“There are many ways to grow from the middle…” Removed from its context, this phrase reads like a new ageism or self-help aphorism. I can imagine hearing it used as a common adage: spoken with encouragement as something viable; or used to thinly cover a lack of something more meaningful to say, so thinly that it signifies this lack. Its sentiment fades into filler, carrying the weight of “ums” and “ahs”. Used in this way, it still reflects an understanding of the process of language, but the phrase is not taken literally, instead it is read formally as a whole. It is spoken outside its syntactical logic, knowingly offered and accepted as this absence, as artifice and as performance. Deleted Scenes by Hadley + Maxwell is a series of such gambits played out formally over five works. Each piece contains something of nothing, whether it is a direct representation or the emptying of meaning. Some work does so humorously while others carry a sober resonance, but all fail at being nothing or, at the least, point to failed attempts to form nothingness.
Before entering the gallery is Promise, a twenty two foot pole, waving a white flag at half-staff. With this piece Hadley + Maxwell collide two global signs: the white flag of surrender and the symbol of mourning. In conflating these signs, they conceive a superficial moment, where it is impossible to surrender or it is possible to mourn the loss of surrender. The solidity of a visual sign is turned toward uncertainty, drawing a moment where the terms of surrender can still be negotiated. If you can’t surrender then you have to work it out. Or is it more ambiguous than that? Maybe Promise is more about mourning, a surrender to mourning? The flag is proportioned to the dimensions of a blank video screen, creating a site where any number of meanings can be projected. Before you can surrender, before you can mourn, you have to identify what you have lost.
At first glance, Withdraw looks like an empty pedestal. A spot light softly illuminates the empty surface, implying that something is missing. An abstract sound emanating from behind the white structure suggests that something is still happening. As you walk around it a projector comes into view. Projected onto only one side of the structure is a video, documenting the artists drawing and erasing a line onto the vertical sides of the cube. The projection frames the cube precisely, so that only the artists’ arms are visible on the screen, reaching over the side as Maxwell draws a faint pencil line which Hadley then erases. Although they trace all four sides of the object, leaving evident marks, the video is static, documenting the entire process from only one angle. A toe or foot might sporadically pop into the frame, but the sound is the main marker of their progress around the pedestal. The pedestal becomes a stage and the iconic symbol of display becomes a sculptural object.
In a continued play with artifice and performance, Hadley + Maxwell draw a historical revisionist’s line through Minimalism, a practice defined and performed by a small few but with dominating influence on the discourse and aesthetic of contemporary art. Its extreme evaluation of all signs of fracture or reference made it a surface for grand narratives that simultaneously built and disrupted an institutional history. Hadley + Maxwell take up the generic formal ground of Minimalism with the same emphasis on form and consideration of the viewer’s position and experience, but with a gestural inflection. Each side of the plinth in Withdraw has a different applied surface, revealing the varied traces of the artists’ hand, brush or sander. They personalize it or infect it with their subjective intervention, revealing the marks of its makers with a line that asserts its presence through its absence, with smudges from their bodies as they worked their way around the object.
This formal play with the Minimalist cube is further reflected in Conspiracy, a work based on Two Columns by Robert Morris. In Hadley + Maxwell’s version of the 1961 sculpture, the two columns are installed in a manner similar to the original (one lying horizontally on the floor at an angle, the other standing upright), but are dressed up. Covering the base of the upright form is a hand knitted balaclava. The oversized headdress not only anthropomorphizes the form, but implies that Morris’ column was upside-down. Fit sideways into the profile of the horizontal column is a small monitor playing footage of Johnny Rotten’s closing words at the Sex Pistol’s last concert in San Francisco in 1978. Before turning his back to the crowd Rotten says, “Ever get the feeling that you’ve been cheated?” His parting remarks leave an empty feeling, creating a greater absence than his own as he walks off stage. His words imply that he wasn’t even there in the first place, or what the audience was seeing was not him. It was a performance; punk was a performance; even to see the definers of the genre is only to see a ruse. The energy and significance of the movement lost as it is relegated to representation over and over again in a four minute loop is the weight of his words emptying him of presence.
Language to be Looked At is a staged scenario played out sequentially over three monitors. In the first sequence, with feigned indifference and varied intensity, Hadley tosses a series of objects while she dances to the Blood Brothers’ punk remake of “Under Pressure”. One at a time a brick, a red rose, a black cat, a burning Molotov cocktail, the letter “A” and so on flies out of the video frame, reappearing on the next monitor precisely hitting the back of Maxwell’s head. After each hit Maxwell, who is wearing a blindfold, apathetically but correctly names each of the objects thrown at him. But they aren’t the same objects. As the objects pass from one monitor to the other they physically transform: a live cat turns into a stuffed animal, a red rose turns white, a Molotov cocktail becomes the book, Marx for Beginners, the letter “X” is now an “A” and so on. The transformed objects bounce off Maxwell’s head, dropping off the screen to land at his feet, which appear on the third monitor. The synchronous scenario is formally played up in the placement of the monitors and the size of the images, which roughly correspond in scale to the artists’ bodies: the head shots sit on adjacent plinths at each of the artist’s respective heights with the third video sitting on the floor below.
In this work a lexical artifice plays out with metaphorical significance across scenes in a conspiracy where Maxwell is right all of the time. This is a studio experiment that formally puts Robert Smithson’s playful and somewhat incoherent text piece Press Release / Language to be Looked at and/or Things to be Read to the test. (i) Here language as a system is under observation and is also the control in a humorous interchange of aesthetic variables. Its syllogistics are read like visual signs as “things” to be “looked at,” felt and physically manipulated, as if meaning is as dependent on etymology or the order of words as it is on a bonk on the head. You’d clearly understand words differently if you were hit upside-the-head with them.
I have only touched the surface. Like Pact, Hadley + Maxwell’s piece for the gallery windows in which a white balloon hovers in midair, my understanding pauses mid-sentence. But it is a good place to begin and end, as it reflects Hadley + Maxwell’s process of making. Each work for Deleted Scenes begins with a sign that remains intact: the flag is still a flag, the rose whether red or white is still a rose, the plinth is still an object used to present work. They put these signs off-balance, inscribing new meanings by starting in the middle. Using Gilles Deleuze’s words, “there are many ways to grow from the middle, or stutter.” (ii) Somewhere in the middle, they renegotiate how and where meaning is derived, mediating surfaces and process.
(ii) Gilles Deleuze, Essays Critical and Clinical, University of Minnesota Press, 1993, p. 111