‘Without (Jonathan Monk)’ was a stirring conversation around and about the artist Jonathan Monk, though neither he nor his work were present. Monk’s voice, however, could undeniably be detected through the works of the ten selected artists, who conspicuously cited or appropriated Monk’s own. Curator Adam Carr integrated these contemporary contributions with works he selected from Monk’s personal collection, by artists including Robert Barry, Sol LeWitt and Allen Ruppersberg. Monk’s practice creates a continuous loop of references to Conceptual and Minimalist works from the 1960s and ’70s by these artists and their ilk, whom he humorously cites, so as to call into question originality and authorship. The exhibition reproduced Monk’s gestures and strategies, resulting in a stream of echoes and overlapping conversations between Monk, his Conceptualist predecessors and his contemporaries.
As the works combined to represent the artist’s practice through their own, the autobiographical component that typically underlies Monk’s work was consequently displaced or redirected towards new narratives. Ryan Gander’s Enough to Start Over (2006), for example, begins with Monk’s To Tears (2006), a passport photograph of Monk at age 13 with teardrop earrings pinned to his eyes. Monk subsequently sold the art work to Gander, who removed the earrings from the photograph, sending the jewellery to his mother, who wears them in the passport photo that constitutes Gander’s work. Similarly, in Jonathan Monk (2012), Alek O. embroidered a solid black fabric once belonging to Monk onto a canvas, transforming Monk’s garment into a portrait of the artist. Alternately austere and poetic, O.’s work creates a new narrative that is both personal and conceptual.
Other works took inspiration directly from Monk’s own. What If, If So? (2005) is a photograph documenting Olivier Babin’s revision of Monk’s performative series ‘Waiting for Famous People’ (1995), for which Monk waited at the airport holding signs with names such as Marcel Duchamp, the Pope or Elvis Presley. In 2005, at Babin’s request, Monk found himself again at the airport, this time holding a sign with the name Olivier Babin. Ron Terada’s For Sale, Jonathan Monk, The Sun Never Really Sets (2007) literally reframes Monk’s The Sun Never Really Sets. The silkscreen print is Monk’s copy of a page from a Sotheby’s catalogue selling an Ed Ruscha print, which is here represented as a work of Terada’s. The print appears faded by the many lives or layers of the image, giving it a quality of both artefact and art work.
The repetition and remixing in the show was incessant, with the theme resonating across the gallery much like the distant sound of a ping-pong ball bouncing back and forth on a table. This came from Dan Rees’s Variable Piece vs. Jonathan Monk (2006), which immediately greeted you upon entrance to the gallery and lured you towards the back, where you found an audio recording of Monk playing table tennis with Simon Starling. The three-part piece also included a video projection of the game and a framed image of the ping-pong ball. Although the sound was seemingly monotonous, the ball’s to and fro recalled the levity behind much of the show.
Pieces from Monk’s personal collection,which includes many of Conceptual art’s canonized artists, were interspersed throughout,suggesting a fluidity across pieces and artistic movements. For instance, Carr coupled Ed Ruscha’s Ed Ruscha says goodbye to college joys (1967) and Sweets, Meats, Sheets (from the tropical fish series) (1975) with Terada’s piece and Yann Sérandour’s Book Deal (2005), another work recontextualizing Ruscha and Monk. Ruscha’s dryly humorous photographs retained a certain aura in the face of Terada and Sérandour’s attempts to resell an index of Ruscha’s work. With the latter appearing to annex the semantic characteristics that so heavily defined Conceptual art, the juxtaposition of these four works served to reinforce the deeply rooted Conceptual legacy that informs Monk and his contemporaries. As much as the works included were source material for the artists in the show, however, letting the historical narrative unfold, the exhibition’s concentration on Monk eclipsed other possible readings. Ultimately, his looming presence muted their impact and individuality.