Sculptor John T. Upchurch shares how he has combined photography and a fascination with collected objects in the spirit of readymade into his practice, and how it has transformed from an interesting pastime into a developed visual language.
“I earnestly believe that in order for beauty to prosper in this world, and in order for us to gain a deeper appreciation of beauty, it is necessary for the utilitarian to also be beautiful”
–Soetsu Yanagi, What Is Folk Craft?, 1933
In the Spring of 2018, I began sharing a collection of objects via Instagram. Old tools of varied trades, mechanical parts, kitchen implements, plumbing fixtures, electrical components, bits of wire, raw materials, brushes of all sorts… really anything that catches my eye. To date, over 700 pieces have been photographed, touched up, and presented. A reasonable question might be “Why?”.
The answer has evolved over time.
I’ve been a collector of things gathered under the heading of “et cetera” for many years. One might say that, as a sculptor, I’m understandably interested in curious objects. Certainly, I respond to their forms, materials, associations, and “patina of use”. While many things I collect have an immediate, obvious utility, just as often I find myself clueless, but intrigued. As much as the physical impression of the objects, this delving into their curious backstories has proven interesting.
I don’t think this acquisitive impulse was directly–or consciously–connected to my work as an artist, but often what goes into the mind emerges later distilled or transformed. It’s worth noting that the collection was started during my long hiatus from the studio. Other endeavors eclipsed sculpture for many years, but I still looked at the world the same way. Perhaps, the collecting was a more passive means of continuing to develop a visual language for interpreting the world.
As a defined project, documenting and sharing the objects began as a bit of a lark–a way to legitimize my collections and amuse my family. Many of the things I acquire end up being used in the studio as tools, raw materials, or components. Some are arguably collectible in the right circles. Others I just find interesting visually or have an appreciation of their historical curiosity. A significant percentage would certainly be considered rubbish–perhaps even by me.
They do tend to pile up though, and–in the absence of a structure to reconsider them–that’s just what they do: sit on shelves, in a tool chest or a box–perhaps to be used and remembered individually, but not really conceived as part of a whole. This project provided a space for that reflection as well as a community to share with.
On Instagram, the collection is presented under the account name Champion Readymades. This is a perhaps-not-so-subtle play on the notion of the “Duchampian readymade”. Though I also like that it sounds a bit like some mid-century manufacturing company–perhaps with a logo by Paul Rand. If there were a slogan, it would be “Properly Noticing since 2018”.
I might assume that the readership of Esthetic Lens is familiar with Marcel Duchamp and the readymade. On the chance that you are not–and with the caveat that I may be far down on the list of folks who should provide one–here is a very brief primer:
Just over a hundred years ago, Duchamp introduced the concept of the readymade*: a common, manufactured object chosen by the artist and re-contextualized as a work of art. The most famous of these was “Fountain“, a urinal purchased from a shop, turned on its side, signed with a pseudonym, submitted to an exhibition… and rejected. This challenge to the traditional art establishment is widely considered to be one of the most significant works of the 20th century and is the seed from which much of contemporary art has grown.
Of course, the idea of the readymade in 2020 is very different from what it was a century ago. Perceptions of art and objects have shifted significantly and our collective eye has been tuned by numerous artists, artistic movements, trends in design, and shifts in culture. The connotative baggage in “Fountain”–low materials, mass production, and indecorous use–is now seen through a lens of not just Duchamp’s work, but works that followed–to say nothing of an appreciation for the design, infrastructure, and ingenuity that went into the urinal’s manufacture. It may be just me, but there’s something about enameled steel that has a definite charm…
Of course, the idea of the readymade in 2020 is very different from what it was a century ago. Perceptions of art and objects have shifted significantly…
Champion Readymades’ objects are presented simply against a white background. They are usually given a straightforward label/title: e.g. “Wheel”, “Punch”, “Net” or, occasionally, something like “Uncertain”. The sense of scale is left deliberately ambiguous and I try to keep any text on the piece obscured–at least initially. Over time, the photography has become a hair more refined, though the process is still fairly basic. The shots are set up and made fairly quickly with an iPhone. The lighting rig is modest. Any editing is done with Instagram’s built-in tools. Hashtags might provide a clue as to the nature of the object, but a bad pun is just as likely. The idea is to present each object slightly removed from its original context and allow for its appreciation as a sculptural object. I’m not always successful in that as sometimes the associations are just too pronounced or my enthusiasm for an object’s provenance too strong. By and large, though, I hope what has emerged is a documented collection of things of varied forms and materials each of which can be appreciated, at least briefly, on aesthetic terms.
This idea of seeing something with fresh eyes–without a veil of intellectual filtering laid over perception–pops up repeatedly over the last century or two. Soetzu Yanagi, quoted above, also wrote: “What is the proper way of seeing? In brief, it is to see things as they are. However, very few people possess this purity of sight. That is, such people are influenced by preconceptions. ‘Knowing’ is added to the process of ‘seeing’.”
This is similar to the core concept of Lawrence Weschler’s classic profile of Robert Irwin–summarized in its very title–Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. And that title, it seems, comes from a statement by the 19th-century French poet, Paul Valéry, who was writing about Degas. Yanagi attributed his observations on seeing to concepts in Zen Buddhism, though. Still, while he underscored the value of this kind of pure perception, he also spent a fair amount of time in his writings digging into the history, culture, and process surrounding the craft objects he was considering. I’d assume that one way or another, he believed that an appreciation of those ‘knowing’ aspects of an artifact would deepen the appreciation once simply ‘seeing’ could no longer be maintained. Or, perhaps, he felt that that knowledge might open a pathway to better seeing. I feel that way about the objects posted to Champion Readymades, anyway.
I’d assume that one way or another, he believed that an appreciation of those ‘knowing’ aspects of an artifact would deepen the appreciation once simply ‘seeing’ could no longer be maintained.
When I find something for the collection, there’s a brief instant of transition between initially perceiving it and understanding it. Packed into that small span of time there are little flashes of recognition as the shape and materials resolve into an object with certain associations of materials, form, utility, and history–both cultural and personal. Frequently, the resolution is only partial and the specific identity of the thing is obscured or guessed at. In any case, that quick “snap!” from seeing to some measure of understanding gives a little thrill. Once passed, it leads to all manner of other thoughts. How will I use it in the studio? How does it fit into the timeline of its trade or technology? What other objects/activities does it relate to? How have I changed since that last time I encountered something like this?
How will I use it in the studio? How does it fit into the timeline of its trade or technology? What other objects/activities does it relate to? How have I changed since that last time I encountered something like this?
Those questions are frequently answered once the objects are posted online. Over time, through the magic of the hashtag, a small community of like-minded folks has found their way to the account. Tool hounds, designers, artists, antiquers, enthusiasts of all stripes, and many nations. While I spend some of my time digging around in dusty basements finding gewgaws, online I’ve found answers to mysteries, inspiration, pen-pals–even gallery shows. Discovering that this odd collection resonates with so many and in so many ways has been gratifying if a little surprising. It has also led to many new rabbit holes to explore.
So, like much of what I do, the rationale for this little endeavor is revealed by the activity itself. I described some of my studio process to a friend as “thinking with your hands through objects” and I suppose this project is more like thinking about that thinking—with any surprises or revelations welcome. As of this writing, I have posted more than seven hundred fifty objects and have my eye on one thousand as a possible finish line, but who knows? There’s always another one out there.
*As with many things in history, there is some controversy and nuance surrounding this point. The tale of Baroness Greta von Freytag is, perhaps, the most intriguing and only lent credence by the all-too-many examples of women’s innovation being appropriated by male colleagues.