One Shape For All and For All One Shape

Alan McCollum, who turns 63 this year, has a long-standing interest in formal replication, and his work frequently addresses questions of materiality and value. (His installations lead one to rapidly conclude that the lofty promises of modernism aren't likely to be fulfilled anytime soon: here in McCollum's orbit, more = less.) He also possesses the entrepreneurial spirit that has come to characterize a number of contemporary artists who think pluralistically about making work. His shapes, for example, can be used for many different purposes, “not only for fine art and design projects,” notes his gallery’s press release, “but also for various social practices: as gifts, awards, identity markers, emblems, insignias, logos, toys, souvenirs, educational tools and so forth.”

The relationship between shapes and social practices is, at its core, an essential design conceit — from typographic identity to architectural megastructure, giving form to ideas is what designers do. But McCollum’s project goes beyond mere morphology, embracing a kind of ├╝ber-solution in its very claim. Endlessly permutable, teeming with indefinite potential, McCollum’s strategic genius lies in his appeal to a culture hungry for the quick fix. The Shapes Project promises maximum gain with minimum effort: better living through geometry.

It's not so much the shapes themselves as the idea of the shapes, the very notion of a system of forms that's so captivating. And so unnerving. If I were to identify the one prevailing topical interest that has most surfaced in the last year — among students, in juries, at conferences and exhibitions — it would have to be this obsession with series and systems. How to identify them; how and where to introduce them; the question of whether, once a series is identified, your work is done. It's the illusion of certainty that's so mesmerizing — the idea that not everything is in flux, unfixed and mashed-up and dislocated. Systems by their very nature introduce an armature as well as a roadmap for their own completion. You look at one iteration, then two — then ten — and you get it. Once demystified, you can concentrate on other things — form, perhaps, or beauty. A glorious insect. A Trollope poem. Your lunch.

Or not. Which begs the question: does a system invite psychological repose precisely because it is so clear and comprehensible — or does it lead us to search for precisely its opposite — a kind of exotic deviation from the norm, an abstraction or glimmer of novelty? McCollum stresses that he laboriously created each of these shapes, and resists the notion that this body of work emerged from a kind of robotic (read "vector generated") process. Is artistry compromised if software is involved? Is design?

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