Aaron Carpenter's work opposes idea of originality

Aaron Carpenter: The Art of Richard Tuttle

At the Helen Pitt Gallery until May 3

Criticism and disparagement surrounded Richard Tuttle’s 1975 survey exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. So great was the backlash that the show’s curator, Marcia Tucker, lost her job. Particular hostility was directed toward a short piece of cotton rope, about three inches long, which the artist had nailed to the wall of the gallery. It will surprise no one that Tuttle, who is identified as a postminimalist, has gone on to win wide acclaim. His modest, unexpected, and endearingly handmade work is now collected by many individuals and institutions—including the Whitney.

But what does Tuttle, who was born in Rahway, New Jersey, in 1941 and resides in New York and New Mexico, have to do with Aaron Carpenter, who was born in Brandon, Manitoba, in 1976 and lives in Vancouver? Carpenter’s thought-provoking project at the Helen Pitt Gallery seeks to replicate, duplicate, or imitate—you choose—Tuttle’s work. It’s a way, the younger artist told the Straight in a recent interview, to pay tribute to someone whose art he admires while coming to fully and deeply understand the whys and wherefores of Tuttle’s “quizzical” practice.

Since April 11, Carpenter has been working in the gallery during its public hours. His unlikely aim has been to make a copy (not always to scale and often not identical) of each of the 317 works reproduced in a 2005 catalogue of Tuttle’s art. Whatever their final number, the drawings, paintings, and low-relief sculptures that result will be mounted at the Pitt from Friday (April 25) to the end of the show on May 3. Tools, paints, wood scraps, sawdust, and other evidence of the first two weeks of his process-based performance will be cleared away.

Although Carpenter is uncomfortable with the term performance, it is a significant component of the work he is making in front of (or despite) gallery visitors. It’s also an aspect of his interaction with the public. Again, as he explains what he’s doing and why, his understanding of Tuttle’s work is expanded. So is ours. It’s an intriguing undertaking.

What also emerges here is Carpenter’s thinking, especially his dedicated opposition to the idea of originality. Although it certainly challenges our fixed notions of authorship and authenticity, Carpenter’s take on Tuttle is not about Sherry Levine–style appropriation. Nor is it a critical deconstruction of “high culture”. Instead, it asserts that no art can be completely original and without precedent. All artists, Carpenter suggests, build upon the work of their peers and predecessors.

Carpenter’s position is both engaging and provocative. Certainly, it flies in the face of received ideas about the breakthrough nature of genius and artistic creation. But perhaps it complements our understanding of the workings of the human brain. Our minds are drawn to metaphors: we seek out patterns and likenesses, it seems, as a way of making sense of our vast world and chaotic existence. The evidence of art history, and of Richard Tuttle’s career, is that it takes a while for us to process the new. We’re slow to understand and appreciate something that gives the appearance of originality—whether it is original or not.