by smell. And there are other dangers. Caillois describes a scene in which a community of stick bugs, mistaking each other for food, devolves into a “cannibalistic orgy.” Mimicry is not a defense, but “a luxury, a dangerous luxury” in which the overwhelming impulse to “look like” puts the subject at risk of death.

Alongside the instinct to survive, to flourish and reproduce, is an impulse to withdraw, recede, become less of yourself and more like everything else. Subject and environment, or figure and ground merge. Amir’s sculptures do this as well. Here, the “ground” is the masculinist history of 20th century sculpture and the “figure” is the queer, POC artist, maxing out their credit cards to produce the illusion of legitimacy in the form of small-scale reproductions, which pass, but not completely. We are used to a politics of visibility (loud and proud, etc.) but passing is a politics of camouflage. It’s dangerous: if you don’t pass well enough you might suffer rejection or humiliation but pass too completely and you might be lost forever, unrecognizable even to yourself, cannibalized by the dominant culture.

We are living in a moment in which global capitalism has seamlessly coopted the language of identity politics into the fabric of consumer culture. We can now purchase myriad t-shirts which celebrate feminism, and which are produced in a factory in Bangladesh or Cambodia and sewn by a woman who makes $0.33 per hour. All of our feelings of uniqueness, our desire to be seen and celebrated and heard, are collated algorithmically and sold back to us in the form of micro targeted ads and who knows what else. Passing is not a politics of expression or visibility; it is about camouflage and not being seen. It’s for strivers and scammers. It’s about trying to inhabit something from the inside by miming the language of authority. And when passing invariably fails, that failure reveals something about the thing itself, and the exclusions that were there all along.

When I got out of graduate school, I (eventually) realized that I couldn’t afford to make my videos if I had to shoot everything myself, and that my practice would only survive if I stole my images from the many terrible Hollywood films that were already on the Internet. Once I started working with completely appropriated images, I realized that some of the legitimacy of the original film would magically transfer over to me. More than once, I’ve had a colleague or curator tell me that my work has “great production values” while looking at footage from a pirated cell phone video of Interstellar.

All art is a scam, because capitalism is a scam and all art is within capitalism. Amir’s sculptures both reveal and enact that scam, luring us in, and then, at the threshold, letting the mask slip.

©maura brewer