Summer 2007

Colors / Olive

Kind of conceptual

Dziga Lovechild

“Colors” is a column in which a writer responds to a specific color assigned by the editors of Cabinet.

Tim Davis is an artist for our times. By that I mean he is mediocre, smug, and overreaching. And as is the way of such things, Davis has been granted a boldface stage for his cellophane noodlings as the American representative at the otherwise unfailing Coxsackie Biennial. Davis began his career as a photographer, roaming the realm like a Merry Man, “adding meaning but not material” (in his words) to the world, acting out that bottomlessly poetical global system of visual accounting that entails looking for and then looking at. But in recent years, along with hordes of fellow professionally-trained artists with advanced degrees, Davis has joined another fraternal organization, the K of C, or “Kind of Conceptual,” which is dedicated to insuring that collectors, critics, and curators understand what the artist intended to do as much as what he did.

Tim Davis, Olive and Gorky, 2007.

“The Olive Standard” is a set of dysfunctional artworks enabled by a press release, an object known hereafter (and ad infinitum, pretty please) as the PR. Biennials are big and require art big enough to fill them. This one is in an enormous Quonset hut, which has served as a blimp hangar, a women’s correctional facility, a pen for smuggled exotic pets, and a used clothing store, though Gehry & Assoc. have converted it into a giant jacket potato. Davis’s largest piece confronts the attendee immediately. A series of green panels fills a rotunda. Sometimes I wish I could write one-line journalism (my proudest would be this obituary: “Al Held’s broken loose!”), because “A series of green panels fills a rotunda” is all I really have to say about this piece. The panels are large, say three meters tall. They are in varying shades of olive. As you approach them, a concentration of woven detail instructs you they are photographs of fabric. The PR informs you they are photographs of army fatigues. I quote: 

The idea that the color of a soldier’s uniform might serve as a cloak of protection is strangely recent. British Redcoats wore that color because cochineal dyes (first brought from the New World by Cortés) were less expensive than the blue Oliver Cromwell ordered. The Russian army wore green in the eighteenth century, but just to distinguish it from Prussian blue, etc. Teddy Roosevelt ordered army uniforms changed to olive in 1902, in the midst of America’s second period of imperial expansion into the olive green jungles of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and The Philippines. Camouflage patterns emerged in World War I, but in this century, olive has served as the symbol of American imperial might. The simple idea of blending into the jungle, though, caused complex practical problems.

A 5 September 1938 Time magazine article tells us: 

Olive drab army material has long posed a procurement problem. Because OD must be woven from fibres of seven different colors, few mills are able to supply it and large batches often have to be rejected by inspectors as off-color.

The photographs in “The Olive Standard” seize on this hard-to-produce olive fabric as a symbol of how much American savvy has done to help us infiltrate and assimilate colonial cultures. Olive is the color of the very Modern idea that there is complexity at the heart of simple things. Picasso, after all, once said to Cocteau: 
“If they want to make an army invisible at a distance they have only to dress their men as harlequins.”

Davis’s photographs do show the true complexity of the rumoredly straightforward grid, courtesy of the predictably unpredictable photographic detail seen during close inspection. They vary in overall color, from snotty Picholine to ruddy Manzanilla, transcribing a week or so of On Kawara’s green grounds. And they are somewhat impressive, as your mother’s 1970 olive green bathroom makeover might impress a Lilliputian. In the end, these artworks don’t know if they are objects of contemplation or thesis bullet points, and, being so unsure, perhaps they are neither.

Passing the “OD” photos, you are led into another room, this one containing a shimmering pool. The room is unlit except for frosted glass windows, which while blocking out Coxsackie’s natural beauty (imagine a Frederic Church painting riddled with cement plants, convenience stores, and prisons), allow in its greasy range of daylight. The pool is filled with olive oil, which sits dark, inert, and extra-virgin during much of the day. Any uptick in solar activity devirginizes the oil in the pool, lightening it from an opaque Minimalist slab to a giddy ecology of glowing bubbles. The sculpture, dependent on light and architecture to be articulate, is fragile and beautiful as it glows. It reminds us that olive is a color we know not from nature but from agriculture, and that, as recipes were the first writing, farming was the first art. But the piece has none of the gravity of the great legacy of Minimalist-needling artworks it follows. Charlie Ray’s Ink Box, for example, a black steel cube filled with printer’s ink, gravely apes the seriousness of the artworks it is undermining. Davis’s pool of oil is spectacular and enervating, but is neither humorous nor amorous enough to avoid feeling like it belongs in a World’s Fair or a science museum. 

The PR argues for greater significance. We learn from it that the pool is Olympic-sized, and that its surrounding tiles—a dusty set of Santa Fe aquas and beiges—are actually close-up photographs of swimming champion Michael Phelps taken by the artist with a telescopic lens during the XXVIII Olympiad in Athens. “The Olympics,” writes Davis, “have gone off the olive standard. At the ancient games athletes competed, as individuals, for amphorae of olive oil. Now they represent nations in abstract glory, and the athletic agon is an embarrassing distraction from newer wars for oil.” 

Some day, the press releases of art exhibitions will be giggled over by stoned archaeology grad students as if they were myths about hippo-headed deities. The idea that Davis might connect this enormous crucifix-less Piss Christ with our various Gulf Wars is as outlandish as much of the Book of Mormon. I feel safe saying that referentiality is the new good. Part of our successful adaptation to the information overload we were once so worried about is the flattening out of the value of information. For artists, if it references something, from politics to popular culture (and ideally Art History), it has value. 

Note, in this light, Davis’s edition for sale in the gift shop. It is a silkscreen photograph of Arshile Gorky teaching camouflage painting. Gorky organized classes so artists could help out with civil defense after he was denied permission to work as a camoufleur. Davis’s image of an artist who actually volunteered to help his country is printed on olive drab fabric, and costs $150. 

Do sit through, if you will, Davis’s video of an immigrant Turkish boy reading, in German, the passages in Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Color that deal with olive. There is no more perfect work of contemporary art than Gary Hill’s Remarks on Color (1994), in which Hill’s young daughter reads the entire Wittgenstein text from beginning to end whether she understands it or not. It is elucidating and gorgeous, smart and vivid and real and touching. Davis’s video is not an homage, not a criticism, not an appropriation, not an embarrassing Hollywood remake, not even a moustache on the Mona Lisa. It is a smear of contemporary politics on a work of art that approaches pure philosophy, like perfunctory small talk in an art house lobby after a Tarkovsky film. It is just something done to fill out a space in a Biennial. Tim Davis just flew in from the art world, and boy, are his references tired.

Dziga Lovechild is the author of Thou Art Art, a collection of Shakespearean love sonnets addressed to contemporary artists. His reviews appear in Emollient, Selavy, and [link defunct—Eds.]. He is currently walking across Canada with his three cats, Weegee, Brassaï, and Nadar, to raise awareness for feline orthodontic issues; contributions are being accepted at

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