Ronnie Van Hout's Quiet Horror

Memories are notoriously imperfect, and few more so than mine. This could best be illustrated by the fact that for years I misremembered Robert Storr’s essay “Richard Tuttle: Just Exquisite” as “Richard Tuttle: Just Pathetic.” Fixated on the idea of patheticism, and the perception that Tuttle fell somewhere therein, I was convinced that Storr had written this essay. It turns out that somehow, however convoluted, I was wrong — dead wrong — and right at the same time. Turns out it wasn’t Storr, or even Tuttle. But there was something Just Pathetic. 

It is 1990, and in the Los Angeles Times reviewer and critic Christopher Knight is writing about the farewell show for Rosamund Felsen Gallery’s N. La Cienega Boulevard Space. The exhibition? “Just Pathetic," organized by Ralph Rugoff. Knight writes, 

Patheticism chronicles the mundane, seemingly trivial events of ordinary lives, but it refuses to champion a populist ideal. In fact, Pathetic art is adamantly anti-idealistic, because mass culture feeds on the propagation of idealized images. Rather than envisioning utopias--yours, mine or theirs--Patheticism simply makes do with what is. And “what is” is frequently a mess. It embraces all those quietly horrific feelings one has gone to great if unwitting lengths to repress from memory. Patheticism’s virtue is in transforming grinding aggravations into small pleasures, and small pleasures into big ones. Finally, a worthwhile movement to get behind for the 1990s.

Almost thirty years later, little has changed. As Knight put it, and how right he was, patheticism makes do with what is, and what is indeed is frequently a mess. I keep thinking about this mess because artists like New Zealand’s Ronnie Van Hout keep thumbing his nose at us, and poking us in the eye at precisely the same time. His arch reinterpretation of this quasi-dumbed down aesthetic makes for a subtly sophisticated, incredibly complex critique of the banality of the art market’s endless commodification and a commentary on the vapidity of the art world itself. All the while the punters, the viewers, the random passers-by, get incensed by the fact that someone like Van Hout can be seriously by those same people and institutions, becoming apoplectic at his refusal to do better.

What’s so great about Ronnie, and I’ll use his first name since we’re on a first-name basis, is that for years he simply hasn’t given a shit. Content to make what he likes, with the belief that eventually the critical, conceptual, commercial and common worlds might converge, or catch up, he simply forged ahead.

You don’t have to actually look up at the roof of City Gallery, Wellington, or see one of its endless reproductions, to know that Ronnie’s been teasing Quasi for a long time — any of his earlier autobiographical sculptures will take you there. Maybe more interesting is the idea that we turn to the pathetic, to the idea of just making do, just getting by, when more traditional notions of the beautiful fail. Antipodean exceptionalism has always been its own special creation in any event.  That’s what a work like Quasi embodies. Today, patheticism has run its course. But maybe, just maybe, this is its twenty-first century equivalent — in Knight’s words, “quietly horrific” and full of “small pleasures”. Yes, indeed.

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