BY Joe Scanlan in Reviews | 04 MAR 97
Featured in
Issue 33

Brian Tolle

BY Joe Scanlan in Reviews | 04 MAR 97

If American baby boomers define themselves by being able to remember where they were the day president Kennedy was shot, and if, years from now the current crop of youngsters will do the same in relation to Kurt's suicide, then those of us born between these two generations don't really have a similarly defining moment. No-one got shot in the 70s - at least no-one on a symbolic par with JFK, MLK or KC - and this might be one reason why so many artists who came of age in that decade are interested in constructing the parameters of their world. Lacking a signifying, cataclysmic death, artists too young to be boomers and too old to be slackers continue to seek some kind of closure to their identities. Despite this lack of definition, however, the 70s in many ways were nothing but a series of little deaths characterised by the denial and aimlessness that followed. Kent State, Watergate, Vietnam, The Sex Pistols, The Baader-Meinhof gang - each was a beautiful, horrible nail in the coffin of faith, one more reason to throw in the towel. Utopia had crashed, and an ex-college football player had been named substitute president. Why try?

For some, though, this pervasive apathy could be turned on its head by giving up on the perfection that the world so painfully sought, giving up on trying to improve or eradicate everything, and simply appreciating what was already present. Learning from Las Vegas, Dub Reggae and Cindy Sherman all proposed that we were not dead but free. Free to live our lives unhaunted by some unifying myth, free to emulate and warp whatever we liked.

Brian Tolle does just that, and his first one-person show was a curious mix of devotion and artifice. The elements of Tolle's Overmounted Interior (1996) - wooden ceiling beams, a brick hearth and several leaded windows with a manufactured view to the countryside - are painstakingly rendered, reviving as faithfully as possible a style that itself was revived from Tudor aesthetics brought to America by 17th-century craftsmen. Which might explain why, when installed in the gallery, the whiteness that separated each of Tolle's artefacts was as prominent as the elements themselves. Like the (re)construction of an historical site, or the working of memory in general, Tolle's installation allowed you either to appreciate the details that were present or to obsess on the gaps in-between. In either case, and unlike other art world romper rooms that beseech the viewer to complete the work, Tolle's obvious love for his subject matter is evidenced by the care with which he makes it, a mutual investment which truly encourages you to 'complete' whatever you like. Basically, Tolle's into it, and you can be too if you want.

However, Brian Tolle has a problem. He's interested in American History, particularly the way in which former periods 'live on' in somewhat bastardised (but nonetheless accepted) forms. His is what you might call a de facto timber aesthetic (oak to be exact), and wood can be a time-consuming devotion if you're interested in craftsmanship or accuracy. To actually make such period pieces out of wood threatens not only to bog down Tolle's ideas in a misplaced earnestness, but also to drive him crazy with facts little noticed and less cared about. In other words, like ideology in the 70s, truth (in the form of craftsmanship and accuracy) would become for Tolle a kind of death. Thus, his ceiling beams are grossly out of proportion, hand-carved out of Styrofoam and painted to look 'real', his leaded windows are made of real lead, glass and oak and fitted with a faux view of the outdoors. (In fact, it is an image of an ideal landscape styled by Wallace Nutting, a late 19th-century colonial revivalist.) In this sense, Tolle's work is slightly redundant, since warping either the material or period accuracy of his work would be enough to free him from didacticism. Throwing out both, or wilfully (arbitrarily) confusing certain details for the sake of emulating history's process, seems at best manipulative and, at worst, academic.

Nonetheless, what Tolle has realised is that you can catch more flies with honey than with a text panel, and that the whole real/unreal question is pretty boring. What's interesting is the art of persuasion and the role that craftsmanship plays in making something convincing, making it powerful enough to 'live on'. By playing with the historical veracity of his objects and yet doing so with more admiration than critique, Tolle not only frees himself from the burden of trying too hard but also liberates his viewers from having to accept such 'favours' and the forced reciprocity that usually accompanies them. Unlike much recent replicant sculpture fraught with mortifying detail, Tolle's work is affectionate and warm. History aside, maybe this is why there was a hearth at the very core of his installation. If Freud gave us the terms Heimlich and Unheimlich for defining those moments of eerie familiarity, then, to camber the German a little, Tolle's work might propose that we use Herzlich and Unherzlich for defining moments of unexpected generosity.