Seth Kaufman Solo Exhibition: University of La Verne

“He cannot stand the uniformity of this world. The world is known, however, to be
uncommonly various, which can be verified at any time by taking a handful of world and
looking at it closely. Thus this complaint at the uniformity of the world is really a
complaint at not having been mixed profoundly enough with diversity of the world.”

—Franz Kafka

“Canonical texts, persuasive practitioners, and training institutions conspire to create the
necessary aura of plausibility. Even if there are mavericks like Sherlock Holmes, they can
be mavericks only against a backdrop of orthodoxy.”

—Adam Phillips

“The nice thing about orthodoxy is that the orthodox folks usually perform all of the
organizational drudgery, so in conjunction, all I have to do is identify their bias and then
not be that.”

—Seth Kaufman

Seth Kaufman is a sculptor, painter, installation artist, photographer, and a few things inbetween; with a prodigious body of work that could easily seem unconnected—almost like the work of several artists. There’s no over-arching “look” or easily identified gestural language because all the action is specifically responsive to whatever raw materials are on hand. The work’s foundations are laid in Kaufman’s conceptual methodology of improvised transfiguration—and that is what remains consistent whether he’s confronting piles of paint chips or sunlight through a two-sided print. He is a kind of
alchemical enabler, teasing out the potential in the ordinary, and giving it form—but never the form one might expect.

Kaufman describes this process as redemption, although calling it the deliberate misuse of materials has a more rebellious, subversive ring to it. Redemption implies a paragon, a rescue, a purification, and begs the question: exactly who or what is being restored to honor and virtue, and from what low place? In the last 20 years, Kaufman has turned eggshells into hefty bricks; carved foam into ceramic totems; crushed porcelain statues into explosive abstractions; cultivated paint shards into floral blossoms; developed Polaroid film without a camera; executed epic murals in beige ceiling popcorn; teased vibrantly exotic formations out of wood-shop remnants; and taken unaltered photographs that prove Photoshop is in the eye of the beholder.

But why call it redemption instead of misuse? Does that mean art is better than practicality, or that it serves a higher purpose than that for which the stuff was intended? Or is it the act of seeing that’s being redeemed as a worthwhile activity, one that can still yield surprises even in this era of information overload? Being confronted with something you see every day and only gradually realizing what it has undergone and become, makes viewers consider how little they are “seeing” in what they “look at” all the time. If you encounter what appears to be a large thrown-clay sculpture with a
patinated enamel, is your experience undermined or deepened by discovering that it’s spray-painted Styrofoam? Who are you going to believe, your expectations or your lying eyes?

This magic works, at least in part, because Kaufman has a normative framework to push back against. It’s not that he’s reactive, it’s just that whatever already exists is ultimately not interesting to him, and he feels compelled to make of things that which they are not conventionally understood to be. His is an opportunistic curiosity, a free-associative brainstorm that circumvents logic, and is inspired by the outlandish secret dreams of the materials themselves. If he has wrought a bodacious chrysanthemum out of paint chips, engineering a thing of beauty that replicates the random patterns of nature—he has done it because an accidental paint chip reminded him of a flower petal, and he found that interesting.

The skill level required in balancing the interests of the material’s old and new qualities in a single object is immense, sometimes risky, and at the heart of the work’s success. To pull this trick off, unlike in theatrical stage magic, the audience must be in on it. His eggshells, bones, and foam form legible and fully realized new things unto themselves, and yet must remain recognizable as their previous selves. By allowing viewers to discover the disguise, Kaufman affords them access to emotions not usually activated in art galleries—surprise, delight, and curiosity. This is a good thing, because as everyone knows, you can’t tickle yourself.

—Shana Nys Dambrot
Los Angeles 2010