Contemporary minimalist-conceptualist creation Coleslaw Baklava draws most deeply on Bedford's daily interactions with artwork composed of such materials as chocolate, soap and pollen, not to mention genres like conceptual, performance and earth art. One might argue that such audacious artistic works as glass boxes or piles of rocks might make such artists as Joseph Kosuth or Richard Long easy prey for satire. I will let Bedford do so himself.
from Ready-Made to Reddi-Whip
It's been barely two decades since Coleslaw Baklava (seen at right, center) burst upon the art world, and to date there has not been a full evaluation of his work in either print or exhibition form. What began as a lighting bolt from a prodigy of obvious and enormous talent has since barely cooled into a powerful body of work for this mid-career Conceptualist who remains a touchstone of serious contemporary art and thought. An apparent by-product of this inexplicable lack of celebrity is the degree to which many devotees of "cutting edge" art remain oblivious to the Baklavian vision. As an introduction, let us revisit one of his best known mature works, the video entitled Hash. In this work, the artist explores issues of ambiguity, using as his metaphor the symmetrical form of a can, differing in its top and bottom only in the orientation of the label. The label urges an ironic dialogue with itself and the ontology that it exists only as a meaningless informational entity (referencing the "Information Age") while confounding the so-called "solution" to the puzzle of removing the hash from the can. That solution is, of course, a "trick", the removal of both the top and bottom of the can, which thus propels the hash forward through the exit/entrance. This simple task, performed untold millions of times without benefit of insight or theory, is here wonderfully understood for the first time for what it is, a process of denial, insistence, propulsion, and finally relief.
What was the genesis of such a complex work as Hash? For Baklava, inspiration began early. In Lines (right), the artist eschewed the obvious solution of copying script lettering, as drawn on the chalk board by his teacher, and left the provided page entirely blank. Turning the page from the horizontal to the vertical, Baklava reinvented the "assignment", invigorating the lines with a new independence of purpose. Thus far, the artist's actions had been fairly standard minimalist/conceptualist elementary school theory, but the wetting of the ends of the lines at one end (apparently accomplished with spittle), and their ensuing "bleeding" into the paper added another entirely different level of meaning. By depriving the "blank" page of its blankness and thereby transforming it into "art", revealing the materiality of the ink from which the lines were printed and finally exposing of the artifice of the unnecessary cursive exercise, Baklava presented rich insights into a process which were inevitably lost on the teacher who besmirched the original work with a red-penciled "question mark" and "see me after class". This desecration necessitated the pictured facsimile at right of the destroyed original. At roughly the same time (although in a different classroom) Baklava took his first steps in the direction of Performance Art. In an untitled work (right), the artist is seen encased in a box that has been decorated into a playful mythological entity. While other children gambol about, Baklava stands still, apparently uniquely aware of the rich meanings embedded in the performance. Indeed, it is this understanding of the importance of each miniscule aspect of awareness (and the need to communicate that understanding) that makes this artist so profound.
Fade (right) might be thought of as a companion piece to Lines. Again, Baklava's insight is fueled by his disgust with the banality of a common school exercise, in this case an assigned drawing of a vacation trip. A fairly typical example of such a drawing is shown right, executed by his friend Billy Seabold, who had a reputation for having some slight artistic talent. Sadly for B.S., he was then unaware that by this time artists had already been liberated from the shackles of conventional artistic
talent, an awareness of which Baklava was in full possession. Fade is simply that, an acknowledgement that the green dye in the provided construction paper had faded. Because the paper had been stacked, the edges were more faded than the interior. Indeed, the gradation is so systematic that the fading can be read as the passage of time, a metaphor for seasonal change or earthly existence. Yet the light-induced alteration is even more complex, both physically and metaphorically. Because it is acidic lignin-containing paper, it has paradoxically darkened rather than lightened, appearing less like the original paper without green dye than like something entirely different. This function of its transformative inner mechanisms perpetuates an insidious cancer-like attack. This outside/inside upside/downside dualities fascinated Baklava but infuriated Billy Seabold, who pushed chocolate pudding with Reddi-Whip into the Conceptualist's face during one of Baklava's lunchtime dissertations. Eventually, Billy did receive some satisfaction when C.B. auditioned for the Glee Club, pronouncing (to no avail) that singers were henceforth liberated from shackles of conventional musical talent. His analogous exhortations to the Shop Class, Soccer Team, and Debating Society were also received with skepticism.
High School was not an easy time for Coleslaw Baklava. Virtually none of the organizations he endeavored to interface with responded positively to his desire to recast them in theoretical terms. The exception was the Chess Club, swayed by the reputations of Marcel Duchamp and Bobby Fisher (and their own inability to understand the rules anyway). Baklava brooded deeply during this time (and he was not alone in that, of course), unable to regain the confidence of his earlier work, confused by issues of power and sexual attraction and repulsed by the literalness of his own physicality. His only object-based work during this time was Year Book, a vast exploration of stereotypes as revealed by the gargoyle-like grinning airbrushed images of idiotic classmates augmented by the artist's own thoughtful musings on the sitter. The grid-based informational form and naked social comment later served a model for similar works by the artist and others as well. His only other artistic endeavor during this time was an ongoing performance piece entitled Masturbation. Photography-based and self referential, the work displayed great energy of purpose but left no physical traces other than several source materials, creased, folded, and torn beyond recognition.
BAKLAVA and DUCHAMP
Marcel Duchamp served as considerably more than a role model in Chess Club. Indeed, one could hardly overemphasize his importance to Baklava and other artists of his generation who were, after all, trying to make art after having rejected the act of making art. Baklava's own insight into the redemptive value of Duchamp took place while he was trying to make extra money shoveling snow in order to buy art supplies. To his astonishment, he realized that his shovel was virtually identical to the Duchamp "readymade", and conceptually at least, was identical. After hanging the shovel on his wall, Baklava began a binge of Duchamp object-making, including Bicycle Wheel with Playing Cards, with its homage to the boyhood practice of adding motorcycle-like sound to one's bike, and PEZ Dispenser. Baklava did not actually construct either, of course. He asked his friend Billy Seabold to do that.
Coleslaw Baklava has influenced other artists and in turn been influenced by them. His own list of indebtedness is actually quite short, including Giotto, Cezanne and Warhol. When pressed, he will admit that early TV shows like "Critic Knows Best", the Boy Scout Earth-Art Collective, installations like Laundry With Junk in the Alley, "Home Economics" handouts with perfectly measured piles of things, cinnamon rolls and body parts of every description have all contributed to his development.
Even the most casual observer of the work of Coleslaw Baklava cannot help but be struck by the importance of food to this young artist. This is hardly surprising given his name, a name fraught with implications of traditional food stuffs and ethnicity. Indeed, one of his most influential works (and yet one few other artists could hope to replicate) consists of two rows of perfect white-capped jars containing the ingredients of coleslaw and baklava. Entitled, Untitled: Myself, the work is one of the most serious and courageous investigations of Self in art, as piercing as any self-portrait by Rembrandt or Van Gogh, yet as impersonal and detached as a work by Donald Judd or Sol Le Witt - a remarkable accomplishment indeed! Of course, the piece requires constant attention, hovering between concept and object not unlike the fat containing pieces by Joseph Beuys, the piles of rice exhibited by Wolfgang Laib or the chocolate self portrait busts cast and licked by Janine Antoni. Yet unlike some artists working in food, Baklava held a laissez-faire attitude towards his work, even appropriating the odd cinnamon stick for a mug of steaming apple cider.
Another food-referenced piece was directly inspired by Marcel Duchamp. A collage by the master, brought to Baklava's attention by Billy Seabold, is evocative of a mid-morning snack. This nostalgic piece led to Baklavas own companion piece Milk. As the young artist said, "Nothing goes better with Newtons than milk, and nothing goes better with Dada than Baklava."
BAKLAVA and DECORATION
Coleslaw Baklava has been consistently cognizant of the challenge of decorating with Minimal Art. This is, after all, an art form that is visually uncompromising and developed in no small part because of the sudden availability of large white walled museum spaces. Nonetheless, it has not been acceptable to Baklava, nor many of his fellow artists, to limit this compelling art form to such venues. Museums are, after all, inherently elitist institutions, and the power of this art can only be fully realized when integrated with everyday life and confronted by ordinary people. For this reason, Baklava has been at the forefront of the Cutting-Edge Home Decoration Movement which began as an attempt to convince people that advanced art was not incompatible with their own modest taste, and that jarring juxtapositions can prove invigorating as well as provocative. The first wave of works intended for home consumption has been limited to reproductions of classic Minimal pieces (pictured here). These offerings are available in a range of sizes and materials for any budget, and will eventually be expanded to include the most recent of contemporary art fashions. As Baklava has written, "Found objects are everywhere. Don't be afraid to strew them around the house. Turn the outside into the inside... be creative... have fun!".
Baklava has often been questioned about the importance of the number four in his work. This is how he answered: My therapist says that the fascination with four is a manifestation of so-called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and has even called my early need to line up my shoes and tap my plate four times before taking a bite as my first "work of art". How this can be called a "disorder" is beyond me, since it is by definition "ordered" and merely a way of gaining permission to do the next thing, like walking in circles before you leave a room or reading a book backwards as well as forwards. As an oldest child, I do feel a certain obligation to be perfect. As an artist I would not be comfortable making the messes that some artists do without properly cleaning up four times. You know, artists used to be middle children or worse, and that's why they were such slobs, and art dealers were like their parents or something, but now, thank heavens, artists are just as neat and tidy as dealers and collectors and so they get along really well, and wear the same clothes and talk the same. So anyway, the number four, or odd/even numbers in general or lining things up... you know it's a way of making the art assume the space so it doesn't look dinky. I went to the Louvre Art Museum in France and the Mona Lisa turns out to be really little, not museum scale at all! What kind of installation is that? Nothing matched... really tacky. If the artist had studied Warhol, he would have known to make more than one and line them up. And as far as I'm concerned, either four, or eight, or sixteen, or thirty-two would be the best number to fill the wall. OK?
We have seen in early performance pieces by Baklava a template for the richness of his mature work. Where People Should Sit examines social behavior and the dialectic of status as expressed through the ritual of formal dining. Baklava was transfixed by the delineation of roles. Here he ponders the delicious ambiguities inherent in the unresolved “man or boy/woman or girl" designations. Either could refer to different people at one point in time, or conversely could refer to the same person at a different stage in life. The uncertainty of "guest" is also provocative. Who is this guest, are they invited or not, are they welcomed or feared? Baklava's strategy appears to mix the known and the unknown, the earthly and the supernatural. Death is clearly the content here, a sub-text of a seemingly straightforward ceremony of a family dinner. Still waters run deep in the mindscape of Coleslaw Baklava.
While teaching at the University of Iowa, Baklava received a grant from The American Dairy Council, resulting in the collaborative performance titled Farmers. The piece took the form of a large amorphous ring that changed shape throughout the day, as participants required food, water, and restrooms. Baklava photographed the eventual auto-destruction of the work as grumbling grew more strident. The final image of an empty field wonderfully mirrors the first image - a ring within a ring. Trampled grass remains as the only sign of man's presence.
There are explanations (other than psychological) for the blissful symmetry of a Baklava installation. They derive from Zen Buddhism. Taking inspiration from the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, Baklava, like other Minimalist/Conceptualist artists, chose to shave his head, wear austere clothing, and stare at blank walls for hours. He became mesmerized by the perfection of a single brushstroke of black ink on the most pure of handmade mulberry paper, indeed by the ink itself poured into a perfect puddle on the floor, or the brush, or a single hair on the brush, or the sensation of the single hair in his nasal passage. He began to see the Western tradition of thick layers of oozing oil paint as grotesque, the Western concept of beauty as scientific and literal. He sought "oneness" in his art, his materials, his clothing, his frequent flyer miles and per diem, his life.
DON'T BOGART THAT THOUGHT
A third possible influence on the Baklavian aesthetic, and one not unrelated to the second, involved the use of mind-altering substances. There was indeed a brief flirtation with such "youthful indiscretions" and one episode in particular proved apocryphal. While using a restroom after ingesting a mind-altering substance, the artist happened to focus on a particular dry wall screw (its cross so rich with symbolism!) embedded in the unfinished interior of the facilities. He could not help but be struck by its profound beauty, the subtle depression of the head, the quivering line formed by the join of panels, the thin whisper of dry wall "mud" as it gradated from pure white to an almost imperceptible mist. This experience (and there were others) took place during his years of Higher Education, and nurtured in Baklava the predilection to over analyze -- almost everything. To Baklava, nothing could be taken for granted, and it was necessary, conversationally at least, for even the wheel to be reinvented.
In recent years, Baklava has shocked many in the art world by returning to painting. The artist never engaged in the physical act of painting himself, of course. He limited his involvement to the direction of anonymous "Sunday painters" who quaintly retained such anachronistic skills. Foremost among these had been his old friend Billy Seabold, an accomplice for many years. It may, in fact, have been Seabold's suicide attempt following his much-ignored show at a closed YMCA that motivated Baklava to direct painting again. The resulting works are breathtaking and (if I may use the word), beautiful. Floor Stain (right) seems a flashback to the artist's encounter with the dry wall seam and screw in his youth. The gossamer-thin layers of wax, oils, and dirt work together to create transparent layers of subtle color over the barely visible grid of the linoleum floor tiles in his recreational room. Evocative of floor-based Minimalism, Color Field Painting, and the grittiness of Arte Povera, the work remains in-situ, an inspiration to Baklava's strong involvement with home decoration. Two outdoor pieces are equally compelling. Thinly painted on rough industrial surfaces, the works reference the ordinary signage of street life. But there is more. Where Have I Come From : Where Am I Going (right) is clearly autobiographical, delving into the most personal questions and doubts about the artistic quest that this masterful artist began so many years earlier. Reserved (right) is a revelation. Superficially, the piece references issues of status and authority, a reoccurring Baklavian theme. But perhaps the artist also hints at his own end, the space "reserved" for him. The work may be a kind of "summing up", a look backward, an acknowledgement that we each have our assigned space, and that we are each just a number in the end.
Similarly, Baklava found inspiration from investigating the traditional materials of sculpture, especially stone. Like other artists, he had been energized by the controversy over Tilted Arc by Richard Serra years earlier, a sad affair in which synthetic fiber wearing government drones had prevailed over a great work of art. Taking up the torch, Baklava designed a series of powerful sculptures intended to get in people's way, forcing them to confront their own pathetic powerlessness. Go Around, a circle of jagged stones projecting upwards from a country path in Ireland was the first of this series. The most recent was Pile of Stones with Porto-Potty. The piece, essentially a ready-made, was appropriated for his Venice Biennale installation from the demolition site of a high school. The Porto-Potty was subsequently cast in bronze and patinated by Billy Seabold. The replicant was intended to look exactly like the original but at several hundred times the cost. The pile of stones, cement, and twisted iron rods were not altered, although the packing took months to accomplish. Each element was photographed and marked to make replication of the pile exact; any slight failure would occasion a colossal fit by the artist. Baklava knew that extreme narcissism was assumed to be a sign of creativity, and that making outrageous demands was necessary to be taken seriously as an artist. As Baklava said, "To be thought a philistine is the greatest fear these guys have... no one wants to be responsible for another Van Gogh losing his ear."
No one would be more insistent of symmetry than Coleslaw Baklava, so the heading of this last section must be titled as above. But, of course, this is most assuredly not the end for this artist, whose first decades of work can only serve as a mirror to reflect even greater brilliance onto the work yet to come. Baklava has spoken of exciting new projects that fuel his imagination, and the object pictured at right makes reference to one of them. How Have I Loved Thee is certainly a provocative work of art. Originally a floatation device without its covering, the piece is made of black rubber. It loosely holds the form of a grid, yet tantalizes with unmistakable phallic imagery, especially when fully inflated (and flaccidity when deflated). It is just one work in the constantly changing collections of The Institute of Theoretical Art, which Baklava has recently founded by surreptitiously appropriating an entire thrift store on University Boulevard in Langley Park, Maryland. To Baklava, this concept seemed an obvious solution to the counter-intuitive phenomena of carting found objects off to art museums. The collection of the ITA, which remains in situ, will not be sullied by the commodification inherent in institutional art acquisition processes, nor are there the other distractions of that elitist environment, such as guards, "Do Not Touch" signs, and distracting labels. The emphasis shifts emphatically from the now anonymous "author" to the "viewer", obviating the authoritarian role of former and putting the onus of creativity on the latter where it rightly belongs. Installations are designed solely by chance in the purist Dada tradition, with none of the forced groupings required by traditional exhibition practices in a fruitless attempt to invigorate a static collection. De-acquisition policy is determined democratically by the public as they form their own collections from the constantly changing holdings of the Institute. All works of art are on view at all times avoiding problems with inadequate storage. The Institute and its gift shop is one and the same, and a nearby Dunkin' Donuts serves as the café. The thrift store employees are unaware that they are also the staff of the Institute, resulting in 100% savings on salaries and benefits. Scholarly research is conversational and available to anyone. And finally, the authenticity of the environment puts a damper on the tedious "contextual" debate. Those who would like to become Institute "Fellows" should note the Institute of Theoretical Art, also known as Value Village, is open Monday through Saturday from 9 to 7:30, and not by appointment. But, Baklava warns, "Come prepared to do your own looking and thinking".