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Jeffrey Strayer: What is this Thing called Art?

By Dan Swartz

Fort Wayne Reader


Aesthetics — the philosophy of art, beauty, and taste — has played a central role in the development of modern and contemporary art, especially since the Duchampian revolution in the early 20th century, when the conceptual armature of an art piece trumped the necessity of its objective nature. Many times overlooked within the purview of popular culture, the value of aesthetic decisions is growing in a world inhabited more and more by art objects, collectors, and institutions, and a predominantly visual culture in general. A central concept to western aesthetics is the concept of haecceity, or the distinctive properties which make a unique thing unique, or generally referred to as the "thisness" of something. Haecceity is also the overall basis and title of local artist-philosopher Jeffrey Strayer's work.

Jeffrey Strayer is a continuing lecturer in philosophy at IPFW, and in addition to his art work and teaching, also a published author of Subjects and Objects: Art, Essentialism, and Abstraction. Strayer's work, "Hacceities Series," currently on view at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, questions where the limits are to abstraction, looking at it through an aesthetic, and not formal, lens. Like the abstract expressionist painters of the Mid-20th century, Strayer attempts to push the boundaries of paint and pencil, plaster and steel, to define where an image or object starts and stops being art.

In Strayer's work, the identity of an art object, or any object, is central. The Haecceity Series is a collection of writings and objects that highlight the limits of how an art piece is described, especially taking account for the abstraction present within the piece. While Strayer's work is itself a piece of conceptual art, the artist notes that it is meant to primarily work within the realm of abstraction, reconciling the identity of a single piece of abstract art, as containing both essential and non-essential elements, but retaining an overall essential comprehensive by the viewer due to the perceptual characteristics of the physical object. To break it down in more digestible language, Strayer's work is looking at the mechanics of how and why we distinguish two of DeKooning's abstract paintings as individual art pieces instead of just lumping them with all the rest of his abstractions since there is little difference between the descriptions of the pieces until they are perceptually viewed.

Strayer then goes on to assert that the language used to determine the boundaries of abstraction are limited and highly specific in that it must be visual, because auditory language does not have an "…intellectual and aesthetic power…" Strayer further decides that beyond the need for visual language, the use of this language in two-dimensional space presents "…problems to which I refer as the problems of number, figure and ground, distribution, and asymmetry. All of these problems can be solved for linear specifications by using an algorithm that I (Strayer) discovered for distributing tokens of a specification in either two sets or four sets…".
And here in lies the problem with Strayer's work — when the philosophy overtakes the art and becomes so divorced from art historical references, or even recognizable philosophical references. In the end, Strayer's work becomes a tautological trap disguised as an art piece. Slick production, robust potential meaning, but no discernible pay off at the end. Most of the physical artifacts represented in this exhibition of "Haecceities Series" are diagrammed drawings, and cylindrical objects, most of which have utilitarian viewing functions. The accompanying texts are also composed with intricate graphic design, to be both visually appealing as well as legible. Perhaps this is part of an overall conceptual theme within Strayer's work, but within this exhibition and these individual pieces, the work thins out too much into a treatise on abstraction, and not enough of a distinguished group of pieces, ironically fulfilling the concerns that Strayer is warning the viewer of. The catalogue worthy titling of the work, the absence of fully consistent imagery, and the overall constant reiteration within each piece made the individual works sort of fall apart.

All of this being said, Strayer's work with the Haecceities Series does pose many interesting questions, and in unique ways. By questioning the art object through a text heavy theory which ultimately treats abstraction and objective figuration the same, through a comprehensive need for identifiers distinguishing each individual work from another, in the end, Strayer takes both Duchamp and Joseph Kosuth's radically different forms of conceptual art and creates a syncretic answer for the question "What is art?” This form of local, ambitious, experimental work is needed to instigate both anger and curiosity on the part of the viewing public, and get our scene talking about issues more like these, which nurture radically different views of art, production of art, and the need for more visual arts that are less commodity driven.

Jeffrey Strayer's work will ultimately be judged by the public. The exhibition's ability to convince the viewer that the "Haecceities Series" is a physical representation of the problems within our language system's ability to distinguish western aesthetic principles is a long shot. Hopefully it will take Strayer's work further, and acclimate Fort Wayne's art audience to this kind of work, as well as make venues more open to less commodity based, and more challenging works.

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