It’s an age-old question. Is there an art that gracefully takes up the space of being an object while criticizing the production and sale of objects? Cait Finley’s “CAPI 1.0,” a show of mostly goofy-yet-thoughtful sculptures, all of which may have risen, thriller-like, from a primordial goo, is in good company with a multitude of exhibitions that have materialized no satisfying answer to this question. Instead, “CAPI 1.0” balances itself, rather unstably, on a different sort of question—not so much an age-old philosophical one, but a flamboyant one—fun, treacherous, intellectual, and in vinyl—an awfully big title wall for such a little show. Here it is: “It is good to regard things such as capitalism as physical beings, not simply as fictions that would disappear if we just stopped believing in them. But what kind of physical being are they?” (Timothy Morton, Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People).
Discovering this line and emblazing it with track lights is, in itself, a kind of achievement, since it contains everything a late-capitalist citizen artist yearns for: the word capitalism, for starters, which comes bundled with a built-in critique; the transubstantiation of a non-thing (capitalism) into a “physical being,” with it’s pseudo-religious undertones and delicious potential for myth-making, a la the golem of yore; and of course, the irresistible question-cum-challenge: what kind of physical beings are they? Cait has cleverly (and ironically) positioned this entrance quote not as a theoretical exercise, or even a rhetorical question, but as a question with an actual answer which will, by no coincidence at all, take the form of an objet d’art. I admit, even I was tempted to buy a bag of plaster and a vial of glitter and try my hand at sculpting my own capitalist/monster/fantasy creature.
To borrow a line from Gordon Ramsey, a critic I admire, let’s get one thing right: the exhibition looks great. The space itself is warm, almost cozy, with white-washed brick and raw wood joists; patches of honey-colored planks emerge through the once-painted moss-green floorboards; and rust-colored paint follows the perimeter of the room and finds its way onto bits of metal strapping. The built-in credenza is all clean lines, and the shelves are neat little slabs of salvaged-looking wood sitting atop simple metal brackets. The lighting, too—not on tracks, but white enamel pendant lamps, and the occasional, well-placed clip light.
Set lightly, even gently, on these simple but elegant store fixtures, is the stuff of “CAPI 1.0”; hand-held-sized sculptures occupying the same amount of space as, say, a high-end purse, or a hand-made fruit bowl. Where we might expect to find these sorts of boutique-friendly items, rendered in calf skin, or hand-painted in oxides, instead, we find the vulgar materials of art. There is a naked plaster cast of a hand emerging out of a rock formation; an igloo-shaped hunk of plaster with flecks of pastel something-or-other; a peach-painted plaster rock formation with a painted blue arm thing set into the center; a pillow-shaped hunk of plaster bisected to reveal more orange, pink, and purple flecks, reminiscent of my favorite deli meat, mortadella. There’s also a fist-sized hunk of aqua-colored coral set inside a block of clear resin—an object which, like the others, could be mistaken for a notable paperweight, or perhaps, for the heavier ones, unique doorstops.
It’s critical that the sort of dumb physicality of plaster, the baseness of it as a material, its ubiquity as a material for art—acts as an opposite pole from the exotic, intellectualized, would-be anthropomorphic question “CAPI 1.0” takes as its jumping-off point (see paragraph one). While this question is an admittedly juicy proposition for producing art, I find myself rejecting it—such a heavy-handed quote, however playful, seems to entrench a tyranny of intellectualism, purpose, and meaning in artistic production that Cait’s work actually leaps over, with its unpretentious materials, pseudo-natural forms, and faith in the literal to support the metaphorical.
Instead, what I have come to like, to really like, about the shelf installation in “CAPI 1.0” is that the shelves are populated with the wrong kind of object; not something exquisite, or functional, or even interpretable (plaster hunk with paint flecks?), but a stand-in, a decoy, a deke. “CAPI 1.0” is not really about the chimeric nature of capitalism, as the vinyl title-wall reports—it’s also not about what zany monster or play-thing capitalism would be if it could be something at all (would it really be a hunk of resin with a piece of coral in it? A glitter-hand wearing tiny hand puppets on its fingers?). Instead, “CAPI 1.0” is about the chimeric nature of art—the sad, beautiful, and dire circumstances in which a hunk of something becomes the stable point on which we pivot toward our highest aspirations, levy our most biting criticisms. Here, we enter what we believe to be a gallery—that neutral space in which we know how to perform as an art-going audience—but what we exit is an almost post-apocalyptic boutique, modestly stocked with forlorn objects which defy and disappoint our expectations for either something beautiful, or something meaningful, or even something useful. It is not through the cunning words of Timothy Morton, but through this funny and befuddling swap-in of the would-be high with the would-be low, that “CAPI 1.0” begins to touch on the crassness of capitalism, to shake loose its mysterious value judgements.
I was inspired to follow Cait’s work after seeing the astonishing sculpture now called Amazon will kill the Amazon, a punchy, artless title for such a smart, delicate artwork. I was walking by her crowded corner of a large live/work space in downtown LA nearly a year ago when I saw it leaning up against the wall, a little precarious, a little shoddy, looking almost discarded. This was an artwork in which Cait grew purple crystals inside of a long, narrow Amazon box as it stood upright on its end, looking at once like the blessed virgin, and a vagina, and a discarded science project, the box moist and crumpled, worked over, old, but also bursting somehow, failing to contain. Sitting on the floor there, it had an affect that made it almost human, huggable—it was both humble and alluring—made from junk, but also made from something shimmering, fragile, lusty. That it appears horizontally, and on a shelf, in “CAPI 1.0,” is puzzling, if not disappointing—but it is a great artwork, imbued with the contradictions of contemporary life in a stark, legible way that’s almost startling.
There are only a few discrete artworks in “CAPI 1.0” that are not presented, product-like, on shelves. How about The Great Silk, a book to read from bottom to top. What if some things could be physically huge, yet ontologically tiny? * (2019), made of silk, transparencies, resin, and chain. I appreciate the formal inclination to break up the space with something tall, thin, and wispy—like the material-opposite of all those archaeological plaster pieces—and I especially appreciate that Cait hung the silk so that it would waft in the cold, artificial breeze of the AC while it was lit from above by a skylight, bringing a subtle but lively movement into the gallery, like a ghost or an angel hovering about. The Great Silk et. al. is also a clever nod to the curtain of the dressing room, often a prettier, more ethereal space when shopping in high-end boutiques such as “CAPI 1.0.”
I’m less sure of the work’s titular evocation of the silk road. I get it—it’s the relatively contemporary name for the trade route that connected the East and the West with goods, diseases, culture, religion–and it’s also the briefly-operated black market website for selling illegal drugs, and worse. It’s also, dumbly, a piece of silk. I feel I’m on the verge of understanding the double entendre, but the first half of this artwork’s title calls forth a history of art, commerce, and cryptocurrency that feels too huge and too generic to make sense, especially in light of the sparse and puzzling object it’s attached to. The same can be said of the second half of the artwork’s title, What if some things could be physically huge, yet ontologically tiny? *, another borrowed sentence that seems intended to make one envision Atlas rather than face the less-than-dramatic reality of sheer fabric printed with coin-sized images of things like a first-generation Apple computer, or Abraham Lincoln in a bucket hat. It seems that Cait wants every work in the show to pull off that muscle-beach-style, back-breaking yet-effortless deadlift—but I say, let Atlas leave the building.
On the other hand, the worn-down pair of hand-stitched shoes with a title too long to mention here, filled with what looks like neon green slime, swings back toward the realm of legible art and away from ontological art snobbery. Reminiscent of Dorothy’s magic slippers, if Dorothy was a mutant who perhaps melted or morphed into a pile of goo, narrative shoes are a trope I can get behind. I love the way the dainty shoes are placed on the floor exactly at the width of a standing body—implying an elusive female-ish creature which vanished, or went rogue, or at least left a green, slimy trail as she escaped the dreariness of Kansas. There’s something punk rock, or poisonous about it. We’re not in Kansas anymore, but we’re really not in Kansas anymore. While Cait doesn’t seem too interested in Hollywood and its discontents, her disembodied Dorothy/Wicked Witch is a rebellion, but also a reminder that many of our interpretations come pre-constructed.
Finally, an artwork called Economics is how we organize enjoyment *, somehow made of plaster and garbage cans (??) is a bona fide oddity in a show of artworks all on the verge of being provocatively odd. A tall, dare I say skillfully fabricated off-kilter stack of textured plaster cylinders reminiscent of both an elephant leg and a grecian column, Economics is how we organize enjoyment * (2019) is a cringe-worthy title attached to a totally wonderful, quirky piece of sculpture. The top of the sculpture, which looks almost like a lid, is a deep, glossy black that smoothly reflects your face as you peer into it (and you’ll want to peer into it). The jaunty angle at which the sculpture stands infers a creature in repose, but it may also be rising up out of the ground, part Beetlejuice sandworm, part oil well, part, I don’t even know! Staring at it for a long time, I had no idea what it was made of, or how—and that inscrutability brought with it a kind of levity, which in turn invited a warming curiosity.
I’ve been uncharacteristically harsh and un-abiding when it comes to the titles of artworks in “CAPI 1.0.” My truth is that it pains me to see single sentences decontextualized from entire books, roughly attributed, and then appropriated as baffling titles, all in the service of puffing up something that doesn’t need to be puffed—not if you embrace the limits of art, instead of refusing them. Another writer could have, and should, accept the titles in earnest and land on a different planet and perhaps on a higher plain, touching the outer reaches of intellectual art-space with thoughtful and genuine theorizing on capitalism and its ever-changing form. But since I can only be Georgia, I’m thinking—forget about titles in search of artworks, and let the objects invite the searching on their own terms. The space of not-knowing may be one you find you revel in.
What really drew me in to “CAPI 1.0”—the reason it rattled around in my brain and came out in the form of a long-overdue essay—is Cait’s great seriousness, aspiration, and what really seems like passion for art’s ability to mean something. Captivating, too, is the show’s sophisticated sense of scale and organization—really magical formal bits that seem to come naturally to Cait. Her choice of materials and sense of whimsy show me she’s an artist who takes great pleasure in making things, while her choice of subject matter shows me she doesn’t quite buy “art for art’s sake,” and she’s not going to settle for it, either. As for me—I’ve learned that I’m at my most critical when I believe the art is the most resilient. Every time a coherent thought is constructed around a work of art, it is a small miracle of both consciousness and care—how is it that an artwork can take one all the way from The Wizard of Oz, to paperweights, to the Virgin Mary, to elephant legs? Because when pushed, it flexed—as it should be.
“CAPI 1.0” was on view at De La Studios in Los Angeles from September 6-29, 2019. For more information on Cait, please visit https://caitfinley.com.
Georgia is a writer in Los Angeles. She is a co-founder of and lead contributor to UNPUBLISHED, a recent contributor to X-TRA Contemporary Art Quarterly, and is currently the Review Coordinator and Writer for the School of Art at CalArts. Georgia also directs the UNPUBLISHED STUDIO, a need-based workspace and mentorship program for artists in Los Angeles.
Click here to read her recently published review of Matthew Lax’s Brunt Drama at Los Angeles Contemporary Archive.
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As always, thank you to Sarah for editing this text!
The featured image at the top of this post is My dear friend. I used to feel that black marked the infinite, then this green color, but I am resting on a dull neutral grey (2019);
shoes, plastic, pigment.
Photos by Zilah Drahn